“Please feel free to be whoever it is you choose to be in this room tonight,” Harry Styles told the crowd at his sold-out show at New York’s Madison Square Garden Thursday night, as he strummed his guitar. The guy takes his own advice. He draped himself in the rainbow flag and the bi pride flag as he vamped through the One Direction classic “What Makes You Beautiful.” For his biggest solo hit, he offered a dedication: “This song is for anyone out there who needs it. This is ‘Sign of the Times.’ Happy Pride!”
So much about Harry’s live mojo has changed since his boy-band days with One Direction, except the most important thing: the way he lights up a room of any size with his superhuman enthusiasm. A year into his solo rebirth, he’s earned his stripes as a master of every rock & roll move, wearing the tradition like it’s a coat he had tailored just for him. The whole night was an emotional onslaught.
How confident is Harry in his rockness these days? Imagine the sheer mindfreakery of playing Van Morrison’s “Madame George” over the speakers – all 10 minutes of it – right before taking the stage, as if he hears a piece of his soul in Van’s compassionate 1968 ballad of a lonesome Belfast drag queen. That’s confidence. That’s cheek. That’s arrogance. That’s a rock star.
Night after night, Harry Styles is taking on the central pop-culture question of our moment: What does it mean to share joy, on a mass level, at a time when every day brings a constant barrage of rage? What does it mean to gather a pop tribe and then treat this tribe with respect and affection? Styles has never been coy about his aggressively inclusive stance – a few nights ago in Philadelphia, he waved a rainbow flag declaring “Make America Gay Again.” (He borrowed it from a fan up front.) But in 2018, when we’re faced with a near-hourly grind of soul-crushing news, when each week presents an America that would have been unimaginable a week ago, what does it mean to replenish your audience to be stronger tomorrow? How can the communal pleasure of a pop show express joy – use joy as a language to communicate – at a time when joy feels like an endangered resource? Every night, he likes to say, “I have one job tonight and that’s to entertain you” – but these days, “entertain” takes on a new meaning.
Those questions were built into every moment of his show – especially the intimate moments when it was just Harry and a guitar, digging into the excellent songs on his solo debut, which still holds up to heavy listening a year later. He strutted and preened to “Kiwi” in his white Gucci floral suit with flared bell-bottoms; he whispered in…