Remember 2012?

It was a simpler time (at least in the sense that we had yet to reckon with our culture's collective failings). Even better, in 2012 no one had heard of murder hornets, having a slight cough didn't make anyone reckon with their mortality, and we were all bumping 1D's break out hit "What Makes You Beautiful." Life was good.

In March of that year, One Direction's hit single was shooting up the charts all over the world, Their album Up All Night was set to hit No. 1 in the United States, and the now iconic boy band stopped by Popdust for an interview.

Zayn had a bizarrely-buttoned shirt on; Louis seemed to be concerned that his hoodie would fall off his shoulders; and Harry, Liam, and Niall all still had their trademark haircuts.

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I have a confession: When I was a tween, Niall Horan was my favorite member of One Direction.

I'm almost ashamed to look back on that now. Harry was so obviously the only choice. His gender-queer look and love of 60s psychedelia and generally mystical aura should've been apparent to me even then. On the other hand, I was severely in denial about my own bisexuality in those days, so maybe I just wasn't ready to embrace Harry quite yet.

It's taken me a long time to get to the healthy place where I am, stanning Harry Styles and loving people who actually love me back and that sort of thing. Once upon a time, I only wanted people who wouldn't love me back, I thought everybody hated me, and I was slightly in love with Niall Horan.

The Blast

I'm not exactly sure what was going through my mind during those times. I liked Niall in the vague, floaty way that I liked anyone in those days—only in the abstract, refracted a thousand times through my own self-perception.

Maybe liking Niall was just an effort to fit in. During conversations about One Direction (there were many), I'd merely say "I like Niall" and that was it. I think I picked him because of his hair, which made him look different from the rest of the One Directioners.

Maybe it was because he seemed less egotistical than the rest. In a way, that last one still holds true; Niall feels less pretentious than other members of the former band. Or he did. Sadly, none of this, nor the strength of my lukewarm teenage devotion, could save Niall's new album.

The new album is called Heartbreak Weather. It surpasses regular supermarket pop—generic, shiny, relatively soulless stuff—to become supermarket-during-coronavirus pop: overcrowded, oddly familiar yet disorienting, and mostly empty.

Some songs are more painful to listen to than others. The title track, "Heartbreak Weather," comes complete with a corny 80s-style drum thrash and a bouncy bassline that inexplicably reminds me of fast food. "Small Talk" starts promisingly thick with dreamy reverb, but it builds up to a bouncy chorus that shakes you out of whatever restful state you may have slipped into.

I don't want to compare Niall too much to Harry, but let's contrast the low guitar riffs on Small Talk to the similar riffs on Styles' She. The "Small Talk" riffs sound heavily compressed and packed into a tiny space, whereas the lines on Harry's track sound liberated and oceanic in scope. The whole thing feels like Niall's effort to be Harry Styles, but it comes off like he's wearing his older brother's clothes, trying them on and trying to be hot while he's always been just cute.

The production and songwriting on Heartbreak Weather feel anachronistic, from a former era when songwriting wasn't so nuanced and we took the bus to school. There are hints of squelchy funk that, while not danceable, are far from relaxing.

"Nice to Meet Ya" is an unfortunate track through and through. Its chorus feels too chaotic and overloaded with sound, and the use of autotune is a travesty and a sin. The piano riffs and generic lyrics remind me of some of the performers I've seen at the many, many open mics I have sat through in my life. It's not that it's bad. The piano and songcraft are full of potential and earnest enthusiasm; but this is a major record label album, not the Tuesday after-hours show at Jolene's.

Heartbreak Weather would've fit in better during the 2000s, but music is so fiercely innovative now, and there's just so damn much of it that it's hard to imagine a place for this kind of generic, innocent pop. "Put It On Me" is a nice song, though, one I could imagine coming on the radio as I'm driving around in silence with my mom, or during the "stretching" part at the end of an exercise class. It's suburban, quotidian, from a former era, from another life. Along with the rest of the album, it exists in such brutal contrast to the rest of the current online discourse and the state of the world that hearing it today just feels jarring.

