Musing On Music #5

by Hannah Weiss

A New Direction

In today’s world of Snapchat stories and selfies, it’s possible for pop stars to offer fans a glimpse into the reality of their day to day lives. But while Twitter enables us to follow our favourite’s every waking moment, the sheen of Hollywood stars in the studio era has been replaced with Instagram filters and social media managers. It’s a new system, but the facades are still present.

It is on this stage of smoke and mirrors that pop stars must now navigate their coming of age. When One Direction alumnus Harry Styles announced the title of his first solo single, Sign of the Times, he did not do so through a press release crafted by PR people, but via his Twitter account. For this social media generation, in which interaction between fan and artist has become the norm, authenticity has become of paramount importance. Because heaven forbid Taylor Swift isn’t hand-picking the filter for every #squad snap and Kanye’s Twitter sagas are spellchecked by a PR guru behind the scenes.

This need for an artist to validate their own legitimacy goes beyond social media. Cut adrift from the money-making machine that was One Direction, Styles, like Zayn Malik before him, must carve out his own niche in the music industry. To do so, he must first establish his newfound position as a credible artist. It’s something Malik has done in earnest since jumping ship almost a year prior to the band’s split. His first single Pillowtalk made his next direction clear. Featuring new girlfriend, supermodel Gigi Hadid, it was a smoky slice of R&B reminiscent of Usher and Mario. Self-conscious interviews in Complex and The Fader followed, featuring a smattering of subtexts indicating that the boy was now a man. He has a new haircut, many tattoos… and he smokes weed. No more public apologies when caught lighting up a joint in Peru. Now like Coleridge and Shelley before him, Malik uses narcotics to fuel his creative vision. He talks at great length about how he felt both his musicianship and image – he was denied a beard – were stifled by One Direction’s management. He’s also working on his new album with James ‘Malay’ Ho, who executive produced Frank’s Ocean’s debut Channel Orange.

And so a new picture is painted. The artist has emerged from behind his carefully controlled image as a teen idol, ready to enter a new chapter in his life, and gain the attention of an adult audience. Yet it all seems just a tad too well orchestrated. Simon Cowell arranged Malik’s handover from Syco to RCA, both of which are owned by Sony. And while the hazy, rhythmic falsetto and flourishes of Urdu on Mind of Mine, Zayn’s solo debut, are clearly a work of careful craftmanship that cut a stark contract to One Direction’s mass produced pop, Malik’s solo effort also fits nicely into the category of slow R&B jams that have proven to be perfect Top 10 fodder. In a similar way that Justin Bieber’s stellar comeback, with twin number one singles Where Are You Now and What Do You Mean, took advantage of the tropical house wave to reassert the pop star’s chart dominance and usher in a new trend, Malik turns to R&B to make himself a new man.

Yet it’s not really new. It seems that via different genres and tactics, Harry, Zayn and Justin are all ultimately chasing the career paradigm set out by former boybander Justin Timberlake. To be one of the few teen stars to bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood and paint over all memory of their shiny Tiger Beat youth to sustain longevity in the spotlight. To achieve this, they must remake themselves in the eyes of the public while also carefully balancing authenticity with commercial viability.

Now Harry Styles is reaching for that coveted allure of originality; chasing the fashion world with cover spreads for Another Man. And dropping the five minute plus spectacle that is Sign of the Times as his first solo endeavour. The single has been lauded as a haunting melange of pop and indie, a nod to David Bowie and a smart move for the singer that will undoubtedly be acclaimed as Styles taking on a new genre in avant-garde style. But is he really doing things any differently?

And if a pop star’s every career move must be marketable, can they ever genuinely claim to be authentic?