A Harry Styles concert is about many things. It’s a shared experience, an opportunity to dress up in Harry-themed costumes, a chance to sing, or scream, along to a thoroughly eclectic mix of songs, it’s a chance to be with like-minded people. I’m just not sure it’s about the music.
The show started about an hour later than advertised; this was due partly to a bonus opening set featuring Ny Oh, a Kiwi multi-instrumentalist who happens, also, to play piano, keys, guitar, and of all things theremin, in Styles’ backing band. Wet Leg were the official opening act, and while they’re quite enjoyable, and clearly quite wonderfully, honestly, ingenuously delighted at being part of the Harry Styles Juggernaut, they struggled, even with their big hit Chaise Longue, to get much response out of an audience who really, truly, were there for one thing. I enjoyed their show; I don’t think they’re going to be huge, but they’re fun while they last. But I did feel a tad sorry for them when they got, for a live performance of a fairly big hit, a fraction of the crowd’s response compared to a One Direction song that played through the PA while the crew broke down Wet Leg’s stage kit. It must be tough playing to 50,000 people who are here to see someone else.
But really, this audience wasn’t here for Wet Leg. They were here for Harry. And so, after the now-standard Bohemian Rhapsody singalong, Styles kicked off. He sang, perfectly adequately, but the quality of his singing didn’t particularly matter. For much of the show, I could scarcely hear him sing; for many of the big choruses, like Love Of My Life, he simply pointed his mic to the crowd, realising that they were always going to be singing these songs louder than his amplifiers ever could make him.
As I’ve said, a Harry Styles show isn’t really about the music, although there was some decent music on offer last night. He’s released three albums now, and he’s yet to settle on a coherent musical style, or anything resembling a musical identity. His eponymous debut had an agreeable amount of glam-inflected pop rock, but he’s followed that up with a couple of significantly more anonymous records, and while the hits—the Watermelon Sugars, the As It Wases, have a bit of personality to them, much of his set was fairly anodyne, perfectly polite but ultimately unremarkable, very well-presented pop.
Songs like Matilda, sung at the end of a quite long runway with Ny Oh on guitar and Elon Sandberg on bass, was pleasingly affecting, but it, as other big songs did, became more a chance for the audience to take over, turning this into the most expensive mass karaoke session I’ve ever attended, and leaving Styles as his own backing singer for much of the show. The young women in front of me videoing the video screens flanking the stage pretty much turned their backs on the actual Styles, preferring to video the video images of him on the giant screens. This wasn’t about enjoying a singer performing a song; this was about being there, and documenting it.
Which is a shame, because there were moments—fewer than I’d have liked, but they were there—when Styles put on a good show. Woman was the longest song of the night, with Mitchell Rowland cranking out a heavily Prince-inspired guitar solo; he also managed to find a little more rock edge in the One Direction hit That’s What Makes You Beautiful than the original ever had.
But it was the encore that soared. The main set, all 75 minutes of it, was fine, but the four songs of Styles’ encore were by far the highlight. Kiwi, with a teaser of an opener that Styles milks just a tad too far, was always going to be a monster highlight at the one show in Aotearoa, the Auckland—”and surrouding areas”—date. But Sign Of The Times, which for some reason will always remind me of David Bowie’s Life On Mars, remains an intriguing hint of a direction I think I’d like Styles to head in. And sandwiched between that and As It Was, itself shamelessly ripped off from A-Ha’s Take On Me, was Medicine.
Such is the devotion of Harry fans that even though this song has never officially been released—studio out-takes and live bootlegs are the only forms it exists in publicly—it got perhaps the biggest cheer of the night, and a word-for-word singalong from the boa-draped hardcore fans. And, like Kiwi, it’s a fairly straight-ahead rocker, driven by Rowland’s lead guitar, and, like Sign Of The Times, it’s a direction Styles really might want to explore further.
But last night it was pure fan service. Just like the reading of the various signs fans were holding up—his favourite, “I sold our cat’s leg to be here,” was met with a reply of “I have no idea where to go next with that, Auckland”—just like the singalong of “She’s dressed as a banana,” which I’m reliably informed is a long-standing in-joke for Harry fans, just like Styles calling “Tūtira mai e ngā iwi,” to which the entire audience responded, in full—”It’s longer than I was told it was”—twice. He’s a showman, he knows his audience, he knows what they’re there for, and he absolutely gives them what they want.
It’s just not always the music.