Watching 16 year-old Harry Styles walk onto the stage for his "The X Factor" audition in 2010, it's remarkable how little some things have changed in the following 13 years. Though his rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" was rather unpolished — even receiving a "no" from judge Louis Walsh — his magnetic charisma and natural talent were more than evident. And at just 16, Styles clearly knew he was on the right path.
"Singing is what I want to do," Styles said in an interview before his audition. "And if the people who can make that happen for me don't think that I should be doing that, then it's a major setback in my plans."
Of course, so much else has changed in the ensuing decade. Styles was tabbed alongside other contestants Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan and Zayn Malik to form the group One Direction. As the band stormed the charts and captured the love of fans globally, Styles grew into his abilities — and now, he's achieved a rarified level of fame.
Even after being part of one of the most successful boy bands of all time, Styles has reached new heights of superstardom in his own right. In addition to selling millions of albums and selling out arenas around the world, he's starred in four feature films and became the first male cover star of Vogue magazine. The depth of Styles' charisma and drive he's shown from that first audition have made him an all-encompassing star like few before him.
While Styles was a solo star as soon as he emerged in 2017 — selling out his first-ever solo tour and debuting his self-titled first album atop the Billboard 200 — he has dominated the 2020s. His second album, 2019's Fine Line, spawned his first No. 1 hit in the U.S. in 2020 with "Watermelon Sugar," which also earned him his first GRAMMY in 2021 for Best Pop Solo Performance. But 2022 was the year he took his stardom to the next level — and it all began with an invitation to Harry's House.
The lead single of Styles' third album, "As It Was," became undeniable, debuting atop the Billboard Hot 100 and spending 15 weeks there — the most in history for a British act. And when Harry's House arrived less than two months after "As It Was," it was clear that 2022 was the year of Harry.
The album, featuring smooth electronic beats and funky bass riffs, went platinum in the UK and US, put four songs into the Billboard Top 10 at the same time, and earned Styles the most GRAMMY nominations of his career. His six nominations for the 2023 GRAMMYs include his first in the coveted Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year categories; Harry's House also earned a nod for Best Pop Vocal Album and "As It Was" is up for Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Music Video.
If you ask Tyler Johnson — who has co-written and co-produced the majority of Styles' three solo albums — the GRAMMY nominations may just be Styles' biggest validation yet. "It's really the music community recognizing him as Harry Styles — [his time in the band] is just another part of his resume, it no longer defines him. And that's really exciting."
In reality, Styles hardly ever let his past define him. Even Johnson sensed Styles' star power upon meeting the singer in 2015. "When I first met him, I knew a lot about him from the band, but it was obvious he was a star," he recalls. "Especially how he performed in the vocal booth, it was very brave. I was like, 'Wow, this person has no barriers.'"
With no barriers comes a willingness to always try something new — which is why the Harry Styles of Harry's House sounds much different than Harry Styles of One Direction. The change was heard immediately back in 2017 on his first solo single "Sign of the Times," released ahead of his self-titled debut LP later that year. It's a rock track to its core, starting with hearty piano chords and building to a crescendo of wailing electric guitar and crashing drums. This initial offering was a sign of what was to come, as Harry Styles is built on these rock sounds from beginning to end.
Even if reviews weren't outright surprised by this sound, they noted the seemingly brand new, well, direction. "Few people probably predicted the 23-year-old ex-One Direction superstar to drop the kind of album that makes your uncle or your mom perk up," read Variety's review. Pitchfork mused, "If you only know one thing about Harry Styles, it's probably that the album bucks the established trends governing bids for young male solo pop stardom." Styles becoming a rock star was something new, but looking back at the totality of his work, it's not quite as surprising as it might be at first glance.
When assessing the music of One Direction, the singles will of course stand out. Tracks like "What Makes You Beautiful," "Live While We're Young," and "Best Song Ever" are big and boisterous, with infectiously fun hooks. And while each of the group's five albums had rock influences — queue the Clash-like electric guitar opening of "Live While We're Young" — they're all pop projects at their core. And the writers and producers behind them were pop masterminds, too, including Rami Yacoub, Steve Mac, Ed Sheeran, and Ryan Tedder.