Maybe Heartbreak Weather actually comes from a parallel dimension. Maybe it slipped over from a different timeline in which people are sensible and things are boring, in which disasters are few and far between, in which we pool our resources and use them to take care of everyone like practical people.

In this dimension, Niall probably should have stuck to his original shtick, to the kind of innocence and simplicity that initially drew me to him and that defined his classic tear-jerker "This Town." Instead of trying to create a complex, funky, sexy, multi-genre pop album, Niall could've gone in an acoustic direction, honing his gentle persona into an early-Ed-Sheeran-type of balladeer and eventually graduating to more mature folk.

But that's okay—I forgive him. I forgive everyone. Because what does it matter if an album is good or bad, if it makes people happy? I'm freaked out about the virus, I'm chilling in self-quarantine, it's a Friday night, and I truly hope that Niall never sees this.

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Let's Not Overcomplicate Harry Styles' New Album, "Fine Line"

Fine Line isn't a creative reinvention of the wheel, but it's still a lot of fun

Harry Styles has been on everyone's mind all 2019.

Harry Styles - Adore You (Official Video) www.youtube.com

The years have not been kind to a few of the One Directioners, but Styles has all but reinvented himself. He is now cool and collected, like a 2013 Alex Turner or Matty Healy, and as stylish as a millennial Elton John, all combined with the neighborhood quirkiness of the boy next door. "It all just comes down to I'm having more fun, I guess," he recently told Rolling Stone. His personal growth in the last two years has culminated in Fine Line, a joyful and colorful psychedelic pop record that respectfully dips its toes into the pop-sensibilities of its elders, without jeopardizing the youthful swagger of its young host.

As a handsome LGBTQ+ icon, Styles embodies what everyone hopes will happen when you embrace your identity. You'll get all tatted up, develop a colorful fashion sense, and become magnanimous towards your former self. "Step into the light," he begs his listeners as he flails among gorgeous naked bodies in the "Lights Up," music video. "Know who you are."

Fine Line is not the genre-redefining outing critics anticipated, but it is, as Styles said, incredibly fun. Its inspirations are portrayed quite literally, which certain critics take issue with. "She" is an obvious ode to Prince and Pink Floyd, with its soulful crooning and crisp rock edges; and the gentle folk pining of "Canyon Moon" is reminiscent of a young Joni Mitchell. It's all palpable and easily digestible. Fine Line isn't a creative reinvention of the wheel; songs like "To Be Lonely" and "Treat People With Kindness" feel stagnant and falter when compared to the shapeshifting tracks of "Golden" or "Sunflower, Vol. 6"; but it's all part of the process. Styles is 25 and spent his childhood as a teenage heartthrob whose identity was staked in album sales and how cute he was. As many 25-year-olds before him, Styles has learned to gravitate towards authenticity and is seen on Fine Line openly examining a wide range of styles and sounds, waiting to see which shoe fits.

On "Lights Up" and "Adore You," the shoe fits perfectly, but critics were quick to point out the fumbles. "Styles is here, buried underneath the fame and the fear," wrote Pitchfork. "I hear his sweetness, his charm...but mostly I hear a guy who's still afraid he'll never make a David Bowie record." Styles is still a 25-year-old, an amateur at living life. Is he not allowed to experiment with different directions amidst his new-found independence? Or have the short attention spans of the general public–and excessive demand for quality content–perforated the very real and grueling artistic process that is required to generate said content? Styles' sophomore album is not his magnum opus, but why are we saying it has to be? Is that his problem, or ours?

Billboard

Louis Tomlinson, previously of One Direction fame, just released his new single "We Made It."

The pop star announced his debut solo album, entitled Walls and dropping January 31, 2020, the day before releasing the song. The music video follows a young couple through the formation of their relationship and the eventual hardships they face, as Tomlinson sort of just looks on and narrates like a creepy, British fairy godmother. It seems as if maybe Tomlinson could only be bothered to go to one day of filming, so they shot the video without him and then just inserted shots of him singing with his hands in his pockets in front of vaguely similar scenery.

