Hits And Misses: Harry Styles’s ‘Sign Of The Times,’ Halsey, Calvin Harris, And So Much More
When the stars and planets align, MTV’s writers and critics assemble to weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop-music landscape. Welcome to Hits and Misses. This week's roundtable includes Anne T. Donahue, Crystal Bell, Doreen St. Félix, Sasha Geffen, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Tirhakah Love, Meredith Graves, Hilary Hughes, Charles Aaron, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Donahue: I haven't been so here for something since seeing Skeet Ulrich on Riverdale. I know it’s not Queenesque (which we’ve been promised by Styles Camp™ “insiders”), but Harry’s clearly used the year to work on his voice — which, for the record, sounds like the love child of young Bowie, George Michael, and Elton John. That ending! Whether he can nail it live remains to be seen, but I felt like the GIF of the America’s Next Top Model contestant fist-pumping with heart when I heard it.
Vozick-Levinson: First I was like, "How did Harry read my mind," then I was like, "Oh, right, everyone is close to tears because the world is ending again and history has done nothing to diminish the human capacity for cruelty." Great pop songs are always on time. This is a very nice example of what that means — it's a little derivative in places (we been here before), but right now that feels reassuring. My favorite '70s rock reference is the "Jealous Guy" pianos.
Donahue: YES! Simon, exactly. I mean, could it have been 30 seconds shorter? For sure. But! It captures the year’s feeling of bleakness in a really beautiful way — there’s this urgency in it. But not desperation. If that makes sense.
Bell: Hi! Directioner here, as in "I've paid to see One Direction in concert twice" and "I cried when Harry cried in the ITV documentary One Direction: A Year in the Making." So when I tell you that I've already listened to "Sign of the Times" 15 times this morning, I am not exaggerating. Harry’s rock-and-roll image has always been at odds with his sensitive soul, but this song is a perfect amalgamation of the two. This is a dystopian power ballad packed with hope, and it makes me feel like I am flying 50 feet in the air, floating among the clouds with Harry and his Michael Myers mask-wearing body double. I honestly can't wait to see this performed live. (My first thought upon listening to “Sign of the Times” was, I wish I could build a time machine so that Harry could perform this at Live Aid in 1985.) So, yeah, just take all of my money, Harry.
Donahue: Crystal, I will see you there — both in 1985 and at each and every one of his solo shows.
Hughes: BEHOLD, THE MUSICAL HEIR OF ROBBIE WILLIAMS. I am here for this, though I’m surprised that Styles is slow-dancing into his spotlight instead of sprinting into it on the heels of a pop-rock burst. As excited as I am to watch him grow into his own and fully unfurl his wings and all that — and as enjoyable as it is to swoon through “Sign of the Times” — I kind of wanted more from his first solo showing. I like this, but there's a slight disappointment rooted in how it immediately sounds like it could’ve been a single with someone else’s name on it — and, yeah, one Williams could’ve picked up a decade ago — as opposed to a sure-footed debut. That said, I’m eager to hear the rest of the record, I can’t wait for his SNL performance on April 15, and I’m optimistic that “Sign of the Times” is a sign of better things to come.
Geffen: Between "Sign of the Times" and "Green Light," the power ballad seems to be having a moment this year. Harry's debut is probably the least cynical pop song I've heard in years; his vocal charisma is on full display, from the belts to the falsetto whispers, and he's using it to guide us open-heartedly through the crushing anxiety of living in the world in 2017. It's no "Five Years," but it does hit some of the same apocalyptic emotional notes. Like Bowie, Harry's impulse upon seeing the bombs fall is to open up and relish whatever time for companionship and closeness we've got left. We can't "get away" — not off this planet, not yet — but we can talk to each other a little more, hug our buds a little closer. Or we can curl up and cry about our own powerlessness. "Sign of the Times" leaves enough room for us to feel just about however we want to feel without judgment.
Halsey, “Now or Never”
Vozick-Levinson: I can't unhear the stylistic similarities that many have noted to Rihanna's "Needed Me" — however, "Needed Me" rules, and I'm actually fine with more pop songs that sound kind of like it. Another thing I enjoy is Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, and clearly Halsey does as well, and that too is cool with me.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I so wish that I found Halsey’s music as interesting as the things that kind of surround her, or the writing about her, or even the persona that she seems to carry. I think this song is slightly less boring than a lot of the stuff on Badlands, but the chorus still feels a bit tedious and heavy, like the way a soaked shirt sits on your body in summer. The song (or at least the video for it) feels like a little too much work. I always feel like I’m waiting for Halsey to figure it out, and I’m still not even entirely sure what the “it” is.
Aaron: For all the pre-album mystery and folderol, this turns out to be a pleasantly rhythmic pop song that never really elevates. I completely agree with Hanif about the trappings around her — I bet Halsey would be a lark of an interview, if you didn’t have to talk about her music too much. The “New Americana” video was a Hunger Games epic, and this Romeo + Juliet pageant ends up in a bloody barrage of gunfire, as if Halsey wants her fans to see her as a larger-than-life avenging warrior of love who is willing to fight to the death for whatevs. Godspeed, young Halsey.
Mary J. Blige feat. Kanye West, “Love Yourself”
Love: Since the turn of the decade, it’s fair to say Mary's been a little too far out for my sensibilities. For millennials, who have mostly recognized her recently in GIF or meme form, her expansive vocal-emotional range is still a bit of a mystery. If her last album, 2014’s The London Sessions, was meant to suggest a more electro-soul turn akin to the modern genre’s blue-eyed stepchildren across the sea, then I’d like to believe the big-band theatricality of “Love Yourself” represents a Mary J. that’s cooled off the hokey persona and turned up on soul. DJ Camper’s smoky, brass-charged beat — ripped straight from The SCLC Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir’s 1970s delight “Nobody Knows” — is perfectly paced for Blige and ’Ye’s thumbing through dusty photo albums. The best times might be long gone, but “Love Yourself” never feels like it’s completely living in the past. Instead, it works as a worthwhile reintroduction to Blige’s indelible vocal charm and an appetizer for the upcoming album.
