Julie Burchill

Is Harry Styles really the new David Bowie?

Styles' music is the least interesting thing about him

Is Harry Styles really the new David Bowie?
Harry Styles (Credit: Getty images)
Text settings

There’s something ludicrous about old people trying to understand the pop music preferred by youth. Mind you, youth is relative and here I am at the age of 62, explaining Harry Styles.

Styles isn’t just a pop star, he’s a phenomenon and therefore worthy of examination by ancient people like me. Last week, Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today featured him alongside Ukraine and 'partygate', asking: ‘Does Harry Styles ever put a foot wrong?’

Having just played his first London gig in four years, where nearly 5,000 teenage girls sang every word to his latest album, this month he will play Wembley Stadium, entertaining 140,000 people over two nights. The album in question, Harry’s House, became the most streamed album by a male artist on its first day of release ever.

So what’s the secret of the 28-year-old who grew up above a Worcestershire pub before leaving school at 16 to work in a bakery, and whose career started when his manufactured boy band came third in the 2010 series of TV talent show The X Factor?

For a start, he’s not Ed Sheeran, the most successful pop star of our times, whose voice is best described as pasteurised ‘urban’ delivered with an insistent, hollow enthusiasm. Still only 31, the ginger whinger minger has sold more than 150 million records worldwide, been named ‘Artist of the Decade’ and conducted the highest-grossing world tour of all time.

As befits a dullard, Sheeran signed, along with numerous other pop stars, a letter drafted by bitter multi-millionaire Bob Geldof warning against a 'botched Brexit'; this loss to the Brains Trust also described himself as a fan of Jeremy Corbyn. The child of an arts curator and a jewellery designer, he is yet another example of the privately-educated artists colonising rock and pop music, previously the most likely escape route for ambitious proletarian youth.

To put the nauseating cherry on the gluten-free artisan cake, Sheeran recently released an ode to his new baby, dribbling on thus: 

'Welcome to the world/Through all the pain, you're a diamond in the dirt/Don't let them change you, words are only words/I stand beside you, for better or for worse/And I will find you whenever you're lost/I'll be right here.’ 

Sick bag, anyone?

It’s doubtful that Harry Styles will be procreating any time soon. For a start, he likes his women on the ‘mature’ side. Also, he seems to be sex-mad and not in the mood for the patter of tiny feet unless it’s a grown woman who wears a size 6 shoe.

From the moment he was lip-read by some television viewers (while still only 16!) whispering in the ear of X Factor winner Matt Cardle: ‘Think how much pussy you’re going to get’, to the performance last week when he apologised to his mother in the audience for using the words ‘cocaine’ and ‘side boob’, his reputation is that of a caring, sharing satyr.

There’s a photo of him running into two of his exes, the models Cara Delevingne and Kendall Jenner, holding hands on a staircase at an awards ceremony in 2014, and it’s one of those moments when one understands why old timers like Philip Larkin envy the young: they’re all at it!

But generally, Styles is keen on Mrs Robinsons rather than Miss Rights. At 17, he was the lover of 31-year-old Caroline Flack, the late television presenter whose surname became sadly onomatopoeic when his teenage fans went after her. By 18, he graduated to 23-year-old Taylor Swift; in return she is said to have honoured him with one of the songs she likes to write about her exes. Style referred to the youngster’s ‘long hair, slicked back, white T-shirt’, before griping: 

‘I say, ‘I heard that you've been out and about with some other girl’/ He says: ‘What you heard is true…’

But his true stripes as an ‘homme fatale’ came with his ongoing romance with Olivia Wilde; the 38-year-old American actress and director was the subject of a spectacular serving of child custody documents on behalf of her ex Jason Sudeikis while live on stage at the 2022 CinemaCon, where she was promoting the film during which she met her young star. Amusingly it was called Don’t Worry Darling.

Styles is such a classic swordsman – a wolf in lamb’s clothing – that it’s amusing to see the usual suspects fill their adult nappies claiming him as one of their own tribe of confused and mostly celibate attention-seekers, just because he wore a dress on the cover of Vogue.

I remember being told as a teenager by a member of the rabidly heterosexual New York Dolls that ‘the best way to get girls is to pretend to be gay – especially in England'. The remarkable sex lives of both Mick Jagger and David Bowie (both of whom Styles is now being compared to) certainly bear this advice out.

Bowie would probably laugh and ruffle Junior’s curls before asking for an autograph for his daughter. Jagger, on the other hand, has always been cattier, telling the Sunday Times:

‘I like Harry – we have an easy relationship…he doesn't have a voice like mine or move on stage like me; he just has a superficial resemblance to my younger self, which is fine.’

It’s true that Styles is ‘only’ worth £100m according to the Sunday Times Rich List while Jagger is on £318m. But Styles has only been a performer since 2010 while Jagger is celebrating his 60th year in the racket; it’s entirely understandable that a man who is reported to have a defibrillator on standby (Start Me Up indeed) might not be too welcoming to a young upstart who resembles him somewhat.

No doubt many will deride Styles for coming to public attention as a scream idol – but so did George Michael, who grew into a fine singer-songwriter. Others will mock him as just a manufactured TV talent show act. But that’s how Girls Aloud started and they’re one of the greatest pop groups this country has ever produced.

Personally, I find his music the least interesting thing about him; having seen him act, the big screen may well be his final destination. His voice reminds me of Kelly Jones from the Stereophonics but the music is more like Howard Jones – or rather a turgid, washed-out approximation of something even Jones would have considered too bland to put out in the 1980s. The current single As It Was is better than the early ones, but it still basically just sounds like someone growling at a mobile phone ringtone.

But then, I’ve been spoiled; I was lucky enough to be young when pop titans – Bolan, Bowie, Bryan Ferry – ruled the airwaves and the bedroom walls alike. I grew up at a time when singing stars were routinely both sexy and profound, right up to Blondie.

And, as I said at the start, it’s always somewhat comedic when we sexagenarians try to understand what gets modern youth going.