Friday is a milestone not just for fans of One Direction, but for the rest of the world, too. Over a year after the group took their final bow onstage at X Factor’s season finale, Harry Styles will drop his debut single, “Sign of the Times,” and officially launch his solo career.
Which means, our new Justin Timberlake will finally usurp his throne.
Of course, it’s easy to draw comparisons between JT and any former boy band member who opts to spread his coiffed wings and fly. When Zayn quit 1D back in April 2015, comparisons between he and the NSYNC veteran were commonplace, especially as Zayn transformed himself via haircut and planted the seeds for Mind Of Mine (the solo record that would end up coming out a year to the day he tapped out of the band).
But aside from their shared penchant for R&B, similarities between Timberlake and Zayn end there. Between Zayn’s lyrics, interviews, and own typed words, we got to know him because he let us in. We learned about his anxiety and his disordered eating and how trapped and uninspired he felt in the group. And that drew fans closer while building a space in which they could relate and feel less alone and share their own stories of mental health and introversion.
Meanwhile, fifteen years ago, when Justin broke free from his boys and his relationship with Britney Spears, all he delivered were conversations that hinged largely on her.
Which isn’t the worst thing – it’s simply the image Justin Timberlake chose to project: a truly solo dude. Between the fleeting digs at his ex, he sang the praises of women in general and proclaimed them more advanced than men. He then used his debut record (2002’s Justified) as a way of processing the alleged infidelity that led to his breakup, while establishing himself as the Bieber of the early noughts. As far as his music let us know, he was single, pining, and ready to sing about it. And then he began acting, dabbling in higher fashion, and wearing a shit-ton of hats.
Enter: Harry Styles.
We hadn’t heard much from Harry until recently. Yes, he cut his hair to co-star in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Dunkirk. Yes, he scored the cover of AnOther Man, depicting himself in various states of hair length (#shocking). But where the 1D version of Harry was catalogued, documented, and analysed over, 2016’s solo-Harry gave us mere sprinklings. We knew he was working on a solo album, but so was everybody (Zayn, Louis, and Niall all had chart-making singles last year).
But radio silence is powerful, and Justin Timberlake taught us as much.
While Zayn will always be the first One Direction member to have launched himself to solo stardom, Harry has the advantage of being the guy who said the least. Which was how Justin also made his mark on the pop world: through action, not through promises.
But in 2002, the way we talked about music was very different. We didn’t have social media, the internet was but a shell, and celebrity news was covered weekly via print mags, giving subjects a chance to sort out their shit before the publicity hurricane struck. But due to the direct lack of limelight, it was shocking when Justin shaved his head during the last days of NSYNC (signaling the end of an era) – much like the way it was shocking for NSYNC fans to hear “Like I Love You” while actively separating this 2.0 version of Timberlake from the young man who sang “Bye Bye Bye.” And those surprises were powerful because they kept listeners glued to his narrative, lest they be shocked again. Even though “Sexyback” went on to drive fans crazy – and empowered straight white men to get their dance on – 2006 Justin’s subsequent silence spurred calls for action which put him in another position of power.
Which is the formula Harry seems to be following…only better.
As One Direction began to wind down, Harry aligned himself with a particular image: he was a self-proclaimed feminist, friend of the Kardashian-Jenner clan, and enjoyed an affinity for Hedi Slimane-era Saint Laurent and Gucci, thus separating him from the rest of the band. He had long hair, he painted his nails, and he scored a role in a major motion picture (Note: Timberlake’s first movie was 2005’s Edison, which you have probably never seen), all without talking about his plans for solo stardom. He was JT circa 2011, before even hinting at a solo venture. That silence gave us nothing but time to project our own theories and beliefs – particularly in the wake of his AnOther Man feature, which teased vulnerability (like photographs of his belongings and an interview with Chelsea Handler), but in no way let us in.
Mainly, we have no idea who Harry Styles is just like we have no idea who Justin Timberlake is. But the difference is that Harry Styles is somehow doing early Justin better than early Justin.
Of course, if you’re not a One Direction fan, you’re probably ready to walk into the ocean upon thinking Harry Styles is a human artist you’ll have to care about in 2017.
Of course, if you’re not a One Direction fan, you’re probably ready to walk into the ocean upon thinking Harry Styles is a human artist you’ll have to care about in 2017. Maybe you’ve dismissed him based on your hatred of boy bands or because you didn’t like Zayn’s album or because you’ve seen pictures of Harry suspended on a crane. Maybe Harry doesn’t wear enough fedoras, or maybe you remember how many of those sassy hats Justin tricked you into buying.
But herein lies the point.
Once Justin Timberlake was just a dude from Orlando who fronted NSYNC. His hair was bleached and looked like dried noodles. Sometimes he wore cornrows, and most of the time his clothes weren’t great. But in 2017, his “Can’t Stop The Feeling” is still on the charts. When he shows up on Saturday Night Live, you tune in. He’s been in The Social Network and will star alongside Kate Winslet in a Woody Allen film this year. Enough people think Justin Timberlake is cool that he is allowed to keep working alongside very famous people.*
And you think Harry – who hangs with Cindy Crawford’s family and Adele and, and, and – can’t do the same? You’ll listen to “Sign of the Times” and, as you did with “Like I Love You,” you will probably hate yourself for loving it. Just like you glibly enjoy when you see Harry in Dunkirk and revel in knowing the boy can act, or when you see his upcoming crane video and think, ‘Well, sometimes a man just needs to fly through the air.’ Inevitably, you will when you realize you know next-to-nothing about him, but have bought into the image he’s selling.
At least you won’t have to wear any fedoras. The only hat Harry seems to like is a beret.