“There are a lot of people in the crowd tonight, and I wouldn’t be on the stage without every single one of you,” he said Wednesday night (Sept. 20) at L.A.’s Greek Theater. “You are the best friends any person could ask for. You are wonderful. Thank you so much.”
As explained by him onstage, dressed in beautiful paisley patterned suit, this is a pretty number he once wrote for another lady to sing. Her name is Ariana Grande. He doesn’t say any more about it. But there’s a great deal more between the lines.
If you’re not a Directioner and you don’t possess an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Styles, you may never have heard this song. It seems everyone in the crowd has, which tonight includes the likes of One Direction pal Niall Horan, Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood and actress Emma Stone.
There is crossover between the post-X Factor Styles and the post-Disney Grande among an audience who for most of music history have been berated by press and other music fans alike: “Fangirls” has been a derogatory term.
Wednesday night, fangirls arrived in buses together. They shrieked, they FaceTimed friends, they couldn’t control their emotions. The screams that came out their mouths squeezed around your head like a vice.
It took the biggest threat to this very community earlier this year for cynics to reconsider them. During Grande’s Manchester MEN Arena show, a suicide bomber turned a wondrous, happy place into a nightmare. Somewhere along the way, people thought twice about being unkind towards fangirls after that.
Styles grew up in Chester. That’s not far from Manchester. No doubt the attack resonated with him. He doesn’t say any of this. He just gets on with the show, sometimes waving a rainbow LGBTQ flag, other times blowing kisses at girls. If this is a battle to protect the safe space of pop in 2017, then Styles is our hero with a rock ‘n’ roll plan. And boy, does he have a plan.
“Good evening Los Angeles,” he says at the start of his 75-minute set. “My job is to entertain you. Your job is to have as much fun as you possibly can.”
Look around, and you see that joy on the faces of fans who have waited months to be here. It’s the uptempo numbers from his debut self-titled solo record that render them most feral and free. Take the calypso grooving “Carolina”: All around the open air amphitheater, girls with long hair stretched down to their waists flip their tresses back, throw their hands in the air, put their phones away, and close their eyes. “She’s a good girl!” he sings. You imagine the girls with peepers shut are dreaming: “Who? Me?!”
For the course of the show, Styles’ charm offensive could settle wars. He was made to be the frontman. His high school indie band White Eskimo never got as far as The Greek, but you could argue that everything he’s done between then and now was building up to this incarnation. His Jagger-meets-David Cassidy persona shines out on the swaggering “Only Angel” and “Woman.”
The atmosphere he creates at The Greek is telling of where he wants to sit in the canon of things. Filling the theater before he comes out are the likes of The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” Pink Floyd’s “Money” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – all British classics.
The production screams so, too: A pink curtain hides the stage. Regarding his love of pink, Styles recently quoted The Clash’s Paul Simonon: “Pink is the only true rock 'n’ roll color.” Before the cloth falls, he appears behind it as a black silhouette, clutching his Gibson electric guitar.
When he dumps the guitar, he brings out his Jagger affectations – a flick of the wrist here, a stuck-out tongue there, a slight earnest screwing of the right side of his face to show that he means it, then the odd funny face to break up the sincerity. It’s the little things that drive the crowd wild.
Sometimes, as on “From the Dining Table,” he closes his eyes for just long enough that you wonder what it is he sees. Therein lies that enigma quality. He knows exactly the right time to give things a little sprinkle. “I’m falling in love with you,” he tells the crowd mid-song during “Woman.”
The album is an attempt to rekindle the rock genre: It was always intended to reach its full evolution when heard in its entirety live. By creating 10 songs brimming with familiar '70s styles, he manages to nail his self-imposed job as our entertainer because everything sounds like you’ve heard it before. He’s constructed a catalogue that’s easy to sing to, dance to, feel to.
There’s a “Benny and The Jets” quality to “Woman.” The rollicking “Kiwi” sounds inspired by driving down the Sunset Strip in an open-top car blasting Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls.” He covers Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” as part of his encore, and it’s the most playful he looks to have ever been on a stage.
Beyond Styles himself, his band are beasts, satiating the members of the crowd who might be looking to be impressed. Not a flaw in sight to satisfy any schadenfreude. Anyway, if there were any mistakes, they’d be drowned out by the singalongs.
From the opening bars of “Ever Since New York,” the crowd hollered every number like it was the last one of the evening. Their belting of Styles’ One Direction covers (“Stockholm Syndrome,” “What Makes You Beautiful”) are frighteningly overpowering. During the latter, rows of fans stand in line, link their arms and jump up and down the way British lads do at football matches. Harry is their team, and he never lets them down.
Styles also never lets himself down. All this talk of his pursuit of “authenticity” when really he seems to be doing exactly what comes naturally. Before Styles came on tonight, his support act, a young synthpop group called MUNA from L.A., played a slew of socially conscious rock songs. Before they left, their singer Katie Gavin turned to Styles’ crowd and said, “Creating change starts with imagining change.”
You wonder if Styles imagined that when he wrote “From the Dining Table” – his favorite song on the record – and he picked the line “Even my phone misses your call, by the way,” he’d be singing it while thousands of phones lit up the night sky, waving together, taking Styles from his place of self-doubt and solitude back to this: his home, his safe space. That space is a two-way street. In that moment, fangirls and Styles protect each other. In that moment, there’s nothing they can’t achieve.