Harry Styles’ tour has come to an end. It ended not with a bang, but with the 24-year-old former One Directioner refusing to end his final song, Kiwi, instead playing it three times in succession without stopping for breath. At one point, he sprinted down the middle aisle of the Los Angeles Forum without security to sing a few verses on the “B” stage, unwilling to let go of the magic of this tour, not without giving himself and the 17,500 people dancing and screaming and giving themselves over to this moment one last sparkly hurrah.
I know all of this because I was watching the livestream via Periscope a few thousand miles away, at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Me and 13,000 other people. Don’t tell me this boy doesn’t matter. Don’t tell me girls and women don’t know what the hell they’re talking about when they choose someone to stan who espouses kindness, self-acceptance, and inclusiveness as primary values. Who thanks everyone in attendance for trusting him enough to show up, who makes a special effort to recognize the fans sitting behind the stage, and who, rather than belittling his boy band past, celebrates it.
We’re living in a time of rigid gender expectations that contribute to a system of global patriarchy and misogyny that is damaging to everyone, wherever you may fall on the gender spectrum. The pain strict gender norms cause comes in so many flavors. We’re starting to get better at talking about how women, girls, and non-conforming folks suffer under sexism and other gender-based forms of intolerance, hate, and oppression, but we still especially suck at talking about the ways in which men and boys suffer, too.
Enter Harry Styles, the sweet fairy prince of emotional vulnerability, gender fluidity, and unironic enthusiasm. Harry Styles may look like a Disney prince, but his appeal is much more complicated than the teen heartthrob identity lazy cultural critics, of both the professional and amateur variety, would suggest.
Celebrity persona is kind of like a group project: The human behind the celebrity may be the group leader, but the construction of their persona is collaborative. The same is true for Harry Styles. He is his own man and, from all accounts, that man is kind, compassionate, feminist, subversive, silly, sweet. He is a rocker who makes a speech about empowerment, acceptance, and being whoever you want to be at the beginning of his concerts. He is a musician who dances and prances around his stage with a pride flag at all of his concerts. During his brief period of interactions with the nearby audience members, he often seeks out pregnant women and babies to talk to and comment upon. If Harry is our Harry Styles Persona group leader, then he is leading us in the direction of babies, flowers, and sparkly suits.
A few weeks ago, I attended Harry Styles Summer Camp (as I’ve taken to calling it), which is to say I attended three concerts in five days. I traveled to two cities (Boston and New York), arguably drank too much, and gave myself over to pure, unabashed enthusiasm and joy.
The thing about being in a space with 19,000 other people who are, for the most part, able to express fervent enthusiasm for a thing they unironically love, is it forces you to face your own stoicism. I am someone who, intellectually, supports unabashed sentimentality, teen fangirling, and unironic passions. I just still have a long way to go before I accept it in myself. Maybe it’s my New England-flavored Irish Catholicism. Maybe it’s a partially self-imposed fitting into a masculine system of stoicism and “rationality” in order to be taken seriously in a world that prioritizes these things. Maybe it’s just my shyness or my control issues. Whatever it is, I suck at letting go and letting myself feel things in public spaces. This is partially why, when I fall in love with stories, I want to experience them by myself for the first time. I don’t want my experience to be mediated through my observations of and taking into account of another person. When I am with other people, I can’t help but think about how they’re reacting—to the thing, to each other, to me. What does it say about them? What does it say about me? What does it say about society? OMG, just shut up brain and sing along to “Anna”!
My first Harry Styles concert, on Monday in Boston’s TD Garden, I attended with my sister (and companion in all things fangirl), my friend Delia (new to the Harry Styles fandom, but open and enthusiastic), and my next-door neighbor and friend Sinead (the youngest of our crew by about a decade). I had never been to a concert like this before—not only one so geared towards female fans, but one this enormous. It was hypnotic and powerful and the energy in that room took my breath away in the moments I let myself feel it. But there were only so many of those moments on a Monday night when my anxiety was creeping up and I was letting external bullshit judgments about what is proper for a 30-year-old woman or any self-respecting person to creep in.
My second concert fell on Thursday night in NYC’s Madison Square Garden. I had bought the ticket two days prior, desperate to recapture some of that ephemeral magic I tasted, though never truly let myself indulge in on Monday. For this performance, I would be on the floor, though further away from the stage. I got very drunk. Blame it on the fact that I didn’t eat much that day or that I got to the bar far earlier than everyone else as I vagabonded in from Massachusetts and didn’t have anywhere else to go. Sadly, I don’t remember this concert very clearly, but it was surely the most in-the-moment I got. I’m not sure if it counts because I was drunk and don’t remember it well, but I do remember some things: the camaraderie I built with the stranger-friends around me (hey, new Instagram buddies!); the energy of being quite literally in the center of 19,000 screaming fans; and the delirious letting go I felt as I sang along with the songs, even though I am ridiculously bad with song lyrics.
When I showed up at the bar to meet my friends for the Friday night performance, I was tired, hungover, and a little overwhelmed. I was also mad at myself for having gotten so drunk the night before. I felt like I had wasted my money. Sage, my concert-going companion for that final night, talked me down from my self-deprecation. There’s no wrong experience, she said. You are getting to have different Harry Styles concert experiences each time, and that is wonderful. Sage is very wise.
The third performance ended up being my favorite. I wore a flower crown in my braided hair, my sister’s “Gender is Over… If You Want It” jersey shirt, and—mostly importantly—halfway through the concert, I let myself go. I stopped worrying about getting all of the lyrics right or the pressure of having a good time. I stopped trying to capture the perfect Harry Styles concert experience and just let it happen. I actually started listening to the affirmations Harry Styles works into his concert routine. You are all fabulous. You are all special. I couldn’t do this without each and every single one of you. I love you from the bottom of my heart.
For the first two-and-a-half performances, I didn’t let myself hear any of this. Not only is there a cynicism in me and in society that kept me from listening or had me internally rolling my eyes at the boldness of it all, but, because that cynicism is inside of us all. It whispers: You don’t deserve this. You’re not worth love unless you are perfect, unless you are quiet, unless you are thin and pretty and young. Harry Styles calls bullshit on all of this: “‘My job for the next hour and a little bit is to entertain you and I’m gonna do my very best. Your job is to sing, dance, do whatever it is that makes you happiest in the world. Please feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room.”
It’s a good thing Harry Styles is a stubbornly insistent affirmer. He will keep telling his fans that they are worth it just by being themselves for however long it takes for us to hear it and understand it and let it sink into our self-deprecating bones.
Once I started believing that I deserved to be there, that I deserved to be there as I was, naturally, rather than some highly maintained, “perfected” version of myself, I started enjoying myself so much more. This joyful enthusiasm wasn’t just for the other people who were there; it was for me, too.