In 2014, Harry Styles is more than a pop star. He’s the place where pop dreams intersect. The One Direction heartthrob has turned into the beatific embodiment of all that glitters right now. A new paradigm of manhood. A pin-up boy. A feminist icon. A 20-year-old pop prince born the day Green Day released Dookie. A mop-top with George Michael lyrics tattooed on his body — “never gonna” on his right foot, “dance again” on the left. A stud with four nipples, perpetually tousled hair and that James Dean daydream look in his eyes. This guy actually wore a Rush T-shirt while on a date with Taylor Swift — now that’s some next-level confidence.
Pop is a girl’s world these days — more than ever, the artists who matter are female, while the male singers are as disposable as the male fans. Harry understands this, which is why he has become the Boy Who Matters. He knows he serves at the pleasure of a girl audience that absolutely cannot be bought, scammed, condescended to or taken for granted. (It’s been tried.) If you’re a girl pop fan, you are the only power player in the music business. Everybody else is scared stiff of you. As far as pop is concerned, 2014 is the Year of the Girl, and Harry is the Boy of the Year of the Girl. Nobody else comes close.
Harry fits every type of pop obsession, from filthy fan-fiction to squeaky-clean teen dreams — the shiny and the sleazy, the romance and the raunch. When the world beheld paparazzi photos of Harry puking his guts out by the side of the road in broad daylight in L.A., did that kill anyone’s buzz? Ah, no. It just inspired people to turn the site into a fan shrine — and try to sell his vomit on eBay. Harry’s reponse? “It’s worrying, this world we live in.” Sorry, dude — but when women are worshipping your yack puddle as magic angel chunks, you have entered a rarefied level of reality.
Harry’s enthusiasm is the key to 1D’s astonishing longevity. He spends half the live show telling his fans how beautiful they are, despite the fact that he’s got all those blinding lights in his face. Try to find a photo where he looks weary or bored. You can’t. He has perfected the art of being a boy in a girl world, and he doesn’t neglect the fans’ moms, either. The best song on the new 1D album, “Stockholm Syndrome,” sounds exactly like Billy Ocean — now that’s some brilliant mom-service.
His tattoos add up to an ongoing diary. The tattoo on his wrist that said, “I can’t change”? He got it covered up with an anchor. (Analyze away!) Every time he gets new ink — a mermaid, “You Booze You Lose,” that weird foliage on his hipbones — it’s a fresh chapter, full of mystic runes for us all to decipher. (Why a mermaid? “I am a mermaid,” he explained. Oh.)
After a year or two on the job, your average teen idol tends to turn into a jaded little crank. You remember Justin Bieber, don’t you? It’s hard to appreciate how much boy singers hate being in boy bands. By the third or fourth album, they’re making no effort to hide their misery. (A year after “I Want It That Way,” the Backstreet Boys called their next album Black and Blue.) They agonize about getting taken seriously. They make award-show speeches about their haters.
But not Harry. The strain of the pop hustle never leaves a mark on him. He has all the flash, without the neurotic wear and tear. This fall he posted a picture of himself holding a “#HeForShe” sign, supporting Emma Watson’s feminist activism — “as should you.” None of the squeamishness celebs usually bring to politics — just the world’s most ardently desired male going HAM for feminism just because he’s Harry and he can say whatever the hell he wants. Unprecedented, to say the least.
There was a clip of Harry on a U.K. chat show a couple months ago — did you watch it? Oh, stop lying, of course you did — the one where he and Liam get asked what they look for in a date. Liam jokes, “Female — that’s an important trait.” Harry casually says, “Not that important.” We can make a long, long list of male singers who would never in a million years be secure enough to say anything like that. But Harry the Quadri-Nippled Love God lives by the credo tattooed on his stomach: “Might as well.”
No pop star has summed up the cultural moment like this since vintage python-era Britney. Except Brit was an unfiltered-and-proud mess of a Southern girl, while Harry is pure enigma. If he has any inner turmoil, he keeps it to himself. He remains a blank space (so to speak) on which we can project any style (so again to speak) of fantasy. He’s the last of the great English fabs, upholding a 50-year tradition. Yet the more famous he gets, the more mysterious he seems. He just glides through it all, with a hint of Brian Jones lunacy in his cracked grin.
He’s inspired a new novel — Anna Todd’s heavily hyped After is based on her soft-porn Harry fan-fic, with his name changed. It might be the first work of Harry Lit — but that depends on how you interpret Shakespeare’s Henry V, which now also reads like soft-porn Harry fan-fic. (“Every wretch, pining and pale before / Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks / A largess universal, like the sun.”) Make no mistake: There’s only one Harry in this or any other solar system. And in 2014, anything worthy of the name “hotness” was mixed up with him somehow. That’s why Harry’s reinventing the pop-star game. And that’s why the whole world craves a little touch of Harry in the night.