Early in the morning on February 25, 2020, Harry Styles sat on a stool behind Bob Boilen’s desk and played four songs for an NPR Tiny Desk Concert at the radio network’s Washington, D.C. home base. Boilen, the creator and longtime host of NPR’s All Songs Considered, catalyzed the series back in 2008 and his personal work space has now hosted over 600 concerts. Styles’ performance, one of the last recorded in the nation’s capital before COVID-19 hit less than a month after, is one of the program’s most-watched videos, racking up 20 million views, as of June 2022.
Styles, all grown up and long removed from his days in One Direction, rocks a get-up headlined by a baby blue knit sweater with a yellow duckling hatching from an egg stitched in the center. He appears to be in a good mood, presumably delighted by the chance to play an intimate show amid a grueling American tour in support of his recently released 2019 sophomore record, Fine Line. The second song he performed, “Watermelon Sugar,” would climb to number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart a handful of months later.
Fast-forward to 2022 and Harry Styles is otherworldly. His new album, Harry’s House, is sharing records with The Beatles, soundtracking Apple Music ads, and catalyzing a sprawling, mega-world tour that begins with two sold-out shows at Wembley Stadium. Despite being one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Styles’ creative process, and personal life, is rarely divulged outside of his songs. Aside from mildly gossipy on-stage banter to give fill time while his audiences recompose themselves, the details of his daily goings are left up for interpretation, and the occasional tabloid cover or internet sleuthing.
So, when the boy-bander-turned-rock-troubadour pauses during his Tiny Desk performance before “Watermelon Sugar” to offer a nugget of backstory, as brief as it comes, it’s a welcomed look into the secret world of someone always on display. “The next song we’re going to play, I actually wrote in 2017 while I was on tour for the first album,” Styles tells the NPR cohort. “I was in Nashville, on my day off, and we went into the studio just to play around a little bit. And we started some ideas and then, I was with the guys I made the first album with, and we had this idea and we had this chorus melody. It was pretty repetitive and the Richard Brautigan book, In Watermelon Sugar, was on the table, and I was like, ‘That would sound cool,’ so this song became ‘Watermelon Sugar.’”
But, beyond “Watermelon Sugar” tying the two together in name, Styles’ songwriting often matches Brautigan’s hypnagogic command of language.
In Watermelon Sugar’s influence on Styles is, literally, coincidental. Written in 1964 and published in 1968, Brautigan’s post-apocalyptic third novel follows the Narrator, an unnamed story guide, who details the calamity of iDEATH: a bizarre, self-sufficient commune made up of people seen as “artifacts” of the old world, from a time before talking tigers wreaked havoc on the land by eating people, which upended civilization.
Brautigan based the utopic Eden after Bolinas, California, a reclusive town full of (at the time he lived there) artists, poets, and environmentalists. In iDEATH, there are few books and many trout hatcheries (Brautigan had a peculiar affinity for trout). The sun is a different color every day, and most things are made of watermelon sugar and pine. The narrator’s friends live in shacks close to him and make whiskey from forgotten things. Though it’s gentle and alive, surprising and childlike, In Watermelon Sugar is not the totally jubilant, hippie daydream Brautigan would write about in his poetry, but a visceral, surreal portrait of a post-doomsday world. Throughout its pages are death, dismemberment, blood, and guts.
Harry Styles’ music doesn’t include any of that gore, and his songs are neither apocalyptic nor overtly fictitious. “Watermelon Sugar” is an allusion to oral sex, yes, but it’s not a devastating portrayal of end times and ramshackled romance—though the latter has become a prized motif for Styles since his One Direction days.
But, beyond “Watermelon Sugar” tying the two together in name, Styles’ songwriting often matches Brautigan’s hypnagogic command of language. On the chameleonic Fine Line, Styles played around with 1970s glam rock and Laurel Canyon folk and honed his intoxicating charisma. The songs, fluorescent in their unseriousness, were sun-drenched, miraculously easy-going, and groovy to no end. Styles’ ostensibly tasty sonic arrangements suck you in; his dashing, catchy one-liners make you whole. The compositions never hinge on the stories they tell; instead, they are anthemic and aesthetical, endlessly trying to, so delicately, capture a specific emotion in whoever’s listening.
While other musicians are singing about trauma, mental health, and loss, Styles is neurotically singing about eating breakfast, going on long drives, and doing cocaine. It’s perfectly okay that both approaches exist, because both approaches are essential in the wide, genre-busting landscape of modern music. When sad songs become overwrought or just too much, where will we turn to when we’re ready to drop the weight we’ve been carrying?
The songs, fluorescent in their unseriousness, were sun-drenched, miraculously easy-going, and groovy to no end. Styles’ ostensibly tasty sonic arrangements suck you in; his dashing, catchy one-liners make you whole.
I think of Beatlemania often, how the Beatles’ early period was often defined by their fandom’s overwhelming, and viscerally audible, response to the music, much like Styles’—whose concert crowds provide well-documented moments of emotions.
