I Stan A Legend of The Joyful Jet Engine
(Or: Dame Sophie Gets Religion, Sort Of, At A Harry Styles Concert)
I can’t count the number of times I heard someone yelling “I LOVE YOU!!!!” at the top of their lungs last Friday night. There were at least 15,000 of us there in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo arena, howling our joy the entire time. When we weren’t singing along or laughing at Harry’s goofy, charming stage banter, we were all screaming: I love you! I love you so much! Oh my god, why are you like this? King of suits! Yes, Make America Gay Again! I love YOUUUUU!!!!!
Who were we screaming our love at? It wasn’t only at Harry Styles, Actual Person, or to the stage iteration of Harry Styles, Famous Person. We were screaming it to each other, to ourselves, to people not present who we wish were present. This is why we scream at pop stars. We need to take our emotions and put them somewhere, we need to barbarically yawp our way to some kind of understanding. It was so much fun, and it was profoundly moving. People (ok, mostly men, and specifically: men holding onto some amount of cultural currency they want to hoard like dragons) like to mock pop music and what it means, but I will tell you and Rob Sheffield will back me up here: it’s transformative as hell.
When I first started hollering writing for this newsletter about Harry Styles and One Direction, it was the dawn of the current presidential administration here in the US of A. I was nauseated all the time. I couldn’t believe we had gotten ourselves into this xenophobic, misogynistic, queerphobic, racist pickle, but there we were, and there on the radio, serendipitously on the way home from school drop-off one morning in February, was “Story of My Life”. I’d heard it plenty of times before, but here’s how this listen was different from all other listens: hearing these young men singing about their delicate, soft & loving feelings cracked open something I must have been guarding in my heart, and out flowed love. Right place, right time, BAM, I was a convert.
Which makes perfect sense to me, a non-religious person who cares a lot about religion. Much like rock & roll, religion can be so messed-up, and at the same time, it contains and organizes and directs our baser impulses towards something bigger than ourselves, something divine. We’re inclined by those same impulses to make meaning out of all sorts of personal and collective experiences, and we’re promiscuous about it -- one may be quite devout or observant or just passionately believing in a religious tradition and still be seeking ways to experience similar ecstasies and purpose in other areas. Because lots of people pooh-pooh or politely ignore pop music, it’s a place where the expertise of girls & women is allowed to flourish and become the highest currency, and every night on this tour, we throw those ducats around like our lives depend on it. Right now, maybe they do.
We go to see Harry to be him, to soak up his mastery & prancing, preening, self-deprecating, silly stage prowess. In an engine-revving bit of theatrical business, we summon him to the stage with our screaming; a tease between the audience of believers and the performer-priest, who is also a bunch of other things: sex symbol, a goofball so hammy that I predict he’ll spearhead a revival of Catskills resorts before he’s through, and super-professional summoner of joy. We are his supplicants and the subjects of his songs. The songs are about specific people, but we generalize them to ourselves, and then sing them back to him, with him, transubstantiating ourselves into him. We study his fashion choices and admire them and make them our own and lovingly mock them.
The set list, particularly at this early point in his career -- “I only have ten songs! Don’t worry, I’m going to play them all!” -- is as established as the synagogue services of my youth, leading us through its sections in a pleasingly predictable sequence. We holler & scream & shush & croon right along on cue. We hold aloft our flashlight phones. We document all our favorite moments, for a whole bunch of reasons: our shaky, emoji-laden videos let us brag a bit, let us share the experience with those near & far, to confirm we really saw what we think we saw, to lay claim to a performance, to make space for ourselves IN the performance, to influence the performance and its history, to place ourselves AS the performer, and as the performer’s fans. To receive his love and to howl our love at him. To help him construct and refine and reify his own public persona & to do the same for our own. Fundamentally, to organize our time with our friends as our precious weirdo darling spouts water and prowls the stage in a neverending sequence of custom suits.
As 2017 ticked forward, Harry released “Sign of the Times” and then his first solo album and I found myself in one Harry-centric group DM & then another, and by June we’d merged into one solid daily chat, talking about our jobs and social lives and, of course, One Direction. One year later -- today! -- we met for brunch in Manhattan: a group of ten from around the US & the UK, and one wonderful member from Malaysia, who we video chatted in at midnight her time (and whose work you may recall from these very pixel pages last summer). A roving, global chapter of The International Society of Harryologists, we met and hollered our joy over waffles.
Is there anything more pure, more sacred, than this type of friendship? How blessed are we here in this fellowship that knows no geography and thrives on loving critique? This is the ultimate outcome of Harry’s directive at every show to be exactly what we want to be in this room tonight. We take that room with us everywhere we go, and do what we want: to be friends, to howl our delight & joy into the night, to make meaning out of everything around us, to drink deeply of the cup of friendship & to let it restore us.
Every night, at the end of the as-yet live-only number “Oh, Anna”, Harry interpolates a bit of one of George Michael’s first solo hits, repeating “I think it would be nice, if I could touch your body!” What’s implied is that, as the title of that great song reminds us, we just gotta have faith. In ourselves, in our friends, yes, in our pop stars, and in what we can do & make in this stupid, cruel, hurting, beautiful, lovable world we just cannot, must not, shall not quit.