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Some­times the gen­er­ation gap skips a gen­er­ation. When I saw Harry Styles at the United Center in Chicago last month with my two teenage daughters, the audience and the per­former reminded me of books from the 90s. 

Back then, writers were offering an alter­native to irony, and their answer is the same one Harry Styles gave on Sept. 23: sin­cerity. 

There was some­thing more in the audience than relieved jubi­lation for a concert that the pan­demic delayed for eighteen months. In anyone else’s hands, Styles’ song “Treat People With Kindness” would have descended into either sen­ti­men­tality or cyn­icism. Instead — and this may be because we see so many videos of grown-ups behaving badly, unable to wait three minutes for a pumpkin spice latte — the song becomes an anthemic cel­e­bration of real kindness. 

It’s not sen­ti­mental because its focus is on giving people second chances, and any cyn­icism is over­whelmed with the song’s sin­cerity. I haven’t seen effective and moving kindness coupled with sin­cerity like this since David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” or his “This is Water” com­mencement speech at Kenyon College.

I doubt that my fellow audience members were thinking about Wallace, though. And why would they? They were more inter­ested in screaming. 

I have been to hun­dreds of con­certs in my life, and I have never heard an audience scream so loudly. Harry Styles is a pop star — one of the biggest solo artists on the planet right now — and pop stars write straight­forward love songs that can be about only two topics, new love or lost love. 

One Direction, Harry Styles’ first group, embraced that tra­jectory, and although I run the risk of inciting the wrath of my daughter and several sopho­mores in my Great Books classes, the only places One Direction’s music will live on is in an American Eagle, Target, or Kohl’s — it’s shopping music. Styles’ first solo album delib­er­ately broke from the One Direction formula, pre­senting an uneven array of songs that wore their influ­ences on their sleeves. “Woman” is an arrangement of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” for example. “Sign of the Times” was the exception, though, and it became the biggest hit on the album.

“Fine Line,” which was per­formed almost in full in Chicago, is an album whose songs are all as good as “Sign of the Times.” I was struck by the depth of each song’s musi­cality. Tom Hull and Niji Adeleye have written and arranged some incredibly solid songs. 

From the psy­che­delic island music of “Sun­flower, Vol. 6” to the extended bluesy guitar solo at the end of “She,” these songs are meant to be per­formed live. Styles let his band play as indi­viduals, not as exten­sions of Harry Styles, or merely his backing band. 

Their joy was infec­tious, which is probably why “Treat People With Kindness” made such an impression on me. “Water­melon Sugar,” a song that has been played on Spotify almost 1.5 billion times, sounded fresh as ever when it was rearranged into a min­i­malist blues and jazz piece. 

My youngest daughter Julia enjoyed Styles’ talent and respon­siveness to the audience. These new arrange­ments helped my daughter Maria redis­cover songs she thought were okay, but not great. 

When she said that she thought “Treat People With Kindness” was corny before this concert, and extra­or­dinary after the concert, she echoed exactly what I said above. She had been waiting for seven months, and her expe­rience exceeded all of her expec­ta­tions. All three of us are looking forward to his new album, which should be released later this month.