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.
The song does, at first, play as a fashionable downer, opening with ballad piano, encroaching violins, and Styles crooning in pain. But then there’s the bwang of a guitar and the song rockets into an arena-rock reverie that feels so, so familiar to anyone who remembers the ’90s but also so, so foreign to today’s landscape. Pick your reference: “Champagne Supernova”? “Bittersweet Symphony”? “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing?” The early Bowie signifiers—the guitar sound, the cabaret vibe, the space theme—aren’t subtle. Neither is the church choir that enters around minute four.
Styles’s built-in fanbase should provide the activation energy needed to make the song initially chart. But its chances for sticking around owe to his songwriting team—including Jeff Bhasker, co-writer of Fun’s “We Are Young,” one of the only recent examples of an anthemic rock song like this achieving smash status—engineering monster catchiness. The verse melody in “Sign of the Times” echoes the falsetto pre-chorus melody echoes the chorus melody in the way that the hitmaking guru Max Martin (not involved on this song but reportedly working on Styles’s coming album) always likes. At upwards of five minutes, the track is way too long in the way that Adele’s “Hello” is way too long. Which is to say, no matter how interminable the listening experience becomes, you will have memorized the hook by the time it’s over.
And what’s he singing about? To prove that he’s really an adult, the 23-year-old Styles is doing the things all adults are doing nowadays: thinking about the end of the world. The lyrics about “the final show” could refer to a breakup or the dissolution of a popular musical ensemble, but on their face they are also about global heartbreak—feeling bad is just “a sign of the times.” It’s a song of comfort, imagining escape from this bullet-strewn world by heading to the heavens, with one nice mixed metaphor: “You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky.” The song is derivative and cloying, yes, but Styles’s claim to artistry lies in his unapologetically preposterous ambition: rescuing humanity, rock and roll, and—perhaps the trickiest—the long-term prospects of an aging boy-bander.