We all have one artist that doesn’t quite make sense in our cabinet of music. Or maybe you don’t, and you have a perfectly curated brand. I, however, am cursed with the burden of being multi-faceted.
I love the Arctic Monkeys. The Neighbourhood got me through middle school. I love Radiohead so much that I wrote a whole article about it. I love Brent Faiyaz and Paramore. I love Kendrick Lamar and Phoebe Bridgers.
And as much as pains me to admit this to people that formerly respected my music recommendations, I love Harry Styles.
He has been a part of my sphere of musical influence since I was at least nine years old. I cried when One Direction broke up. I cried even harder when Harry Styles released his debut album. I sat at my computer and teared up when Harry dropped the “Light’s Up” music video.
My point here is that I love him. And that I cry a lot, apparently.
And that’s why Harry Styles’ Grammy win has my heart torn into pieces.
Harry’s House grooves like disco-pop, which interestingly enough, is a derivative of a genre born in the Black community. There’s a history of white artists using Black creativity with no credit, one that diminishes the establishment of Black culture. Knowing this, the utilization of Black artistry to create an okay-at-best album that would beat Beyoncé’s RENAISSANCE is astonishing. But historically speaking, it’s also entirely unsurprising.
In his junior album, Harry’s House, Harry takes on fun and vibrant pop music. It’s a brand new sound in comparison to his previous albums. Lyrically, he tells stories that might remind some of summer time in Los Angeles. And I would know; I spent a wonderful week there in kindergarten. It’s warm and eclectic in its writing. The album’s lead single, “As It Was” stayed number one on the Billboard Charts for three weeks straight.
It was a successful album release – money was made, streaming records were broken, Harry Styles fans lost their minds – but it fell completely flat for me.
Harry’s House is Harry’s least replayable album.
Harry’s House lacks the heart of his first two albums, which feel timeless with the way they carry rich and memorable melodies. It was made in the time of 2020s pop, and because of this, it feels devoid of Harry’s own intention. Every second of the album sounds like it was made to top the charts and be forgotten.
There are moments in the production of Harry’s House that are reminiscent of his previous albums. The swells in drums and guitars in “Daylight” are very HS1, and the gentle guitars of “Boyfriends” and “Matilda” call back to the pop-folk-rock sounds of Fine Line.
The album as a whole, though, feels like a husk of what could’ve been had Harry not chosen to rely so heavily on derivative sounds and cut-and-dry pop production. Unfortunately, it feels unoriginal.
Unlike Beyonce’s RENAISSANCE.
In her seventh studio album, Beyoncé combines house music, dance music, R&B, and pop to make a cohesive body of art and expression. There are features from Big Freedia (a Black drag queen and rapper) and Grace Jones (a Black androgynous model from the early days of voguing culture).
Case in point, the album is a huge deal for Black queer communities. It’s more than just dancey and fun; it pays homage to the long legacy of the Black music industry and its close ties to LGBTQ+ movements. Not to mention, it sounds great.
Each song in RENAISSANCE fades into the next with no discernment between them. My favorite happens when you play “CUFF IT,” which is danceable, and “ENERGY” follows as a cool down that builds to a new melody and tempo 50 seconds in.
The production is modeled after house music — simply put, disco music’s manic pixie dream girl little sister — which explains the lack of traditional instrumentation, the heavy use of groovy synthesizers and cut time.
Each song on RENAISSANCE can stand as its own, but streamed together in record order, they create a pulse between club songs and songs that could fit on a day-to-day playlist (while, once again, existing in different genres that work seamlessly with one another).
RENAISSANCE breathes. It's living art: a reflection of the world and history that created it.
Beyoncé is nothing if not a genius. She references her own music in ways that even casual listeners can hear if they’re listening hard enough. It creates a sense of recognizability and memorability that Harry’s House completely lacked.
And like I said, I love Harry Styles. I truly do. I think his music has artistic merit. (See: 18 year old Nya screaming when “As It Was” came out.) But I also believe the Grammy Awards has a long history of not giving credit where credit is due. Beyoncé’s past Grammy-winning works, 4, Lemonade and Sasha Fierce, are less politically charged than RENAISSANCE. This makes RENAISSANCE’s loss feel like an obvious assertion that the Academy doesn’t feel the need to make space for political art.
Because yes, the inclusion of Black queer history and culture in art is inherently political — and not in a bad way at all. Albums like RENAISSANCE are a statement that these styles of music and the communities that uplifted the surrounding culture are important enough to have an entire album dedicated to them.
Because yes, music helps to create culture and to establish the values held by said culture. The music we listen to, on a grand scale, is given value as it enters popular culture. And as a collective, we decide what makes up our culture and what we value within it.
When a wide audience of a marginalized group associate their history with a certain aspect of culture, it is our job to acknowledge its significance, especially when it is as well produced as RENAISSANCE, and especially when Black queer communities have such a large hand in creating the media and cultural landscape we love today. See: Lil Nas X, Ice Spice, James Baldwin, Moonlight, POSE, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Audre Lorde — the list is long and beautiful.
When someone like Harry Styles produces arguably one of his least innovative albums, and a cultural masterpiece like RENAISSANCE is snubbed, we have to ask why. We must raise the question of what we consider award-winning music.
Did Harry’s House say or do anything new with pop that RENAISSANCE didn’t handle with better production, intentionality and impact on culture and legacy?
No, it didn’t.