Image: Harry Styles in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Image Source.
Firstly, a disclaimer: I don’t personally feel particularly strongly about Harry Styles, but I fully appreciate him as a major pop culture icon. He dresses a lot like a few of my ex-girlfriends, or maybe my ex-girlfriends dressed a lot like Harry Styles? In a relentlessly post-One Direction world it’s hard to separate the two things out. I am, however, deeply passionate about Hanson (both past and present), Justin Bieber and recently went through a complicated departure from Taylor Swift. While I may not be in Harry’s camp, I definitely maintain spaces where I fangirl, and those spaces make up an important part of who I am .
Harry Styles, famously mute when it comes to PR, was recently covered for Rolling Stone by Cameron Crowe, who isn’t a journalist, but the ambivalent director of Elizabethtown, the romcom I strongly believe set the withering of the genre in motion. Why are famous film directors stealing freelance work from writers? I guess we’ll never know. Maybe it takes a star guy to talk to really talk to another star guy, especially the star guy who also brought us Almost Famous (do you see what they did there?). As you scroll to the end of the Rolling Stone article there’s even a benevolent plug for Cameron Crowe’s own website, the even more benevolently named ‘The Uncool.’
Anyway, there isn’t too much take away from the hotly shared Rolling Stone interview except for the fact that Harry Styles looks unbelievably good in hot pink, is from a nice family (so nice, in fact, that as one of his new song lyrics goes, his girlfriend’s skirt is ‘too short’ to meet his mother; another case of Nice Guys saying one thing and singing another) and likes tequila in sweet moderation. The sentiment feels true, because whatever you may think about Harry Styles, he is definitely somebody’s son; so well-loved he can’t help but radiate the feeling that anything is possible. Plucked from the interview, and now doing the rounds in isolation, is the quote in which he is most revealing:
“Styles is aware that his largest audience so far has been young – often teenage – women. Asked if he spends pressure-filled evenings worried about proving credibility to an older crowd, Styles grows animated. “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”
Yeh. It is sick. But the popularity of the quote is, like Styles himself, totally pleasant enough, but also just an echo of what women have been writing about for decades. While Harry is lovely for pointing out the debt he owes his fangirls, it’s also just an indication that Styles knows who built him: not paunched execs, but teenagers and their crucial discernment. Styles’ comment is emblematic of a much bigger problem. A couple of years ago, amongst others, both Brodie Lancaster and Sandra Song penned excellent pieces detailing the sexist trajectory of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music. That, in its simplest form, in order for something to be ‘good’ it requires a bare minimum audience percentage of a certain type of critic; cis, white and male. Styles’ comment gaining traction feels like an unfair reversal, the way these things always do; teenage girls are only important when the icon’s spotlight momentarily illuminates them.
Ideas of ‘high taste’ have forever been cis, white and male, and even if they’re not directly creating it, they’re writing about its creation. It’s the filter applied to all the cultural aspects we hold closest; while others write the crucial features that lacerate zeitgeist, it’s still white male journalists, executives and producers who are doing the curating, whether it’s interviewing Harry Styles, or Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez or deciding whether they get to be famous in the first place. The pattern keeps re-contextualising the pop star into something that is enormous, but intellectually unimportant. The fangirls, accordingly, are relegated to the leagues of predictable, ‘low’ culture. After centuries in which women, from their sexuality, to their place in the workplace, have been labelled ‘hysterical’ by a panicking patriarchy, it’s no surprise that the things we love are repeatedly shunted to the bottom of the intellectual pile.
Fangirls are, like women throughout history, expected to be the bolstering, emotional base for a band, or a singer, while that huge labour goes unrecognised. The taste-making is considered men’s work, as if the ‘screaming girls’ described at every concert since time immemorial are just part of the setting they’ve cleverly developed.
The idea is that men, like Simon Cowell who ‘hand-picked’ One Direction from the X Factor slurry pile, know what they’re doing. That there’s a formula for generating a band, or artist, that will be immediately palatable to teenage girls, because the taste of teenage girls is just that easy to skewer. The validity of the teen girl experience is consistently reduced to one in which they are impressionable, and their desires easily accessible. As if cute boys, floppy hair and songs about love that skirt the middle in favour of the beginning and the end are reliable, interchangeable tropes.
I’d like to see a thesis on the boybands who didn’t make it. I’d also like to see a thesis that compares, say, Hanson to One Direction. Or Take That to Westlife. The taste of teenage girls, as I recall, doesn’t rely on a monotonous, repeatable sameness, but a code that’s unreachable unless you’re a teenage girl. They decide. They are at the complex crux of a zeitgeist that isn’t niche, but huge and era-defining. If you’re Harry Styles, you should be fucking thanking them at every opportunity you get.
And yet, this influence is deemed invalid, because validity is not something that’s frequently used for the teen girl, or young woman, experience. Despite making up a marketplace that has been making or breaking bands since the dawn of the industry, if a band has too many female followers it is immediately deemed distinctly unserious. Again, like the entire female-identified trajectory, it is highly sellable, but not actually worthy of the cultural lexicon. No matter what we do, that remains the impenetrable core of the patriarchal capitalism.
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