At Beatlemania’s zenith, the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, an audience of mostly teenage girls nearly drowned out John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s singing. During the performance, the quartet sang love songs with instantly recognizable hooks and easily digestible lyrics: “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you / Tomorrow I’ll miss you / Remember I’ll always be true” and “She says she loves you / And you know that can’t be bad / Yes, she loves you / And you know you should be glad.”
When the Beatles became the world’s biggest stars, the band hadn’t reinvented the wheel, nor had they meandered into the psychedelia and spirituality that would come to define their most critically acclaimed works. Their songwriting, from 1963 to 1965, was an expansion of the blueprint that Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry formulated in the previous decade: four-chord progressions and easily memorizable lyrics.
Bo Burnham once joked about the phenomena of mainstream songwriting, critiquing the banal, cookie-cutter accessibility of top-40 tunes that panders to young fan-bases composed of, mostly, women. In his satirical song “Repeat Stuff,” Burnham sings: “America says we love a chorus / But don’t get complicated and bore us / Though meaning might be missin’ / We need to know the words after just one listen.” It’s an argument that stretches back as far as the Beatles and is usually used in assessing Styles’ work.
Recently, critics have weighed in on whether or not his new song “Boyfriends” cajoles the women buying his records (during his Coachella set this spring, he preluded the song by saying, “To boyfriends everywhere, fuck you”). At Styles’ one-night-only show in New York City on the day Harry’s House was released, he lightheartedly ribbed his own audience for knowing all of the lyrics already.
But Styles’ audience knows the lyrics because there’s a very addictive minimalism alive in his catalog, something Brautigan geniusly turned into a poetic blueprint decades ago. The nominality of the former, however, has often been surveyed adversely by music critics. In Olivia Horn’s track review of “As It Was” for Pitchfork in April 2022, she found little to commend in the Harry’s Housesingle. “If Styles’ last record was about having sex and feeling sad, ‘As It Was,’ seems to be about having sex, feeling sad, then getting over it,” Horn wrote. “‘Seems to be’ is the best I can do, given the evasiveness of the lyrics—a frequent shortcoming in Styles’ songwriting.”
I disagree with the critique. Styles’ songwriting is a balm because he understands how to make a pop record, how you have to achieve a mass appeal somehow, and giving the listener too much can take them out of the experience. Charting songs become resonant because they either have nightclub elasticity or are universally familiar enough; Styles, often, and effortlessly, harnesses both.
Styles’ audience knows the lyrics because there’s a very addictive minimalism alive in his catalog, something Brautigan geniusly turned into a poetic blueprint decades ago.
In turn, “As It Was” is a synthesizer-laden rendering of Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar quote, “I’ll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.” In the book, the Narrator is speaking to a far-away lover and, across the song, Styles plainspokenly tracks his own loneliness and the bittersweet sorrows of a long-distance relationship. “I don’t wanna talk / About the way that it was / Leave America / Two kids follow her / I don’t wanna talk about who’s doin’ it first,” he sings gently. Long-distance relationships don’t have to be detailed extensively to be widely understood.
I’m often left wondering if these critical dismissals of Styles’ seriousness, or lack-thereof—and how they are always attributed to his, supposedly, artistic shortcomings—are trivial grabs to bring numeric grades down certain decimals, or if they are near-sighted and pretentious stylistic requirements. Profundity through deeply moving imagery in pop music is rare because it hasn’t been canonized by the mainstream, and dogging artists for leaning into the genre’s algorithms is a stubborn attempt at elitism.
Brautigan’s work was also dismissed by critics—notably after he got rich and started living deeply in the pockets of his own lavishness. Longtime Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley once dismissed Brautigan as “the Love Generation’s answer to Charlie Schultz.”
Pitchfork’s Jeremy Larson lambasted Styles for not having “the imagination of Bowie,” or “Fleetwood Mac, who took their lives and transfigured them through cosmic fantasia or Victorian grandeur,” despite the singer’s attempts to earnestly, but not closely, replicate the mystifying energy their music evoked.
Profundity through deeply moving imagery in pop music is rare because it hasn’t been canonized by the mainstream, and dogging artists for leaning into the genre’s algorithms is a stubborn attempt at elitism.
The goofy euphoria of Brautigan’s Bohemia lives in his poetry, much like how Styles’ cosmic Los Angeles heart beats in his music. In “A Boat,” Brautigan writes about a werewolf going to a carnival for the first time. The lines “when he saw / the Ferris wheel. / Electric / green and red tears / flowed down / his furry cheeks / He looked / like a boat / out on the dark / water” stem from his supernatural, bubblegum linguistics. Styles channels the same personification of untouchable wonder during the bridge of “Music For a Sushi Restaurant,” when he sings: “If the stars were edible / And our hearts were never full / Could we live with just a taste?”
