Harry Styles Draws A Fine Line Around Masculine Vulnerability
Harry Styles is the modern-day rock star. And just like any superhuman musical figure, his sequin-dripped presence is enough to sell out gigs across the globe, regardless of whether his fans have even heard the record yet.
Most would likely light a prayer candle and combust if the king of kindness was to notice their cardboard signs or the kiwis - soon to be watermelons for ‘Watermelon Sugar’ - they bring to his shows.
But during a 2018 tour stop in Houston, 10-year-old fan Daniel couldn’t handle the attention he drew when Styles wished him a happy birthday in front of thousands. He started to cry, seemingly from embarrassment. Instead of mocking the young boy or shifting the audience’s attention to another fan, Styles treated the moment as a learning lesson for all in attendance.
“First of all, let me tell you one thing: crying is very manly,” Styles said before asking the crowd to cheer for the birthday boy.
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The moment perfectly encapsulates Styles’ view of masculinity. To him, being vulnerable is masculine. Dressing how he wants and doing so with pride is masculine. And with his sophomore effort ‘Fine Line’ and all leading up to it, Styles is contributing to this conversation around masculinity, at times seemingly by accident.
‘Fine Line’ is arguably one of the most enthralling pop records of 2019, and one that could’ve easily taken a centre window display at a record shop in the late ‘70s with its convincingly nostalgic cuts. But deeper than the album’s sonic appeal, and just like David Bowie, Prince, Mick Jagger and the titans of pop and rock idols past, are Styles’ vulnerable lyrics and flamboyant attire featured on the album artwork.
Styles, within the album’s themes and visuals, doesn’t purposefully try to alter any preexisting definition of masculinity. He’s doing what makes him most comfortable: wearing nailpolish, announcing his faults and putting his pants however high he wants them to be. But he’s making fans like Daniel feel more comfortable with themselves just by doing whatever is most comfortable to him.
On the album cover, Styles is laced in Gucci from head to toe, dawning belly button-high loose white pants, an open magenta shirt and colour-coordinated suspenders. While few men in popular music are opting for magenta button-downs or pants that begin at their stomachs (although Young Thug famously wore a dress on the cover of his ‘JEFFRY’ mixtape), this is just the norm for Styles.
A closer look at the album cover would likely reveal painted nails too, something Styles is rarely seen without nowadays. When asked about it during his Met Gala appearance in May, Styles’ response was, simply, “we always have nails.” While nail polish hasn’t historically been seen as a masculine display, to Styles, it’s just another aesthetic decision he doesn’t feel the need to explain.
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And in an interview with The Guardian, where Styles rocked a dress in the photoshoot, he explained his looks on the album cover and said he decides what to wear based on his collaborators. “I want things to look a certain way,” Styles said. “Not because it makes me look gay, or it makes me look straight, or it makes me look bisexual, but because I think it looks cool. And more than that, I dunno, I just think sexuality’s something that’s fun. Honestly? I can’t say I’ve given it any more thought than that.”
Styles, on top of dressing however he pleases on album covers or on red carpets, is no stranger to exhibiting vulnerability in the themes of his art. Lyrically, Styles does everything but conceal his emotions on ‘Fine Line’. On album track ‘Cherry’ Styles is open in what he jokingly told Rolling Stone was a “pathetic” moment on the album. He knows his ex-girlfriend has moved on, but he selfishly can’t handle the thought of her calling another man “baby.” He even admits that there’s a “piece” of her in how he dresses.
While this isn’t necessarily an ode to the flamboyance in his attire, Styles isn’t afraid to put his emotions out there in an “open” track, which he told Zane Lowe was true to how he was feeling at a certain time.
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The admissions continue on 'To Be So Lonely', where Styles reveals he’s an “arrogant son of a bitch” and the “jealous kind.” He lets listeners know he “can’t admit when he’s sorry” and brings his flaws at the forefront of the track.
In 'Sunflower, Vol. 6', Styles finally accepts that his former partner has moved on and admits, while “he doesn’t want to make” her feel bad, he’s still learning to keep their positive memories alive.
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Through ‘Fine Line’, Styles admits when he’s in the wrong and makes his innermost feelings known. And even after dealing with heartbreak, his lyrics show a man who isn’t afraid of patriarchal notions of masculinity and emotion or being ridiculed for his openness, even when it makes him look like the “arrogant son of a bitch” he may just be.
Styles’ contributions to today’s discourse around masculinity may not be as impactful as Bowie’s or Prince’s in decades prior. He is still a heterosexual man who, for the most part, hasn’t done anything too radical in breaking constructs. But his actions still pave the way for new artists to dress however they please or write vulnerable regardless of which hegemony currently reigns within the music industry.
This pop icon is contributing to conversations around masculinity seemingly by accident and, in the process, letting fans know that it's masculine to cry on your birthday. Or at a concert. Or in front of Harry Styles.
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'Fine Line' is out now.
Words: Brenton Blanchet
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