After leaving my sixth and final show of Harry Styles: Live on Tour last night, I didn’t think I’d be able to put the experience into words. But Rob Sheffield, a music journalist over at Rolling Stone whom I admire very much, said it like this in his own review: “What does it mean to share joy, on a mass level, at a time when every day brings a constant barrage of rage?” And that’s when I figured it out.
Styles’ concerts are — in a combined effort between artist and fans — a safe space. I’m not talking about the “safe spaces” in universities that right wingers say are for millennial snowflakes. This is a judgment-free zone where you can, as Styles says nightly, “be whoever it is you choose to be.” Combined with Kacey Musgraves’ set, it’s three hours where the sadness of the world and its current political state can’t penetrate. It’s shared joy.
Seeing a member of One Direction by themselves on stage still feels eery, especially when they “cover” (if you can call it that) a One Direction song. Styles’ renditions of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, ‘What Makes You Beautiful’, and ‘If I Could Fly’ are all altered from the originals, but my heart still stings when he sings more than just his own parts. He alone has to recreate the pure happiness those five boys used to bring on stage together for all four world tours — and he does.
The fans have their part, too. If Styles draws the blueprint for the safe space and lays down the foundation, the fans build the walls and fill the rooms. They bring rainbow flags and the Black Lives Matter posters (and, at the TD Garden, the Boston Strong signs). He helps them celebrate their differences while together they celebrate what makes them all the same: shared joy for one Harry Styles.
The first two shows I saw of Harry Styles: Live on Tour were in late 2017, at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and Boston’s Wang Theatre. Combined, those two venues held less than 10,000. This year, Hershey Park Stadium alone fit 30,000 fans. Back-to-back sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden amounted to 40,000.
I worried if Styles’ safe space would be able to translate to venues that big, but as the crowds grew, the happiness grew, too.
“Styles has never been coy about his aggressively inclusive stance,” Sheffield writes. How many artists embrace their LGBTQ+ fans so much that they feel not only comfortable but encouraged bringing rainbow flags? Styles, who’s never outright put a label on his own sexuality, takes the time every single show to pick up a fan’s flag and dance with it on stage, wrap it around himself, or hang it over a speaker stand. He says a lot without saying very much at all. The welcoming message of acceptance is rock solid.
Beyond Styles’ One Direction covers, his music has brought true guitar rock back into 2018 mainstream music. ‘Sign of the Times’, the bold choice of a six-minute debut solo single, was never meant to be played on your Bluetooth speaker or in your crackling EarPods. It was meant to be played live in stadiums.
And if you think young women don’t like rock and roll anymore, then you’ve never felt the floor of Madison Square Garden shake during ‘Kiwi’.
I don’t know how Styles possibly comes down after a show like that, because if 20,000 fans and I feel like the opening heavenly notes of ‘Only Angel’ are on repeat in our heads as we leave, what is he feeling? Is it draining to try and bring 90 minutes of shared joy to a crowd every night, or is it rewarding?
Exiting Madison Square Garden afterward, blinking at the lights on 7th Avenue and standing above a train station that sees more than half a million people everyday, it’s surreal. Styles’ has armed you with an hour and a half of love and inclusion and happiness. By Sunday, he’ll have taken that shared joy to Washington DC. By the end of July, he’ll have taken it around the world.
But as tens of thousands of fans hustle out of the Garden to find trains and Ubers and waiting parents, they’re out of the safety of Styles’ arms and back in the real world. I just hope they carry his Treat People With Kindness message with them, wherever they go.