Last fall, Anne Donahue at The Guardian coined a handy term for the recent wave of male pop stars attempting to transcend teenage success. “The heartthrob is dead,” read her headline. “Long live the artthrob.” “Artthrob” speaks to how Justin Bieber, Zayn Malik, Drake, and others replaced public memories of school-age innocence not only with sex appeal but with portentous Instagram captions, outré producers, and the impression of solemn purpose in their music. They skipped right past Justin Timberlake’s exuberant “Señorita” phase and headed straight for the moody angst of “What Goes Around... Comes Around.” They aimed to be taken less as grown-up showmen than grown-up artistes.
Harry Styles, the stringy-haired frontman of One Direction, is the latest art-throb at bat. But he, to his credit, is approaching the 2010s-requisite work of proving his highminded individuality without hopping onto the same gloomy R&B wave of his recent predecessors. Rather, his debut solo single “Sign of the Times” continues with One Direction’s po-mo project of recycling classic-rock sounds as bubblegum. But he’s now embracing such sounds with more abandon, less chirpiness, some trend bucking, and the kind of uplifting lyrics that nod to planetary anxiety.