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.