In her Fans to the Front column, Brittany Spanos dives into what's happening in fan culture on the Internet.
For most of the week — and even months — leading up to Saturday Night Live, Harry Styles went unseen. Outside of 30 Rock last week, where fans began lining up on Tuesday to nab standby tickets for the show on Saturday morning, they only had a slim chance of even attending the show that night. But what was most perplexing to those fans on the sidewalk was that they never got more than just a glimpse of his silhouette in an Escalade as it entered the parking garage for show rehearsals.
Styles makes a point to address his desire for mystery in his recent Rolling Stone cover story, an admirable goal for someone whose every move has been documented on Twitter, Tumblr and group chats around the world for years. His hotel information and flight times were plastered across accounts whenever he would tour with One Direction or even take a vacation. According to a few fans, he had put up decoy hotel reservations around Manhattan this time around, and not a single fan photo of him had been taken at a restaurant or bar or on the streets of New York City.
To be fair, Styles has always been more of a closed book about his relationships and private life than the rest of his bandmates. He's spoken very little about his dating life, often using gender neutral pronouns in a move that has encouraged many fans to believe he is queer, at the very least. Conspiracies and opinions on his sexuality have been tossed around since he lived with bandmate Louis Tomlinson following The X-Factor, leading to fanfiction, art and the blurred lines between allyship/support with a dangerous desire for public and forced outing.
Honesty is, above all else, the most make-or-break aspect of any fandom. Fan reaction was positive to "Sign of the Times," mostly because the sound they heard felt like a genuine expression of the Harry they've studied: a woke, Seventies-loving rock singer with no qualms about defying bro-y masculinity. Bathing in millennial-pink water on his album cover further encapsulated what they loved and desired from Styles as a beacon of pop's gender-bending future, though he's currently playing it much safer than David Bowie and Prince before him.
For the fans who had felt like he had dropped breadcrumbs when he was finally spotted in New York wearing a rainbow flag pin or the more feminine style direction of his album rollout, any mention of women and celebrity exes in his first interview as a solo artist felt like a betrayal. In the space of mystery, the fiction of Harry Styles had become canon. In many ways, this is one of the most difficult aspects of celebrity, in-depth profiles in the Internet fandom age in which the curated idea of an artist by their fans reigns supreme over an outsider's perspective on time shared with them.
"I think negative fan reaction is a combination of expectations going into the piece that aren't met and projections of what people think, or want him to address, such as his sexuality," says 23-year-old fan Allyson Gross, who runs a forum for adult One Direction fans. "[There's] dissatisfaction with what's actually said that doesn't align with those expectations or projections. Fandom reaction to profiles of their fan subjects is only ever half in response to what's actually on the page."
That being said, in some ways a new Styles was born over the last week. The fans outside of SNL were happy to show their support and create one of the show's longest standby lines in recent history for the singer. For the more casual Directioner, Styles' validation of his young female fans felt like a coup of post-Justin Timberlake image destruction for male pop stars who desperately want to shake their teen past and appeal to a broader, more adult audience. The charming and sweet Styles that fans had known for years – and helped make famous – finally reached beyond the communities made online, at concerts or even while sleeping on the streets to catch his first performance as a solo artist. For many, hearing new music from a pop star whose boy band's discography they were most likely unfamiliar with gave a glimpse at a mature, rising star.
Styles could easily and safely tuck himself back away from the spotlight, engaging and relishing in his more mysterious, discrete lifestyle away. There's a fandom fear there that what they hear from Styles ahead of the album could be less and less as he lets the music speak for itself. However, doing exactly that could be an iconic, unprecedented move for a massive celebrity about to launch a new career outside of what made them initially famous, a move that Styles may be most equipped to achieve.