During his One Direction days, pop hip-swiveler Harry Styles was real a fan favorite. With untamable hair, a wide, cheeky grin and ‘70s rock leanings, he quickly garnered comparisons to The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, and, in pop’s earlier days, he could’ve been marketed as One Direction’s unofficial frontman, with the swagger to match *NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake but with a penchant for bad-boy body art, like Backstreet Boys’ naughty AJ McLean. If Styles’ story were an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, his natural arc might have dictated that he be the one to leave One Direction to pursue a solo career first.
But ZAYN — now just ZAYN, all caps — beat Harry to that solo career, and in the fallout of ZAYN-gate, it didn’t take very long for One Direction to crumble and announce a still-active hiatus. They ponied up for one more album, 2015’s Made in the A.M., and the remaining members went their separate ways, with Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson releasing their own solo singles. But now Styles is ready for his close-up, free of the Boy Band shackles, free to literally fly wherever he chooses.
That single was released today: It’s called “Sign Of the Times” (possibly a loose reference to Prince’s similarly named 1987 single/album). And like The Purple One’s socio-political lyrical references, Styles’ track also appears to circle—however vaguely—current events.
But that’s where the likeness ends: While Prince’s is a clicking, nervy funk tune, Styles’ “Sign” is a lit-lighter arena anthem, led by poignant piano and a whining, “Bohemian Rhapsody”-inspired guitar solo.
And it’s not bad, exactly. Styles’ husky voice showcases him as a unique talent with a defined late-mid-century aesthetic. But are you familiar with the term “Oscar grab”? That’s basically what this song is, only I guess this is more of a “Grammy Grab,” or, more realistically, a “People’s Choice Award Grab.” Singing in a falsetto-y register, for nearly six minutes Styles begs an unseen party to “stop your cryin’” because “it’ll be alright.” “The end is near,” he continues, “We gotta get away from here,” blah, blah, more simplistic rhyming. It’s Styles’ attempt at rise-above-the-bullshit earnestness. Because, why? He saw the sign?
You could also compare “Sign Of the Times” to Pepsi’s ridiculous, trivializing Jump In ad, which just so happens to star Styles’ ex Kendall Jenner, and features a blandly diverse group of pretty people who want just want world peace (and to crack open an ice-cold Pepsi). “Sign Of the Times,” which was produced by Jeff Bhasker and co-written by Styles, could also be pointing to police brutality and Black Lives Matter—or even simply war itself—when it asks “Why are we always stuck and running from / The bullets?” But, like the Pepsi ad, that’s as far as the song probes, stopping just short of a solution or even a tangible cause. Because god forbid Styles alienate anyone, right?
At least Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times” made real references to issues of the day, such as the AIDS crisis, the Challenger explosion, drug abuse and gang violence, among other things. But then, Prince, who passed away almost one year ago, was sharp and outlandish, and such a pop cultural creative force that he became known for defining “The Times,” and not simply standing around moping about them. If Styles does hope to carve out his own place as a solo musician, then he should pump up the lyrical substance and, well, alter his direction.