Aaron: The production is grandiose and muscular, and Mary J. vamps with composed majesty. But for a five-minute spectacle — including Kanye’s boisterous verse — the song is mostly just an amped-up loop that works like an extended prelude, then it’s over. It definitely leaves you wanting more, but not with any particular urgency.
Vozick-Levinson: I like the power move of making a song called "Love Yourself," like that other passive-aggressive worldwide hit didn't happen. I like Kanye's opening couplet rhyming "handicap" with "and he rap," like the 13 years since The College Dropout didn't happen. And I love Mary's voice, always. That's enough for me.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I love this Mary, the one who feels like she is delivering an urgent sermon to the church. I could, honestly, do without Kanye’s verse here. I would like to unpack that line about using his color as a handicap. I would like to sit down with him and ask him, directly, what he meant to say there, and if he understands the intersections of race and class. I would like to do this while Mary stood beside us, singing ad-libs of the conversation. Anyway, this song is very good and the new Mary album is going to save me.
Calvin Harris feat. Young Thug, Ariana Grande, and Pharrell, “Heatstroke”
Graves: I wanted to write about just how much Ariana sounds like “Runaway”-era Janet Jackson (as this is apparently the week in which I Can Only Compare Things To Other Things). I really did, I promise. But then I heard Thug say “She’s got every red bottom, like a baboon”… I wasn’t sure anything could top his disturbingly earnest croon of “Get behind her, put it in her butt” on “Kanye West,” but as far as Young Thug Butt Lyrics go, the baboon thing is pretty awesome.
St. Félix: I like this track, which sounds like a Black Eyed Peas outtake, much less than "Slide." There's something about the Frank Ocean/Migos synergy that is way more complementary and/or surprising than Thug/Pharrell/Ariana. Each of their contributions literally sounds cut-and-pasted to a sum effect that falls short of what is clearly Harris's intent: an appealing, sun-drenched summer anthem. Or maybe it's just been raining for days and I'm a grump.
Aaron: The main debate around this song is that Young Thug doesn’t really sound like Young Thug and the fact that he can rap in less of a garbled, nodded-out glurp means that the Trap Emperor, er, Has No Clothes? Or is no longer interesting on a psycholinguistic level? Beats me. Really, it just shows Jeffery’s bespoken multitudes. And while Meredith’s right about Ariana breezily evoking Ms. Jackson, it feels like Calvin Harris is phoning this one in to the waterpark. See ya on the tornado-themed slide near you, regardless.
Vozick-Levinson: Look, it's not "Slide," but neither are most songs. The bigger problem is that it's not "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" either, nor is it "Get Lucky," despite Calvin's valiant efforts to Frankenstein the two feel-good summer hits into one even feel-good-ier summer hit. Instead he made the totally acceptable but not especially memorable piña colada someone hands you at a backyard party.
Broken Social Scene, “Halfway Home”
Graves: There’s such a discrepancy between how this song sounds, as per the link above, and how this song looks when it’s being performed. The unavoidable flattening inherent to the mixing process defies the very real magic of BSS. That’s most of the joy when it comes to these gigantic, party-size, usually Canadian "family bands" — it takes a proverbial village and an unbelievable amount of coordination to make something that sounds so, dare I say, shambolic, and that means more, and sounds different, when you see how it unfolds in real time.
Vozick-Levinson: It's true that Broken Social Scene are at their most magical when they're together onstage — I can think of two separate BSS concerts, four years apart, that are among my favorites ever by anyone. But there's something so richly rewarding for me about hearing them mixed down in the studio muck again, too. The refrain soars and sighs like Kevin Drew's best; the horn blasts at the end sound like someone spilled coffee on half of the sheet music for "It's All Gonna Break" and they decided to just go with it. That quality — the drive to keep going even when everything's kind of a mess — is Broken Social Scene's defining gift to the world, and "Halfway Home" has it. I absolutely cannot wait for their next tour.
Bleachers, “Don’t Take the Money”
Graves: I’m imagining a future where Bleachers becomes the 2017 answer to Genesis. Something about this rings of, like, a scratch track from the "No Reply at All" era — maybe it’s my need to hear Phil Collins wail these lyrics full-on, maybe it’s just that I want to hear those toms played by an incredibly epic drummer instead of a drum machine. When I am president, drum machines will be reserved for Steve Albini and rap guys (and Grimes) exclusively.
Hughes: Jack Antonoff recently provided the live score to a screening of The Breakfast Club (which I not-so-secretly wish I’d witnessed), and “Don’t Take the Money” — along with the entirety of Bleachers’ output — sounds exactly like the musical articulation of ’80s nostalgia for someone who was born in that era and retroactively celebrates its aesthetics. He’s managed to drink at the well of new wave without falling in, so “Don’t Take the Money” benefits from the synthy meditations of a couple decades back while retaining its modernity. That’s the spot this hits for me: I appreciate that Antonoff continues to mine from a sound he loves, and while I’m not surprised or blown away by any stretch, I’m satisfied that Bleachers have us dancing down the straight road they have no interest in taking a detour from.
Aaron: I’ve got nothing constructive to say about this song or band or Jack Antonoff, but I bet that dude from Cobra Starship is extremely jealous right now.
Vozick-Levinson: Jack made "Green Light," he's never going to hell.