Harry Styles’s Conscientious Remix of Baby Boomer Culture
Fine Line is the latest major pop album to go all in on classic rock while updating—or at least repurposing—its message.
It is a period of generational war. Gen Z-ers, striking with a withering “OK” from their TikTok base, have won their first victory against the Boomer empire. But battles over more serious matters than coolness—elections, Earth’s habitability, JoJo Rabbit’s Oscars fate—remain to be waged. Age makes for an ever more acrimonious social divide that, some analysts say, is now more crucial than race, class, or education. Political and economic resentments obviously contribute to the tension, but so does culture. The year 2019, a half century since the end of the ’60s, featured multiple rebroadcasts of the gerontocracy’s line that the golden age of everything has already happened. Perhaps not coincidentally, there was some schadenfreude in the air when Woodstock 50 imploded.
What, then, to make of Harry Styles, a 25-year-old barely-Millennial icon who appears convinced that he was actually born in 1948. The former frontman of One Direction is now two albums into a solo career of skillfully made, well-funded, extremely passable Jann Wenner bait. After 2017’s Harry Styles set its jaw with “Hey Jude” seriousness and grandeur, this month’s Fine Line perks up with kooky psychedelia and California highway rock. Earlier this year, Styles introduced his spiritual godmother, Stevie Nicks, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, saying, “She knows what you need—advice, a little wisdom, a blouse, a shawl—she’s got you covered.” She returned the compliment by mistaking his old band for ’NSync.
Styles’s bell-bottom bops, in fact, defy the post-boy-band prophecies left by the ’NSync generation. Other One Directioners like Zayn Malik and Liam Payne have attempted, predictably and with somewhat wobbly success, to transition from soundtracking high-school sleepovers to fueling sexually charged nightclubs. Malik at first seemed to update Justin Timberlake’s golden combo—auteur credibility plus commercial appeal—for the Xanax age, but his second album didn’t stick. Liam Payne is making quite like JC Chasez with hambone hip-pop about girls who kiss girls.
Styles has opted to take a route that impresses fogies who refuse to see recent, and even not-so-recent, pop innovations as “real music.” I have to share what the über-Boomer music-industry pundit Bob Lefsetz wrote about a Styles concert in 2017: “Except for the flashy lights, this could be the seventies. There’s a four piece band backing Harry up. It’s all about the music. And the music hearkens back to the past, do you remember MELODY? It’s like the evolution into hip-hop nation never happened. And the little girls understand.” As suspect on every level as that review is, the notion behind (gag) “the little girls understand” can be fact-checked as true. Read my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany’s report on the bidding wars for Styles’s concert tickets. He’s kept his old fans.
He’s achieved this feat by working hard, by working smart, and by working with the right collaborators. Fine Line is lush and listenable, with nougat-caramel harmonies and guitars that fizz like Sprite. It has trembling strings and trembling confessions; it has cutesy instruments such as guitalele and clavichord. In the great “Watermelon Sugar,” Styles goes from sounding wearied to like he’s levitating an inch off the ground, magicked by handclaps and a liquid bass line. Another single, “Lights Up,” offers the sort of spooky-yet-easy listening rarely attempted since Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.” Even the snoozier bits sound good, like with the six-minute trip of “She.”
The album’s best passage comes late, with the teasing reggae of “Sunflower, Vol. 6” followed by the strummy commiseration of “Canyon Moon.” It’s notable that these two songs most obviously evoke not any particular AARP mascot but rather a contemporary band, Vampire Weekend. That’s because of a resemblance among song names (VW’s Father of the Bride featured “Sunflower” and “Flower Moon”), some clear consonance in studio equipment they used, and most important, a certain tone: rambling and catchy and tongue-in-cheek, yet also hopeful and openhearted. Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison can be heard in these tracks too, but they’re filtered in the much the same way Ezra Koenig filtered them on his 2019 world-peace opus.
It is, in fact, instructive to think of Styles in relation to Vampire Weekend and also to the year’s other critically and popularly beloved rock nostalgist, Lana Del Rey, who gives the impression of writing her lyrics by cutting up Columbia House album booklets and pasting them in a new order. If these three artists are brokering a truce with their elders, it’s in part by reminding them what they once were thought to stand for. The children of the ’60s are driving today’s regressive politics, but their art presumed to speak in terms of justice and tolerance. Those messages are what today’s retro-pop leaders are reaching back to, in addition to the scorching licks.
Styles’s flowing blouses and high-waisted pants, for example, read as a refutation of the macho. In interviews and concerts, he has flirted with queerness, and he won’t identify as straight. If that comes off as woke status-quo stuff, remember it’s also a lot like what David Bowie did early in his career. But Styles makes the politics especially explicit. On “She,” he describes a man pining for a woman, and it can plausibly be read as the male character experiencing gender dysphoria. Other tracks address the singer’s high-profile breakups in the self-excoriating, straightforward terms common among therapy-attending male songwriters of his generation. “What am I now?” he asks in “Falling.” “What if I’m someone I don’t want around?” The Fine Line review in Rolling Stone, a magazine that will surely reach Styles’s elder converts, argues, “If there’s a nontoxic masculinity, Harry Styles just might’ve found it.”
Many modern classic-rock reduxes also raise questions about aging in an era when the very notion of “the future” can’t be taken for granted. Styles, after all, announced his solo career with an apocalyptic elegy of a single, “Sign of the Times.” Amid its pastoral rambles, Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride juxtaposes images of marriage and family with hints about climate change and war. Lana Del Rey has also pondered the end times of late, and the theme is inextricable from her pining for a Norman (fucking) Rockwell adulthood: In “How to Disappear,” she sings of being settled into motherhood, and it’s total fiction. Styles appears to do something similar in “Canyon Moon,” when he sings, “I heard Jenny saying, ‘Go get the kids from school.’” He’s nostalgic for a life he doesn’t have yet, and maybe will never have. What better way to articulate that than with the youth music of his grown-and-settled elders?
It’s in fact the light revolutionary element, not merely the throwback aesthetic, that gives Styles’s music whatever life it has. The strangest Fine Line track is a work of shrieking choral arrangements and boogying rhythms recalling, among many things, “Aquarius,” the generational anthem from the generational musical Hair. The song is called “Treat People With Kindness,” and the title sums up the social-spiritual commentary being attempted. In the unsettlingly merry climax, Styles and his band sings, “If our friends all pass away / It’s okay.” That’s dharma for a generation living on the brink, but also, perhaps, for one being asked to step aside.