A coming-out party for Harry Styles and fans, at opening night at the Forum
It was Harry Styles’ show, but Serena almost stole it.
A young fan with close-cropped hair and window-to-the-soul eyes, Serena was the crowd member Styles selected Sunday night — as the pop superstar opened a historic run of 15 sold-out concerts at Inglewood’s Kia Forum — for a recurring bit in which he helps someone in his audience come out as gay.
“You wanna do this?” Styles asked her after he caught a glimpse of the hand-lettered sign she was holding. “You sure? There’s no rush.” Well trained by this point in Styles’ touring career, a cameraman found a close-up of Serena to feed to the giant video screens above the Forum’s stage, where the 17,000 or so in the room could see her nod in assent; Styles, having solicited a feather boa from a fan in the front row, reminded everyone how the bit works — “When this boa is raised above my head, you’re out,” he said — then requested a drum roll.
What happened next took only about 10 seconds as Styles teasingly waved the prop higher and higher. (“Edging!” one audience member called out, referring to the orgasm-delaying technique, which got a laugh out of the singer.) But the look on Serena’s face in that close-up, one hand clasped over her mouth in overwhelmed excitement, seemed to tell the entire story of her life. She and her eyes could easily have filled the Forum’s screens for another hour.
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Styles’ role in Serena’s coming out was obviously self-glorifying; however altruistic his aims, it took for granted — and only reinforced — the 28-year-old’s position of cultural power. And given the year he’s had, that’s no wonder: “Harry’s House,” Styles’ third solo album after his stint in the British boy band One Direction, is one of 2022’s biggest hits, with numerous high-level Grammy nominations expected to arrive next month. He stars in two movies currently in theaters, “Don’t Worry Darling” (directed by his girlfriend, Olivia Wilde) and “My Policeman.” And his extended stay in Los Angeles follows an earlier 15-night run at New York’s Madison Square Garden as well as a headlining appearance at April’s Coachella festival, where he, Billie Eilish and the Weeknd performed to about the same number of people that Styles alone will entertain at the Forum through Nov. 15.
Sauntering onstage Sunday in a palm-tree-emblazoned jacket and bedazzled white trousers, Styles set off a roar you could feel as much as hear.
Yet how he wields his celebrity has been fascinating to watch. A Harry Styles gig, as he told the crowd not long into his 90-minute set, is a place to “feel free to be whoever it is that you’ve always wanted to be”; fans have taken his words as encouragement to express a range of sexual and gender identities — sometimes, as with Serena, for the first time in public — even as his own reluctance to clearly delineate his sexuality (while happily toying with gender-fluid fashion) has led to accusations of queerbaiting. At the Forum, where Styles was backed by a funky six-piece band, Serena wasn’t the only sign-waving audience member to whom the singer offered both a signal boost and a bit of reassurance about life choices — though he did gently admonish one woman for claiming she’d skipped therapy for the concert.
“It’s a sign that the people of L.A. do not approve of, Emily,” he told her with a rascally grin. “Because what do we know, L.A.? You. Never. Skip. Therapy.”
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You can look at this showy preoccupation with his fans’ needs as Styles’ way of compensating for a somewhat milquetoast personality. And indeed to compare “Harry’s House” to the just-released “Midnights” by his onetime romantic partner Taylor Swift is to admit that you know exceedingly little about Styles’ real life (or about how he views much-gossiped-about topics like his relationship with Wilde). Yes, he dispenses charisma like a fire hose; no, he couldn’t be sexier if he tried. But his music does tend toward abstraction and deflection, both by keeping his lyrics somewhat vague and by using nostalgic sounds and textures — strummy ’60s folk, crunchy ’70s rock, shimmering ’80s pop — with built-in emotional responses.
The exception, crucially, is when he’s telling others’ stories: One highlight of “Harry’s House” and of the Forum show — which paired material from the new album with oldies like “Adore You” and “Kiwi” and a fuzzy rendition of 1D’s “What Makes You Beautiful” — was “Matilda,” a spare acoustic ballad in which he’s persuading a friend who’s been abused that she’s justified in cutting out the family members who’ve harmed her. Again, Styles’ job in “Matilda” undeniably puts him in a heroic light. But as he described her pain, the empathy in his voice was strong and true — stronger and truer than in the assured flirtations of “Watermelon Sugar” and “Late Night Talking” and the cryptic introspection of “Sign of the Times” and the chart-topping “As It Was.” That last tune, which rides a tidy synth groove on “Harry’s House,” got a serious bulking-up here, as though Styles had the venue’s classic-rock history on his mind.
Is it overly generous to wonder if pushing the focus off himself might be the radical goal of Styles’ pop stardom? His poorly reviewed movie performances certainly raise the possibility that he’s trying to put across a fully formed character in his music and merely failing to get it done. Yet that’s not the conclusion Sunday’s heartwarming concert left you with. What you left thinking about — more than horny come-ons or a perfect haircut or even those bedazzled trousers — was generosity.
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