Photo: Helene Pambrun
How Harry Styles Emerged From Teen Pop Sensation To First-Time GRAMMY Nominee
Though many people might want to write off 2020 as a year that never existed, for others, it was a year of growth, change and even success. For Harry Styles, 2020 was a career-defining year, which is no easy feat when the entire world is shut down. The pandemic left him no choice but to put his world tour plans on pause and strategize a new way to not just promote his sophomore album, Fine Line, released in December 2019, but also keep fans' attention.
What followed was a bit of a phenomenon.
Styles, who has been a star since his One Direction days, became a bigger star with every passing day. His album went multi-platinum, he got his first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single with "Watermelon Sugar," he was named Variety's 2020 Hitmaker of the Year, he landed his first-ever GRAMMY nominations of his career (Best Pop Solo Performance for "Watermelon Sugar," Best Music Video for "Adore You" and Best Pop Vocal Album for Fine Line at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show). And the list goes on.
While these accomplishments would add up to a banner year for any artist, what makes it so unique for the British singer is twofold. For one, he's been in the business for a decade already, gaining fame at just 17 as a member of the huge boy band One Direction. While in the group, which came together in 2010 as part of "The X-Factor," Styles and his bandmates Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik found global success, selling millions of records, performing in sold-out stadiums around the world and winning many awards.
However, despite how massive the band became, they didn't quite crossover to listeners of all ages—they had a hard time shaking the boy band label. While their music evolved into a more mature rock sound over the years, they never got to a place where they were wholly appreciated by the public in a way that their fans knew they deserved.
Once the band went on hiatus in 2015, Styles went to work creating his first solo album, Harry Styles. It was released in 2017 to much fanfare (it also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200), but it wasn't until his second solo album that he really hit his stride. With Fine Line he found his musical voice and shared an album that not only resonated with his core fanbase but also brought him further into the mainstream.
From the first single released off the album ("Lights Up" in October 2019) all the way to the most recent video ("Treat People With Kindness" in January 2021), Fine Line has continued to grow. It was with this album that Styles became a household name, disconnected from his boy band roots in a way like never before. Gone are the days where people refer to him as "Harry Styles from One Direction." Now Styles stands alone, proud of where he came from but boldly moving forward on his own path.
The even more stunning part of Styles' year, though, and the second reason 2020 was so out of this world for him, he largely let his fanbase spread the good word about his art. Fans on social media hosted streaming parties for "Watermelon Sugar" to ensure it hit Billboard's No. 1 spot. They've created and sold their own merchandise to advertise his music. As only a dedicated stan army can do, they've made sure that every single thing he does goes viral. Even though Styles himself has a limited social media presence, he's still one of the most noteworthy internet personalities, simply because his fans have kept him there. In a world where social media reigns supreme, he lets his work speak for itself and trusts in his partnership with his fans to help him succeed.
The impact of Fine Line was substantial. Because of it, he is currently in the running for his first three GRAMMYs--Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Music Video for "Adore You" and Best Pop Solo Performance for "Watermelon Sugar." And the numbers also back up his work. Fine Line is RIAA certified double platinum, has over 4 billion worldwide streams and spawned six songs that cracked the Billboard Top 100 chart.
Before the album's release, to promote "Adore You," Styles and Columbia Records created a mysterious world called Eroda that trended before anyone even knew it was for a music video. "Watermelon Sugar" became one of the songs of the pandemic summer after the video dedicated to human touch—which has over 194 million views on YouTube—was released in May 2020.
Not one to ever let the album get stale, Styles continued to remind listeners of its existence throughout 2020, even though the world had shut down and in-person promo wasn't an option. Before that, though, Styles caused a buzz as he took double duty on "Saturday Night Live" in November 2019 as the host and musical guest, as well as performing in BBC Radio1's Live Lounge the following month. After a few shows in Los Angeles, London, and New York in late 2019 and early 2020, Styles hunkered down amid COVID and let his music videos do the talking. Aside from "Watermelon Sugar," he released a video for "Falling" in February and "Golden" in October. Fans may not have gotten to see Styles on the road in 2020, but he made sure to keep popping up on their screens, including a virtual appearance at iHeart Radio's Jingle Ball in December, one of his only in 2020.
But 2020 wasn't only a great year for Styles' music, he also graced multiple fashion magazine covers, continued his relationship with Gucci, and even landed a second major movie role, in Olivia Wilde's upcoming Don't Worry Darling. Not only was he Vogue's first man to pose on a cover alone, he did it wearing a dress. He's continued to quietly advocate for genderless fashion by wearing what makes him happy, whether it's fishnets for Beauty Papers or his everyday pearl necklace. Though many rock stars before him pushed similar gender-bending trends, he's become that person for his generation.
Styles even influenced countless people in lockdown to take up knitting, simply to recreate the J.W. Anderson rainbow patchwork cardigan he wore during a rehearsal for the "Today" show in February. After a few fans fumbled through knitting a copycat, the fashion house published a pattern that spread like wildfire. Suddenly TikTok was flooded with people knitting "The Sweater," and fans all over the world showed off their matching rainbow cardigans in their Instagram selfies from home.
As much as the phrase has been bandied about in recent months, it still holds true: It's Harry Styles' world and we're all just living in it. Despite all the setbacks and hardships, 2020 defined Styles as an artist—not just a musician, but a whole artist. It seems inevitable that Styles will only continue to grow his star power as he draws in more fans for this journey. For those devoted fans who have been there for him since he was just a teenager singing "What Makes You Beautiful," though, his meteoric rise in 2020 just made sense.