Music by VICE

The Unbearable Silence of Harry Styles

Over the past few years, pop's number one marketing tool has been one that says nothing at all.

by Daisy Jones
Nov 2 2016, 5:07pm

I'm going to come out and say it: Harry Styles is the most good looking man to have ever graced this planet. He looks like a young Mick Jagger, but more chiselled and Northern. His hair looks like it was crafted by angels, even when he scrapes it into a greasy man bun. He makes floral flared suits look cute instead of gross. Have you seen his Another Man spread? Have you witnessed the glory that is Harry Styles in a 90s-style BDSM choker, smouldering down the lens of Willy Vanderperre's camera? As one grown-ass human put it to Noisey, "No man that I will ever see will compare to him… Harry Styles has become the benchmark for any man in my life."

Yet as much as the aforementioned is true – and as much as Harry is brimming with both magnetism and vocal talent – I would like to pose an important question: ​Has he ever said anything? And I'm not referring to him melding a stream of syllables together in the hope they resemble a sentence. I mean, can you recall him sharing an opinion, or a revealing anecdote, or anything of note at all? Because after scrolling through his social media, and watching him closely in interviews (yes I have a lot of time on my hands), the most interesting thing about Harry Styles is that there's a big old abyss of nothingness right at the heart of his fame.

Pick through any of Styles' feeds, and you will find nothing but a bleak and empty chasm. His Instagram (which has 20 million followers) is full of black and white photographs of empty chairs, or distant trees, or condensation glistening on a window, or actual blank squares – all with millions of likes and comments. When he posts photos of himself (which he does maybe once a year) he rarely shows his face. Instead, we are offered a glimpse of his mouth, or his boots, or the back of his head. It could be anyone, but we know it is Harry Styles, and we believe he has offered us a snapshot into his life. Every post tantalisingly hints at some form of insight or human connection, yet it rarely ever delivers.

Of course, we've seen something similar to this tactic before. The art of holding back has long been at the heart of many huge popstars' successes. In a New York Times article from last year, titled "Beyoncé is Seen but Not Heard", Matthew Schneier noted that Beyonce had not uttered a single word since 2013, after promptly obliterating her Twitter. "If she is avoiding the news media, it is not avoiding her," Schneier writes. And then there was Frank Ocean, who notoriously left us all hanging for four excruciating years. When his album finally arrived, it felt like being offered a glimpse inside the walls of his heart and soul, which he had cracked wide open for us. But something about Styles feels different to all this – because when Beyonce and Frank wanted to speak, they spoke.

Even in interviews, Styles has given us zilch of note. In a 2013 cover feature for GQ, widely considered One Direction's most controversial to date, the writer gets two 15-minute slots with the band. For an uncomfortable few moments, he fires intrusive questions at Styles, who expertly dodges them like bullets before disappearing completely. This year, when Another Man unveiled three separate covers for their coveted September issue – each fronted by Styles in a different hairstyle and outfit – it felt particularly exciting. His decision to go with a niche magazine suggested he was an artist who wanted to maintain (or create) some artistic integrity and construct a certain image. But the interview itself – which saw him in conversation with Paul McCartney and Chelsea Handler – somehow revealed absolutely nothing we didn't already know.

"If One Direction have ambitions to broaden their audience they are going to have to learn to reveal more of themselves – or be allowed to," concluded the writer who spoke to them for GQ in 2013, before throwing a little shade: "[It] makes any journalist wonder whether the talent has something to hide or, in fact, nothing to give."

"For the most part, holding back from the press is about control," begins music mega-publicist Simon Jones, who has worked with everyone from One Direction to Little Mix. "I think that's one of the reasons why big artists do that – they're probably just sick of being misrepresented. And if you're as big as someone like Beyonce or Adele or Frank Ocean, you can afford that luxury, because no one's going to forget about you if you don't talk."

I ask Jones whether actually holding back from revealing any personal opinion or anything of substance can ever be beneficial for huge popstars? "We never sit down with people and say 'don't have an opinion or be interesting' because that doesn't make them a very exciting pop prospect," he tells me. "However, what I will say is that the general rule of thumb is to steer clear from talking about politics because you're never going to win. Politics is divisive, and 50 percent of people are going to feel one way, and 50 percent are going to feel another. So if you have a particular opinion about something, you're instantly alienating 50 percent of those people… it often backfires."

In the months since One Direction's indefinite "hiatus", each member has opened the curtains a little wider. Louis posts pictures of his baby son on Instagram. Liam fires off on Twitter every time something pisses him off. Zayn has spoken in interviews about everything from his struggles with anxiety to his Muslim faith. And Niall... well at the least he has shown up on numerous chat shows to promote his new single.​ But still, Harry Styles is the one people want to know about, but who reveals the absolute least. He has released no music, made no TV appearances, and largely avoided social media. All we know is that he's working towards a debut solo album, and in 2017, he will star in Christopher Nolan's war film Dunkirk. His six-year semi-silence therefore has a motivation, but until then, he remains a total mystery. So what gives?

Dr Kirsty Fairclough, a Senior Lecturer in Media and Performance, thinks Harry's lack of words is nothing new. "In an age of oversharing, when we know whether a celebrity is having a bath, or what they're eating for dinner, holding back is considered distinctive and interesting," she explains, "But it's also nothing new – in fact, it's as old as the hills! For me, Prince was the ultimate curator of enigma. He didn't do interviews very often, he was very reclusive, and it's almost as if Styles is adopting elements of that in order to differentiate himself from the rest of the average heartthrobs out there, and to create a similar level of heightened interest. His social media is so carefully curated, isn't it? There's not much there, and if you look at his profile pic on Twitter, it's just him with a camera pointing back right at you, which says a lot about where he is right now… I'm pretty cynical about the whole thing, but clearly it's working for him."

What Fairlough seems to be hinting at, is that while Prince, Ocean or Beyonce's silence felt authentic or legitimised, Harry's is more like a meticulously crafted marketing technique inspired by icons of intrigue. Beyonce recoiled from the press following her huge fifth album, bolstered by an aggressive invasion of privacy which saw that infamous elevator footage sold to the press. Frank Ocean's prolonged silence felt more like an introvert garnering the space he needed to create another masterpiece. In Fairlough's words, "It was almost about maintaining a sense of artistic integrity, in the sense that it's like 'I'm an artist, I'm authentic, I will give you the music when I want to.'"

Of course, amidst all this speculation, it is very possible that Harry Styles doesn't say anything because, well, he has nothing interesting to say. Perhaps if he opened his mouth and shared his innermost thoughts and feelings with the masses, we might discover that he's just as basic as the rest of us; that he likes watching Gogglebox, or singing out loud to Coldplay in the car, or having a sangria with his nan. Alternatively, maybe he just doesn't feel the need to go all meaningful on our asses. Whatever he's doing is working just fine, and he doesn't owe us anything. He's Harry Styles – what more does a person need?

But for a game of intrigue and mystery to pay off, there needs to be substance at the end of the rainbow. Prince gave us Purple Rain, Beyonce gave us Lemonade, Ocean gave us Blond(e), and while I'm not saying that Harry needs to present the public with an unparalleled masterpiece in order to legitimise six years of smoke and mirrors, only time will tell whether he is art's most interesting new saviour, or just another ex-boy band member hoping to shrug off his past.

You can follow Daisy on Twitter​.

(Lead image via YouTube​)​