What separates Styles and Brautigan, though, is that the former will always have the hearts of millions and the latter is as far from the cultural zeitgeist now as he was when his writing tapered off in the late-1970s. Brautigan’s legacy has upticked again, though. As Dwight Garner described it in The New York Times in 2012: “generations of anglers have picked up Trout Fishing in America based on its title alone, expecting a how-to volume.” He noted that what they discover is “akin to a gentle tab of LSD” and “an eccentric and slyly profound novel.” Though Styles isn’t pulling high review scores from trusted internet publications, he is being commended for “writing inside a reverie, blissfully insulated from life’s extremity.”
Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan’s opus, is playful in form and meta in scale, as the author labels sections cheekily—like “The Autopsy of Trout Fishing in America,” “The Last Time I Saw Trout Fishing in America,” and “The Last Mention of Trout Fishing in America Shortly.” There are sublime and beautiful grafs in the novel, and lines like “We looked like a parade barely moving toward YOU MIGHT GET LOST” were evocative of sentimentality and anti-idealization. The ways Brautigan’s characters described their romances were never cruel or self-serving, only admirational and dainty.
There’s a misconception in popular music that’s similar to poetry: art must be explicitly profound in order to be significant. Styles and Brautigan each obliterate those sentiments in their respective mediums.
It’s a mantra Styles, too, has adopted, as he delivers guilt-free embellishments of pleasing romances and a mostly empyrean, but sometimes unrewarding, celebrity lifestyle. In In Watermelon Sugar, Brautigan wrote: “Her hand had a lot of strength gained through the process of gentleness”; on “Golden,” Styles sings: “I know you were way too bright for me / I’m hopeless, broken / So you wait for me in the sky.”
Brautigan’s work can sometimes be so unexplainably moving (“singing a song about breaking / somebody’s heart and digging it! / I think I’ll get up / and dance around the room. / Here I go!”), just like Styles’ music often scratches an eluding itch (“If I was a bluebird / I would fly to you / You’d be the spoon / Dip you in honey so I could be sticking to you”).
Just as critics were split on whether or not Brautigan’s writing evoked a disparaged rendering of human life or a triumphant one, Styles’ songs often pair vulnerable, rhapsodic lyrics with jubilant, swaggering instrumentals. In “The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster,” Brautigan wrote: “When you take your pill / it’s like a mine disaster. / I think of all the people / lost inside you”; in “Little Freak,” Styles sings: “Somehow, you’ve become some paranoia / A wet dream just dangling / But your gift is wasted on me.”
There’s a misconception in popular music that’s similar to poetry: art must be explicitly profound in order to be significant. Styles and Brautigan each obliterate those sentiments in their respective mediums. I think often about the poems that made me want to be a poet, how everyone has an origin story and a collection of influences that inspired their own creative breadths. Along with the genre mainstays—Ocean Vuong and Richard Siken hold high court on my bookshelf—I immediately retreat to the home that Brautigan’s “Your Catfish Friend” made for me in college.
A special kind of articulation breathes in Styles’ and Brautigan’s legacies: they each speak in familiar, dreamy pastorals.
“Your Catfish Friend” is, by no means, a Pulitzer Prize-worthy poem. It’s a 22-line, hypnotic ode to two lovers turning into catfishes and living a good, long life in a pond. “I’d love you and be your catfish / friend and drive such lonely / thoughts from your mind / and suddenly you would be / at peace,” Brautigan writes. It’s a vivid example of Brautigan’s power, how he can widen simplicity into an entire language. When I have to explain why his work always feels so relevant in how I tumble through the world, I offer the same response as I do when asked why I enjoy Harry Styles’ music so much: it makes me feel good and often allows me to unlock different curiosities within myself. I think of this short passage in In Watermelon Sugar:
By the way, Doc Edwards said. How’s that book coming along?
Oh, it’s coming along.
Fine. What’s it about?
Just what I’m writing down: one word after another.
It’s a sentiment that lines up with Styles’ Harry’s House. On “Keep Driving,” the singer is diaristic, delivering a grocery list, or notes app ramble, of sensory details from a day well spent, as if he’s logging each moment as it comes, mundane or extraordinary. “Wine glass, puff pass / Tea with cyborgs / Riot America / Science and edibles / Life hacks going viral in the bathroom / Cocaine, side boob / Choke her with a sea view,” Styles sings across the song’s bridge.
His music follows a tone set by Brautigan’s writing, which focuses on capturing quick moments of fluttering sameness. Brautigan once said: “Everyone has a place in history. Mine is clouds.” And so, too, is Styles’ ascent towards whatever stratosphere can explain how bubblegum minimalism is a fever in the hearts of so many. A special kind of articulation breathes in Styles’ and Brautigan’s legacies: they each speak in familiar, dreamy pastorals; their unique, fantastical imaginations often beckon us to ask more questions and not be so hellbent on receiving answers.