Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Is Harry Styles Destined For Mid-Level Pop Stardom?

Looks like it — and that's actually a good thing

The crisis in the U.K. that pundits warned about has come to pass, and now we're left to make sense of a world that has changed forever overnight. Yes, it's true: Harry Styles has reportedly signed a solo recording contract.

There was no surprise album drop, no secret single, not even any sign of a recording schedule — but there it was, all the same. The 1D member turned movie star seems to have confirmed his intentions to pursue what so many of us (but especially me, his most important fan) have been predicting for months: solo stardom. Rock and/or roll. The Justin Timberlake Special™, if you will.

Intriguingly, the reaction to Harry's big news hardly reached the levels of "oh shit!" we witnessed one year ago when his former bandmate, Zayn, signed a solo deal. Blame it on the U.K.’s actual, real-world combustion via Brexit, or on the fact that dear Hiddleswift were walking down so many beaches you could almost hear “Wind Beneath My Wings” in the distance — but the masses simply weren’t bothered. Frankly, Harry’s solo venture barely rated as much coverage and conversation as the release of a star's new clothing line or another teeny tiny revision to The Life of Pablo. The overwhelming feeling was: Oh, well, sure.

Because of course Harry Styles is going solo. Are you kidding me? Dude is a 22-year-old former member of the world’s biggest boy band. And with Backstreet Boys resurrecting (and recording with Florida Georgia Line?!) in the Year of Our Lord 2016, it would be concerning if Styles didn’t spread his wings and soar, strictly as a matter of cosmic boy-band balance. But there's one important catch: He's not aiming for an A-list, everywhere-all-the-time, superstar career in music. Harry Styles is destined to be a moderate musical star — and for that we should all be grateful.

Here’s the thing (and don’t get mad): Harry grew up in the limelight. He knows how the publicity game works, and he knows how to work the circuit. So it's no accident that he let word of his solo deal slip out quietly in the midst of a major world-historical event, all but guaranteeing it would receive no more than cursory coverage. I mean, we all talked about it, and we all cared. But then we went back to caring more about world politics and wondering why Tom Hiddleston is almost never, ever photographed wearing jeans. (Stay tuned for my next manifesto.) It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Styles meant for his latest move to feel like a blip among more pressing matters.

After all, he knows that he already got his big post-Direction headline after the announcement that he'd be acting in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. And you only get one big post-1D headline — one chance to tell the world you’ve got après-boy-band plans. Zayn chose solo stardom. Liam began dating an X-Factor judge. Louis had a baby. Niall ... I genuinely don’t know if Niall is even aware that he was ever in a band. And Harry cut off his hair to become a movie star.

Don't despair! This is a goddamned blessing — particularly since it means Harry's music will be received under a far subtler glare than Zayn's, which was analyzed like the subject of a senior thesis. Harry could have left 1D to try and become the next Mick Jagger, but he didn’t. Instead, he watched as Zayn took a year to write and record, live that solo life, and then, after tabloid headlines and scrutiny and Twitter wars and a public breakup, take a step back to reevaluate and chill (something that’s so smart and important). All the while, Harry built up his IMDb credits and wore chapeaus out in public, sending the message that music isn’t his first priority.

Isn't that what we want from him? Harry has never been 1D's thirstiest member (I’m sorry, Liam). Imagine how disappointed we would have been if his first move had been to ditch his Top 40 roots and declare himself a (wannabe) rock-and-roller, brandishing more scarves than all the members of the Hollywood Vampires combined. It would have been terrible. It would have been desperate. And it wouldn’t have been Harry. So he's taking his time.

This way, he gets way more creative freedom. By announcing his intent to go solo quietly, Harry eased the pressure on him to ultra-perform. Now he can just release the music he wants in a moderately chill fashion, instead of making a big creative statement. (He already made one: “I’m going to be in the pictures!”) Like any young musician starting a new chapter, he can make work that reflects his tastes and who he is and what he’s been through. And that's totally fine.

In the seven months since One Direction took what certainly seems to have been their last bow, Harry has been the member we’ve seen around least. He’s not on red carpets, he’s not out partying or Snapchatting or even tweeting. Instead, he’s on movie sets and running errands; he's pictured shopping, but never debuting those new clothes at star-studded events. His actions tell us that he wants his superstar days to be behind him. He wants to do his own thing, and he doesn’t want his celebrity to overshadow his product. If he did, he’d have declared himself a solo star in January, signing up to front some blockbuster we’d inevitably end up forgetting about.

Instead, he is just a boy standing front of the world, asking us to be cool with the choices he’s making with his professional life. By giving up any superstar agenda (for now, at least), he's probably settling for middling musical stardom. He already knows what being a mass phenomenon is like, and he's saying "nah." The dude just wants to make music, and also movies. He’s not campaigning for our approval, or even really trying to get our attention; he seems fine to blend in a bit. And that's something we should all be celebrating. If pop history has taught us anything, it's that some of the most creatively stimulating things happen when everyone’s looking the other way.

Movie & TV Awards 2018