The last concert I saw before the pandemic was at Madison Square Garden. I saw Billy Joel’s Halloween show—maybe just an October show, but there was a skull on the piano, nonetheless—with my parents in the fall of 2019. I asked my parents if I could join them; the invite was not initially extended. You see, I hadn’t been a Joel fan as long as they had. (Unfair, I’d argue, as I was born later than my parents.) We had a real night of it. I danced and sang aloud with my parents; none of us were immune to the charms of “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” even though I come from a family of Glass Houses fans. For two seconds, it was like we were all the same age. Later, on Twitter, I wrote about the night, the skull, my parents, all of it—and someone I didn’t know said Joel did all the same bits at the October show they saw. Ah, well. Then there weren’t any concerts, let alone ones at Madison Square Garden.
Around the time I attended the Billy Joel concert with my parents, I purchased tickets to see Harry Styles on his second tour. This was 2019, mind you, and as I write now, I am celebrating a decade’s worth of Harry Styles fandom, by way of One Direction fandom. In 2011, I was—internet buzzword time—depressed and spending a lot of time on my computer. (I currently spend a lot of time on my computer, but in a much different, less depressed type of way, for what it’s worth.) I feel no need to justify the affection I feel for the band and Styles in order to prove that I have good taste in other mediums. You just have to trust me on this.
The cult around Harry Styles is both obvious and baffling. He’s beautiful, less androgynous than fashion media would have you believe, objectively handsome but not in a conventional way. I recall early gossip blogs calling him a “frog prince”—this is the mean way we say that someone has a heart-shaped face. He’s a heartthrob, but not particularly horny. His merchandising and branding is full of pithy platitudes. Though the album is nearing two years old, Styles only just now confirmed his song “Watermelon Sugar” is about eating pussy. Thanks! But we got there on our own. I am not exactly attracted to him, but I am amused, beguiled. He’s genuinely great in Dunkirk. Maybe one of those massive-budget films can put him in a credits sequence sometime soon.
I didn’t not want to see Styles after the pandemic, but in all the time that passed, it felt like I wouldn’t be able to, or it wouldn’t happen, or I didn’t deserve to, or also why bother? Walking up to Madison Square Garden in 2021, two years after last seeing live music, was a shock to the system. I wasn’t dressed for the event! I had planned to be comfortable, in supportive shoes, with clothing appropriate for the weather. Wrapped around the corner of the block, however, were throes of young women in floral bell-bottoms and sparkling tops. They had colored sunglasses, cowboy hats, banana costumes. What are you all doing? I wanted to ask as I passed them in line. He has a girlfriend.
Styles’s emerging aesthetic is vaguely ’70s, vaguely flower power, in the way that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again takes place in the 1970s but also not really. His songs are “rock songs,” I guess, there’s not a pop track or a boy band-style tune among them, but the real rockheads are indifferent at best. On the albums the songs lack cohesion: I’m not always sure what the point of view of “Harry Styles” the figure is. It is … hard to have a girlfriend? But easy to be nice? (I agree.) I listened to Fine Line, his most recent album, for the whole final month of 2019, and then not again until the week before this concert.
When Jenny Lewis opened for him, a musical act I’ve seen before in a more intimate venue, I thought: This is what I should be doing. This is who I should be seeing. I’m not supposed to be here, sitting behind a group of high schoolers going live on Instagram every few minutes to show Lewis’s set to their friends. But they screamed and hollered for her nonetheless, as if she herself—nearly two decades older than Styles—was in One Direction. The wave of self-consciousness (the emphasis on self) passed. The post-opener, pre-show mix played Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and all the young women around us sang along at the top of their lungs. It was all too weird to be mad.
On stage, however, this all changed: Styles emerged from the floor (!) in long white trousers and a sheer black shirt. Red boots, too. The set-up took place in the round, so at any given time, he was playing to all four sides of the arena. Styles is tall and energetic: He took swinging strides across the stage. I saw Styles play in 2018, and for the most part, his stage banter is the same. He makes minimal jokes, otherwise promising that it’s his job to be an entertainer. A job he loves, of course, but his job. He sings, he sways. Styles, since I last saw him live, has learned at least two new dance moves. He waves rainbow flags, trans pride flags. He fails to catch things girls throw on stage at him—never bras, usually boas. That’s when it clicked for me. The audience wasn’t dressed up to impress Styles; they were dressed up to share themselves with him. So much effort is put in on his end—by the end of the show he was sprinting across the stage—that to look dazzling, colorful, beautiful, and lovely was to meet him halfway.
In the aisles—before, after, and somehow also during the show—the other young women took photos of themselves, each other. The audience, so largely female, felt attuned to this desire to look and feel good. Girls I presume had never met before stopped each other, offered to take photos of each other, weighing in on poses and lighting. Styles’s mantra, TREAT PEOPLE WITH KINDNESS, is the type of apolitical sloganeering we need altogether less of, but if I think back on the night of the show: I saw a lot of kindness. All in all, Styles was more or less the same as when I saw him three years prior. No less fun or less talented, but the bits were there, the songs the same. Fewer covers, little surprises. During a slower song I didn’t know the words to, my eyes drifted up to see that Billy Joel in fact has a banner hanging at the Garden commemorating 73 consecutive sold-out shows. When I turned back to the stage, the girls sitting in front of us were taking yet another selfie, zoomed in on their faces, glimmering teeth reflected back at themselves and onto me. There was no need to tell them how similar it was to the show the night before.