Harry Styles, The O2, London, April 11, 2018

Harry Styles is a popular gentleman.
He was in a popular group (One Direction). He seems to be popular among other celebrities. He’s popular on social media. And he’s undoubtedly popular here at the O2 Arena tonight. Scores of people have come to see him, mostly females in their teens or early twenties. It’s easy to see why he’s popular. Easy on the eye. Charming. Smiling. A little bit cheeky. He was groomed from a young age to know how to say all the right things in public. Never strays into controversial territory. Even Harry Styles’ merchandise reminds us to ‘be kind’. ‘Kind’ is now not just something to be; it’s also something to brand yourself as.

Rainbow Coloured Paper Strips
When we sit down in our seats before the concert, some girls pass us a bag of coloured strips of paper. No, they are not hits of LSD – wrong era. The strips of paper are to be attached to our mobile phones. For a specific song, we should switch on the light on our phones and shine the light through our coloured strips of paper.

Everyone in each section has different colours, so there’s supposed to be a rainbow effect when everyone turns on their camera lights. And later on, in the show, when Styles is on the smaller B-stage and plays the song in question (Sweet Creature), it works amazingly well (my compliments to whoever arranged this, which was seemingly not part of the official concert). The arena lights up in all the rainbow colours, which is not only a beautiful sight but also symbolic of Styles’ very vocal and flag-waving support of the LGBT communities. A very moving moment. But back to the beginning.

In the last 30 minutes before Styles and his band go on stage, an animation of two beringed hands (clearly Styles’) holding a Rubik’s cube is played on the large screens. When the hands finally solve all sides of the puzzle, putting all the colourful rows in order, the show can begin.

Of course, the noise is deafening when Styles enter the stage; no surprise there. The first two songs are some of his ‘rockier’ songs. He struts and prances and dances around, working every inch on the stage so everyone can get the best possible view of him. Then it’s time for strapping on the ultimate ‘I’m a serious pop star’-prop, a guitar, and demonstrate his strumming skills on Ever Since New York. The setlist of the evening consists of the songs from his debut solo album, a few One Direction songs, a cover song and a song Styles co-wrote for Ariana Grande (Just a Little Bit of Your Heart).

Is Anyone Ever Surprised Anymore?
We also get a couple of new songs, as expected for anyone who’s been following the previous tour dates on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc., which it seems everyone has. So, of course, both new songs, Medicine and Anna, are treated as old favourites by the audience who sing along from start to finish, word for word. It’s interesting to observe how each generation has their ‘things’. One of the ‘things’ the current young generation has is, thanks to the internet, not being surprised by anything ever, and having access to know everything they want to know, including the setlist (or at least approximate setlist) of a concert they haven’t even attended yet. Is there even anything left to be surprised by at this point in history?

Styles launches into an alternative version of the One Direction breakthrough hit, What Makes You Beautiful, and the arena goes bonkers. It brings to mind when Robbie Williams left Take That in the nineties and included a reimagined version of the Take That hit Back For Good in his live set to prove he could do it better, as long as he sang the song on his terms. I don’t know what Styles thinks when he sings What Makes You Beautiful, but his version does come across as a, ‘I’m a grown-up now, and I do things my way’-kind of a shout out to his fans and critics alike. 

After playing One Direction’s first hit, it’s time to play Styles’ first solo hit, Sign of the Times, a song that, when it came out, was presented by the Styles marketing machine as a combination of David Bowie and Queen. I’m struggling to hear either influence in any of Styles’ songs. If anything, Sign of the Times sounds more like a blend of Angels by Robbie Williams and Hard To Say I’m Sorry by Chicago. Either way, the song works. It’s a beautifully constructed song with a great hook, catchy chorus and good lyrics (‘We never change we’ve been here before…’) that doesn’t set a foot wrong, and Styles’ vocals sound so damn near perfect, it’s hard to believe that auto-tune hasn’t been in use.

For the encore, we get my favourite Styles song, From the Dining Table and the, by now, almost obligatory cover of The Chain by Fleetwood Mac. A great cover, by the way – easily as good as the original. Styles has embraced the 1970s in the styling of his songs, and though he wasn’t even born in the ’70s, it’s a decade that suits him well, from the songs he sings to the clothes he wears.

The last song of the evening is Kiwi, not a song that does much for me, so I bolt for the door to make it to the train before the rush.

In many ways, this was a perfect concert. There may not be a lot of depth to a Harry Styles concert, and he’s not an especially outstanding performer. His songs are pleasant, but no masterpieces, and most of them sound like a mashup of some of the catchiest pop hits from the ’70s. Yet, everything is done so well; a band that plays the songs perfectly, Styles sounding and looking good in a colourful (pink) and no doubt pricey designer outfit.

As a frontman, he’s chatty and funny between the songs, saying all the right things, but never anything that could offend anyone. And that’s it in a nutshell; a contemporary pop star who tries to channel the ’60s or ’70s is problematic. You can style yourself in the right clothes; you can fashion your songs to the correct sound; you can learn all the moves and replicate them. But there’s one thing you can’t repeat.

Pop music wasn’t yet irreversibly sanitised in the 70s, and it was still possible to be genuinely controversial and unusual. That’s not possible in the same way anymore. All the young crops of pop stars try their best to be ‘different’, ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘unusual’. But most of them are the same familiar, slightly boring celebrities, who have gone through the same media training and post the same carefully constructed pieces of branding on their social media pages – another ‘Sign of the Times’. But though it’s doubtful he’ll ever be a patch on any of his ’70s heroes’ ripped flared jeans, a Harry Styles concert is all good, clean, safe and silly fun – and as Paul McCartney asks in one of his most famous songs (from the 70s); what’s wrong with that?

Harry Styles setlist
1. Only Angel
2. Woman
3. Ever Since New York
4. Two Ghosts
5. Carolina
6. Stockholm Syndrome (One Direction song)
7. Just a Little Bit of Your Heart (Ariana Grande cover)
8. Medicine
9. Meet Me in the Hallway
B-Stage
10. Sweet Creature
11. If I Could Fly (One Direction song)
12. Anna
13. What Makes You Beautiful (One Direction song)
14. Sign of the Times
15. From the Dining Table
16. The Chain (Fleetwood Mac cover)
17. Kiwi

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