Insight from Harry Styles’ Sign of the Times

What can new artists learn from the One Direction man’s first solo output?


Before his name even leave my mind and are committed to digital copy, I know that assessing the work of Harry Styles will leave me open to attack from Directioners worshipping him like the messiah. However, with the release of his debut solo single Sign of the Times, Harry has presented something that may serve as a valuable lesson in pop reinvention.

For those who haven’t heard the song, Sign of the Times is a Glam-inspired pop ballad that ventures into territories most artists wouldn’t be permitted to go. It’s driven by a lumbering piano melody that gradually develops into what feels like a modern homage to the climax of Bowie’s Rock n Roll Suicide. Grandiose string arrangements and sizzling rock guitars mask what is otherwise a very ordinary pop ballad, while Styles’ vocalwork showcases his abilities without any pesky bandmates also vying for the spotlight.

So, why does this matter for new artists? Well, quite simply, it highlights two very important lessons that are worth heeding.

Modern pop still has a place for balladry
When you think of what makes a strong pop number, most people will draw up a list of the same principles:

  • A catchy melody
  • A clear and contagious hook
  • A strong chorus
  • An accessible sound, either through appropriating currently accepted styles or by using infectious rhythms
  • A 3-4 minute runtime

However, Sign of the Times dismisses several of these rules. While the chorus is a strong singalong and the vocal melody is memorable, it doesn’t appropriate a current style – instead it looks three decades into the past – and it certainly exceeds the runtime. Real balladry doesn’t tend to fit into the runtime rule, which is why it is often scarce in the pop genre.

If Styles shows nothing else, it is that the current pop scene still has a place for long ballads. While it must be noted that Styles is able to take liberties that many artists cannot, such as being able to croon for almost six minutes armed only with insipid lyricism and repetition, any artist eager to craft a well-balanced ballad will be relieved to know that mainstream recognition is not impossible.

The path to change starts with a single step
This is a very important point but one that has been met with divided opinion over Styles’ debut. Musically, the artist has edged away from the sound of One Direction but he is still only within arm’s reach. Thinking back to Zayn’s debut album, the drastic departure proved divisive to fans but was one of his saving graces from a critical perspective. Styles has instead played it somewhat safe.

It should be noted that this is not a bad thing, nor does it set a bad precedent for the future. One of the main reasons for bandmembers going solo is to allow experimentation of expression, with the member free to try genres and musical styles that may not be right for the other members. While Sign of the Times is not a full departure from One Direction’s sound, it has enough of a musical distinction that it eases fans into a transition. Styles – or the team behind him – understand that a drastic shift might cause upset among audiences in a similar way to Zayn, so it is likely we will see a gradual adoption of a more Glam-rock style in future.

When the urge to change comes, artists might be quick to pursue it and express themselves differently. That is fine. But if they are conscious of audience perception and expectation, it is critical that musicians consider taking a slower approach and dripfeeding change to fans.

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