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Harry Styles at the Forum: A woke heartthrob for our times

Harry Styles leans backward as he belts a song.
Harry Styles at his Wednesday night performance at the Forum in Inglewood.
(Pham)

One way to understand Harry Styles’ relationship with his audience is to consider that minutes after the singer’s concert ended Wednesday night at the Forum, the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter in Los Angeles was his mother’s first name.

Anne Twist, it turns out, had been present for the show, and some in the house noticed, quickly blanketing social media with photos and messages that celebrated — and almost seemed to embody — Twist’s clear maternal pride.

The nurturing instinct among Styles’ fans, which for many runs as deep as the more traditional aspects of pop-star adulation, is matched by the singer’s own: More perhaps than any other A-list act, Styles seeks to make his faithful feel cared-for, not least during the live gigs he frames as safe spaces for personal expression, which, at the Forum, included young people wearing rainbow angel wings, jewel-toned cowboy hats and a vast panoply of feather boas. More than one kid came dressed as a banana.

More than just gossip about the toll of her divorce, the singer’s fourth album, ’30,’ offers deep thoughts on love’s causes and consequences.

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“Feel free to be whoever it is that you’ve always wanted to be,” Styles told the crowd at the top of Wednesday’s performance, the first of three sold-out shows at the Inglewood arena through Saturday. Later, near the end, the 27-year-old urged fans to “dance like nobody’s watching you,” though at that point few in the room seemed to need any further encouragement.

What’s interesting about Styles’ proudly progressive stance — in the years since he left the British boy band One Direction he’s become a kind of woke heartthrob known for his gender-neutral fashion — is that his music looks decidedly backward. On his self-titled 2017 debut he emulated David Bowie, Thin Lizzy and AC/DC; 2019’s “Fine Line,” which won a Grammy Award, updated the sound ever so slightly with nods to disco and ’80s-era Fleetwood Mac.

At the Forum, which in a typical throwback flourish he referred to as the Fabulous Forum, Styles wore a green-velvet vest with no shirt and fronted his six-piece band with old-school rock-god gusto, running from one end of the stage to the other — clutching a corded microphone, no less — as though he were headlining Live Aid. (The stage was positioned in the middle of the Forum’s floor, in-the-round-style, which led the singer to explain that sometimes he’d be turned away from a given section: “I’ll do my best to distribute face and ass equally.”)

He made for a great power balladeer in “Falling,” his voice supple yet edged with just the right amount of scratchy desperation; his guitarist ripped a fiery solo during “She” that lasted longer than most TikTok videos. During “Woman,” his keyboardist borrowed the piano lick from “Bennie and the Jets,” and when a fan tossed one of those countless boas, the singer expertly caught it and wrapped it around his neck.

As Springsteen has grown more politically active, the white working class he has long championed in song has shifted allegiance to Donald Trump and Republicans.

Actual classic rockers played with gender too, of course, among them Bowie and Freddie Mercury of Queen, whose “Bohemian Rhapsody” boomed over the venue’s sound system — and inspired a mass singalong in the crowd — as part of a pre-show mix (along with Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) that felt like a Gen Z starter pack of fabulous, lightly transgressive pop.

Yet Mercury was a gay man, whereas Styles is regarded as a straight white guy; indeed, he’s taken heat for crowding out queer voices from the mainstream — Billy Porter recently criticized Styles’ wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue. On Styles’ current tour he’s made something of a bit of helping fans come out as gay; it happened Wednesday with a woman who said her name was Brenda and that she was looking for Styles’ assistance in telling the world who she was.

“What’s gonna happen, Brenda, is when this is raised, you’re out,” he said, holding a flag. “That’s how it works. I looked it up online, so it must be true.” Then he circled the stage a few times, building anticipation before he finally waved the flag high. “Good choice, Brenda!” he said. “Freedom awaits you.”

Did that make anybody at the Forum think about Styles’ own privileged experience of freedom? That really wasn’t the vibe. As the place went crazy once again, he and his band struck up his song “Treat People With Kindness” — radically simple advice for our newly complicated times.


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