Sexuality in pop shouldn’t be a marketing campaign, or style

George Griffiths /
May 25, 2017 / Music

Harry Styles made headlines last week when he stated that he refuses to label his sexuality. It was a distinct break-away from the homogeneous, heteronormative doctrine of a male singer in the public eye, but is it as progressive a move as it seems?

When Zayn Malik left One Direction, the first words of his debut solo single, ‘Pillowtalk’ writ his intentions large with a knowing double entendre to his fervent fanbase; ‘climb on board.’ As soon as Zayn left 1D, his sexiness and his sexuality become distinctly more overt than it had been before. Zayn built the campaign of his first album, and his persona as a pop star, around the concept of sex. Much like Janet Jackson had done decades earlier, this was his way of taking control of his own image away from the cookie-cutter, twee characterisation he had been subject to in the 1D-Machine. This was great for Zayn, but this also posed a problem for the remaining members of the band he left behind. How were they going to top that?

The answer is: they can’t, because Zayn got there first and called the hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualised image for his own, so everything following in his wake seems nothing more than a pale imitation. This presents a distinct problem for the other members of One Direction whose own personal identity was hard to separate from the band as a whole, but Harry Styles always seemed bigger than One Direction.

Harry was always the brightest and biggest star, the one deemed most likely to go solo and, before Zayn pipped him to the post, the one most likely to leave the band first. The re-birth of Harry Styles has been centred around the legitimisation of his authenticity as a modern-day rockstar. Gone are the half-arsed dance routine and the chinos, he now wears outré three-piece suits and his self-titled debut album is a melting pot of classic rock influences; from the Stones, to Bowie and Cobain. Harry’s gone to painful lengths to separate himself from his pop past and his most defiant move by far has been to quietly side-step the heteronormative doctrine that normally applies to solo male superstars. In refusing to label his sexuality, Harry joins a pantheon of modern-day solo stars whose work is as fluid as their sexual identity; from Frank Ocean to Tove Lo and Matty Healey, Harry is attempting to steer himself out of a lane that would make his sexuality his only identity in terms of pop culture revenue.

While this is, all in all, great news – the more influential artists in the public eye speak about their own sexuality, the more the fluidity of it becomes normalised – the reality around Harry’s statements about his own sexuality seems a little more disingenuous than at first glance.

The first point to make here is that everyone’s sexuality is different and it not should not be used as a marketing or promotional tool. Everyone has their own journey and everyone experiences their sexuality differently, and the more we try to impress a certain area of sexuality as the standard, things go south. It is extremely encouraging to see an artist with as much reach and influence as Harry Styles talking openly about their sexuality, and to disclose the intimate details of this is no-ones prerogative but his own.

That being said, it is hard not to notice that most, if not all,  all of the songs on Harry’s self-titled debut album centre around his romantic attachment to and relationships with females, more overtly so on ‘Carolina,’ ‘Two Ghosts’ and ‘Sweet Creature.’ Once again, this is Harry’s own prerogative and his art is ultimately his own, but given his own comments and feelings towards his sexuality, boxing him into a certain box in regards to his sexual preference can’t help but come off as a little disingenuous, especially when queer artists such as Olly Alexander from Years & Years have made a specific point of using male pronouns in love songs. The exceptions that proves the rule is of course Sam Smith, who said that he would never use gender-specific pronouns for ‘Stay With Me’ because he doesn’t want the song to resonate with just one demographic. So there’s that.

Harry Styles is genuinely great. He’s an intensely charismatic performer with an innate sense of how best to use his quite considerable talent and influence. And his own album, while a little too self-indignant in places, lays the groundwork for something truly special to happen a little later down the line. Harry Styles is a multi-faceted person, and it is never alright to just define him by his sexuality or the fluidity of it, but in breaking from tradition in such a notable way, there seems to be a sense of hesitant back-tracking on his record.

Only time will tell if he will open up further, or he will remain, as is probably best, an enigma.

Words by George Griffiths

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