State of the Arts

Harry Styles’ fan interactions aren’t as heartwarming as you think – they’re deeply unhealthy

The former One Direction star is known for going above and beyond when it comes to getting into it with fans while onstage. But making a spectacle of his fans’ intimate moments has some very uncomfortable undertones, writes Louis Chilton

Thursday 25 August 2022 06:37 BST
Styles or substance: ‘Watermelon Sugar’ singer has gone viral before with his unexpected onstage behaviour
Styles or substance: ‘Watermelon Sugar’ singer has gone viral before with his unexpected onstage behaviour (Getty)
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These modern musicians. There was a time when all you needed to do was sing a few tunes. Maybe, if you were David Bowie, you also did a little acting on the side. Nowadays, pop stars have to be anyone and everyone for their loyal fans: they have to masquerade as BFFs, therapists… maybe even officiants. At least, it sure seems that way watching Harry Styles.

The former One Direction singer has, over the last few years, emerged as one of the world’s most popular stars, a renaissance artist of sorts whose talentshow beginnings have ballooned into a hit solo career and high-profile forays into acting (including a Marvel cameo, and a much-hyped role opposite Florence Pugh in the forthcoming Don’t Worry Darling). When it comes to interacting with his fans, though, Styles is happy to play whatever role is asked of him. Last week, at the first show of a 15-date residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Styles spotted a sign that read: “Dear Harry Styles, my ex called after seven years – what do I do?” Ever the hands-on agony aunt, Styles got chatting to the fan about her romantic troubles, before attempting to call her ex live on stage.

Now, this is, quite frankly, odd behaviour from both parties: the fan for soliciting Styles’ input in the first place, and he for engaging with it so readily. But it’s far from out of character for a Styles gig. Audience members bring all manner of handmade signs to his live performances, and he makes a habit of responding to them. A few weeks ago, he stopped a show to allow someone to propose to their girlfriend on stage. Previously, he has helped counsel fans through break-ups in front of his thousands-strong crowds. He’s helped others come out to their parents on stage (at their written behest). And he’s instructed others not to get back with their ex-boyfriends. While the fans themselves always seem (understandably) thrilled to receive such attention from their idol, there’s something deeply uncomfortable about these interactions. People – very young people – are channelling their personal lives into viral spectacle, and Styles seems more than happy to play along. Of course, it’s hardly a selfless act on his behalf. What does he get out of it? Glowing headlines, online virality, and a reputation for being that rare artist who truly cares about his fans.

Whether you think this kind of lopsided fan-artist interaction is deeply unhealthy or adorably earnest, it all stems from a very contemporary brand of idolatry, the pop-cultural hero worship commonly referred to as “fandom”. Styles is far from the only major act to receive this kind of attention. But he is one of the most eager to indulge it, to perpetuate his own religion. In contrast, you have an artist like Mitski who also attracts scores of obsessed fans (albeit on a smaller scale than Styles), but who is extremely cautious about the way she interacts with them, onstage and off. “People want to take something of me to keep with them,” she said back in 2018, “and I don’t want to be owned like that. I don’t want to be someone’s little treasure in their pocket.” I’m not sure Styles shares her reservations.

There is also, inevitably, a darker side to any fandom as large, intense and posessive as Styles’s. A fandom can mutate into an online hate mob at the drop of a hat. Any music journalist will tell you that certain public figures are impossible to criticise without invoking a torrent of social media abuse. Of course, it isn’t just journalists who have faced blowback from “Harries” – Styles’s current girlfriend, the filmmaker and actor Olivia Wilde, has been inundated with personal attacks and intrusive remarks since the pair started dating. Addressing this in an interview this week, Styles turned the blame on Twitter, which he described as a “s***storm of people trying to be awful to people”.

“That obviously doesn’t make me feel good,” he said. (For what it’s worth, Wilde has also stated: “I don’t personally believe the hateful energy defines his fan base at all. The majority of them are true champions of kindness.”)

Styles claimed that despite his efforts to establish clear boundaries between his personal and professional lives, sometimes “other people blur the lines for you”. That’s all well and good, but if he was serious about setting hard – but completely necessary – boundaries between himself and his fans, there are probably better ways of doing so than by repeatedly, and loudly, encouraging them to overshare at stadium shows. I’m not saying musicians should all be closed-off curmudgeons, unapproachable artistes hostile to the very notion of “fan interactions”. But there’s a hell of a lot of middle ground being missed here.

Styles’s residency in New York comes as part of a months-long string of international shows titled Love On Tour. It’s an apt name, I suppose: people come for love, and Styles is eager to show it to them. But maybe everyone would be better off if he showed them a little less.

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