Rock 'n' roll has never been very honest with itself. A music of change and rebellion, it's also one of hard-and-fast demarcations, an us-and-them fantasy that increasingly has left it trapped inside its own (largely white, largely male) self-image that pits the cool kids against everyone else. But that may be changing — and in the world of Harry Styles, it already has.
There may be no better approximation of a rock star in 2018 than Styles, and the former One Direction teen idol landed in Dallas on Tuesday for the second time in nine months as part of his Live on Tour world tour. For 90 minutes at American Airlines Center, the 24-year-old Englishman was poised, carefree and every bit the swaggering leading man, whether the cool kids want to admit it or not.
For all the chic nonchalance Styles exudes, there's a boyish enthusiasm to how he approaches his music, and it was uncorked from the get-go Tuesday as he bounded around the circular stage during the opener, "Only Angel." Strutting and shaking his hips in his pink lounge suit, he had all the requisite sass and moves like Jagger, delivered with a twist as he clapped his hands overhead and ran excitedly in place. No amount of arch posturing could hide the simple pleasure he derived from performing.
Having fun is, really, the key for Styles. Making the transition from teen star to being a respectable adult one has never been easy, and while the members of One Direction have proven remarkably adept at doing so, Styles in particular has navigated it by simply being himself. At a time when both rock and guitars are said to be on life support, he brandishes each loudly and proudly simply because that's what he's into, not to prove he's a Serious Artist or even as an act of rebellion.
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Of course, as an established pop star, Styles has his work cut out for him in earning rock cred — which, in and of itself, is telling. The kids may be alright, as the old saying goes, but that's largely only held true to the generation that coined it so long as the kids listened to music that sounded like its. If Styles hasn't necessarily calculated an image with that in mind, he's certainly intuited it, and knowing that he's not exactly welcome in the club gives him room to deconstruct its rules. Rock 'n' roll is a tool among many for Styles to utilize, and he's free to leave behind the parts that no longer serve a purpose.
One of those discarded parts is the bloated exceptionalism of arena rock. Styles' band and presentation were lean and taught, with a four-piece backing ensemble of both men and women. There were few displays of flash, with the main bit of showmanship when Styles flexed his impressive vocal range on "Sign of the Times," which turned into a roaring singalong after starting as a spine-tingling a cappella.
Like "Sign of the Times," Styles' best solo work tends more toward jangling ballads than out-and-out rockers. With "Meet Me in the Hallway" and "Ever Since New York," which were also highlights at AAC, he excels at writing a singsong hook with an unabashed soft-rock streak. (Witness the Fleetwood Mac cover during the show's encore.) Here, too, Styles tweaks the form, eschewing the "nice guy" tendencies of soft rock that can be even more insidious than the stereotypical male bravado.
Not that Styles is perfect in this regard. "Open Angel" and "Kiwi" both fall back noticeably on rock's casually chauvinistic lyrical tropes, so it was fitting in a way that those two songs bookended the evening — not to mention practical, given that they're designed to be raunchy party starters. While his songwriting has time to do some catching up, Styles has no problem selling the part in the meantime, and in someone like him, there's reason to believe that rock 'n' roll can still exist without the baggage of toxic masculinity. If that's not possible, well, the rock star may not be such a great loss.
Yet Styles, for all his charm and charisma, remains relatable and accessible to his fans, a fact that was never more pronounced than with his between-song banter.
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"Please feel free to be whatever you want," he advised the crowd early in the set, and later he corrected the folks who booed one girl for admitting she didn't like football. He teased later on that this was "a family show," another idea that doesn't earn cool points in rock parlance but one that reinforced the notion that no one needed to conform in his circle.
Implicit throughout much of Styles' talk of inclusivity was the fact that June is Pride Month, and toward the end of the set he literally flew the flag for the LGBTQ community. During "What Makes You Beautiful," he brought out the rainbow colors and held them aloft alongside the flag of Texas, then draped them over his mic stand — a subtle provocation that had rock 'n' roll written all over it.
"Ever Since New York"
"Just a Little Bit of Your Heart"
"Meet Me in the Hallway"
"If I Could Fly"
"What Makes You Beautiful"
"Sign of the Times"
"From the Dining Table"