By nature of an essentially constant touring schedule and working with so many other people — especially the four other members of the group — there was simply less opportunity to write. Across the 86 songs in the band's discography, Styles has writing credits on only 21 of them, whereas he serves as lead writer on every track on each of his three solo albums.
"I think it was tough to really delve in and find out who you are as a writer when you're just kind of dipping your toe each time," Styles told Rolling Stonein 2017, recalling some of the struggles of being in a band. "We didn't get the six months to see what kind of s— you can work with."
Listening to the songs Styles did have a hand in writing for One Direction, though, the throughline of his career becomes clearer. Even the earliest tracks he co-wrote include key elements to his later songs.
The chorus of Up All Night's "Same Mistakes" takes his penchant for lyrical repetition, creating a folksy call-and-response feeling and pairing it with powerful guitar chords; he uses a similar pattern on Harry Styles' opening track "Meet Me in the Hallway." Made In The A.M. ballad "If I Could Fly" is strikingly vulnerable lyrically and melodically minimalistic; this combination is seen on Styles' solo ballads, like Fine Line's "Falling" or Harry's House's "Matilda."
Styles' solo success also stems from his versatility. Alongside folksy ballads, he has an ear for rock songs to fill a stadium (and after completely selling out his 2021 and 2022 Love On Tour stretches, stadiums may be where he's headed next). "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" is one of One Direction's most anthemic tracks, tailor made for karaoke or shouting alongside a crowd. It's no surprise Styles is the sole One Direction member on the writing credits for it, and you can hear that same exuberance on his solo rock anthems, from Fine Line’s ultra cool smash "Watermelon Sugar" to the funk rock-infused "Late Night Talking" on Harry's House.
In a 2017 New York Times interview, Styles explained his rock influence — and really, his musicality as a whole — stems from his own musical tastes. "I really wanted to make an album that I wanted to listen to," he said of Harry Styles. "That was the only way I knew I wouldn't look back on it and regret it. It was more, 'What do I want to sit and listen to?' rather than, 'How do I shake up compared to what's on radio right now?'"
Judging by the elevated sounds on Harry's House, Styles' musical interests have grown as he has evolved as an artist. While there are hints of his previous writing and growth on the album, Styles incorporated so many new elements, and that's what makes Harry's House so interesting and so refreshing.
Funk pervades the record, with synths and stylized loops fleshing out tracks like "Music For A Sushi Restaurant" and "Keep Driving." There's a constant sense of playfulness throughout all 13 tracks — something that was apparent to Styles' collaborators long before the world got to hear it.
"Harry just said that he's never been more proud of anything, and Tom [Hull, better known as producer Kid Harpoon] and I are just there for the ride," Johnson says. "We didn't feel too caught up in the kind of reality of who he is and having to put out an album very specific to the commerce side of it. It was a lot of having fun and just kind of burying our heads in the sand and enjoying doing it. That was very different from Fine Line."
Styles can seemingly feel his evolution himself, too. In a wide-ranging interview with Zane Lowe upon the album's release in May 2022, Styles revealed that he tried not to take direct sonic influences on this record like he had in the past. "I kinda felt like you can reference things by the emotions that they evoke," he said.
The same interview points out how much more comfortable Styles has become with being flexible and fluid, both in his own writing and his collaborators. And now that he's found his right-hand men in Johnson and Hull, he finds it easier to bring his ideas to life. This has allowed Styles to continue to expand his writing, and that resulted in an album that launched his superstardom to even greater heights — and showcased Harry Styles simply having fun.
Now 28 (almost 29!), Styles has been a beloved star for nearly half of his life. In that time, fans have watched his musical abilities mature, morph and expand; he has shown a willingness to always have an eye on what comes next — and that forward thinking paid off in a big way in 2022. However he evolves next, it seems Styles will never lose the drive and endearing charm the world first saw on the "X Factor" stage over a decade ago.
"He's a very similar person. He's a very consistent, loyal, kind person, very focused. That is all the same," Johnson insists. "He's just doing what people do when they do it more and more — he's focusing in on who he is more, he's gaining confidence, and he's becoming more and more himself — which is a very potent thing."
Additional reporting by Taylor Weatherby.
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