How Harry Styles Is Outsmarting the Pop Game

His recent moves position him as a peer to Justin Bieber and Drake

On Friday, we’ll have our first real taste of solo Harry Styles. The former One Direction member announced the forthcoming “Sign of the Times” via Instagram this past Friday, raising several questions — like, “Is this a single or an album?” (a single), and, “Is he sitting in a large puddle or in the shallow part of a lake?” (maybe both), and, “Is this a Prince cover?” (we wish).

But it also raised the most important question of all: Is Harry Styles the pettiest dude in the game?


Earlier in the month, Harry opted to issue the first teaser of his own solo venture on the one-year anniversary of Zayn’s Mind of Mine (also the two-year anniversary of Zayn’s 1D departure). The teaser clip, which aired in the U.K., offered the April 7 drop date along with a few piano notes. Though minimal, it effectively cemented the sense that Harry was usurping March 25 as his own date of relevance.

Which is a genius move, particularly if he’s hoping to commandeer the limelight from his former bandmates while rebranding himself as a grown-ass man. The Harry Styles of yore may have established himself as a beautiful cinnamon roll too pure for this world, but his solo rebrand calls for a departure from his former self. In 2017, he’s not surrounded by four young lads catering to an adoring fan base. He’s an adult solo artist, competing with record-breaking acts like Drake and Justin Bieber — men who’ve perfected the art of pettiness as a pop strategy.

As both of them have shown in recent years, the perception of pettiness breeds controversy, which leads to more coverage and critical analysis — all of which ultimately highlights the artist's individual impact on the pop world. For instance: “Love Yourself” is very catchy, but it’s also a shade anthem, which creates a lot of room to project and assume and read into and generally think about Justin Bieber. The pettiness is key to its success.

Similarly, while “Sign of the Times” is already likely to be one of the biggest songs of the year based on numbers alone, Harry knows he has to play the game to remain creatively relevant. He has to break from the past and prove he belongs among giants.

And that means no more Mr. Nice Guy.

So it makes sense that Harry’s announcement just happened to fall on the same day that Zayn and 1D fans would be celebrating and/or mourning another milestone. And it makes even more sense that he upped the petty ante to do it on the same day Liam Payne announced the birth of his son with girlfriend Cheryl. (Ruthless. I mean, let the man have a day to revel in being a dad, dude! But also: Here we are talking about how ruthless that timing was, and thereby talking about Harry's single.)

Plus, there’s the title. “Sign of the Times” shares its name with Prince’s iconic Sign 'O' the Times, which celebrated its 30th anniversary the same day as Harry's Instagram announcement.

Which could be another coincidence, unless it's cheekily alluding to the notion of Harry as a potential heir to Prince — a suggestion requiring “Last name Ever, first name Greatest” levels of self-assuredness. A move like that would be brash and bold, a far cry from the teenager who used a moment in 1D doc This Is Us to claim he hated the word “famous.” It would be unexpected and provocative, and would send the message that this is not last year's Harry.

So the question remains: Is this all part of Harry’s plan? Is he intentionally trying to wrest the spotlight from his former bandmates, despite Zayn happily venturing down his own heavy-breathing musical path that in no way includes tracks that can be “likened to Queen”? Is there a chance he genuinely didn’t know about that Prince album or any of those timing coincidences? Or, just maybe, are we watching Harry Styles masterfully changing the conversation?

It's worth recalling that true pettiness in the pop realm is best used by solo artists. Pettiness within a group connotes infighting and leads to breakup rumors, which detract from the music, the group’s message, and/or everything other than theories as to when the group is going to break up. As One Direction was winding down, we fixated on their collective dynamic and zeroed in on their existing relationships with one another. But then, after suddenly quitting, Zayn flew his petty flag high, fighting with Louis (and later Naughty Boy) on Twitter and going on record about having always wanted to leave the band.

And that made his solo work even more intriguing. It made us wonder who Zayn 2.0 was going to be, and how revolutionary and different his solo work might sound. His pettiness helped make him a legitimate talking point outside the One Direction umbrella. He wasn’t Drake (no one can be), but he was definitely kind of petty — and that helped make sure we saw him as someone interesting.

And a masterminding Harry Styles would be extremely interesting, especially since his apparent pettiness isn’t directed at fans (whom he’s always respected and valued), but at his musical peers. If his music stands up, said pettiness will be just one of the signs that he's on par with our era’s best solo artists.

And if it doesn’t? Well … we’ll always have Dunkirk.