But the video aside, it's a song so wholly unremarkable that every time you read the name you may find yourself singing the far superior "Love It If We Made It" by The 1975 in your head—even if you're still literally listening to Tomlinson's song. It offers a repetitive, almost NSYNC-like rhythm and rhyming scheme, with lyrics that a robot could have written in its spare time. Unfortunately, it seems Tomlinson has taken his love of early 2000's British rock and channeled it into the creation of tepid, noncommittal music that sounds like someone trying to imitate The Wombats trying to imitate The Arctic Monkeys. It's so many levels removed from the kind of edgy, punch-you-in-the-face, British rock it's desperately trying to be that it ends up sounding like nothing at all.

Louis Tomlinson - We Made It (Official Video) www.youtube.com

MUSIC

Harry Styles' "Lights Up" Is an Anthem for Confused Bisexuals

Gender and sexuality is a performance, but there's no script.

Harry Styles has kept fans waiting for new music for quite a while, but he certainly did not disappoint with his first single since 2017's "Sign of the Times."

"Lights Up" is a frothy, effortless indie pop number that places Styles' flawless vocals above a funky bassline and dreamy guitar flourishes. It feels infused with the kind of energy that citrus skincare advertisements promise you, but its substance and nuance extend much further than skin-deep.

The song builds up to clusters of harmonies and gospel choirs, wound together with delicate piano. At three minutes, it's a short, concise, and crisp collage of modern and vintage sounds that show off Styles' versatility as well as his expert pop sensibility.

Lyrically, it's all over the place, and since the moment it was released, fans have been reading into its possible implications. Some proposed that the lyrics "I'm not ever going back" are referring to Styles' decision to never return to his One Direction boy band days.

Others think that this is Styles' official declaration of his bisexuality (it is National Coming Out Day, after all). Styles has never explicitly confirmed his sexual orientation, and in 2017, he told The Sun that he doesn't use labels. "No, I've never felt the need to really. No…I don't feel like it's something I've ever felt like I have to explain about myself," he said.

His lyrics have insinuated bisexual themes before. In the song Medicine, he sang, "Tingle running through my bones / The boys and the girls are in / I mess around with him / And I'm okay with it."

Perhaps Styles is smart to avoid labeling his sexuality. Recently, there has been extensive debate about the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality, a difference that largely boils down to semantics and individual interpretation. Labels are perpetually changing and shifting, but of course, these monikers and intricacies obscure what is arguably the point of the entire LGBTQ+ identity: We should all be able to be who we are, and to love who we wish to love.

Of course, it sometimes seems like our world does everything to make this impossible. A deeper dig into the "Lights Up" lyrics reflects this, revealing that not everything is love and light in Harry Styles' glamorous world. Styles did tell Rolling Stone that his new album is going to be all about "having s*x and feeling sad," and in "Lights Up," he's keeping that promise.

The lyrics, "All the lights couldn't put out the dark / Running through my heart / Lights up and they know who you are / Do you know who you are?" seems to hint at a kind of existential questioning that belies the discomfort that often accompanies trying to figure out who you are, corroborated by the pressures of being caught in the insatiable limelight.

We may never know who Harry Styles really is, beyond the glittering figure he presents himself to be. Then again, we're all constantly performing various identities, many of us never knowing just how much we've been influenced and shaped by the outside world and its conventions. As we try to come to terms with who we really are, the best we can hope is that we have a few nights spent on the backs of motorcycles like Styles in "Lights Up," throwing our hands up to the sky and dancing to the beat.

Harry Styles - Lights Up (Official Video) www.youtube.com

MUSIC

Louis Tomlinson Wants to Be in Oasis So Bad

"Kill My Mind" is an Oasis rip off in the least flattering way.

Louis Tomlinson wants us to know that he's been listening to rock music.

Louis Tomlinson - Kill My Mind (Official Lyric Video) www.youtube.com

In an awkward 2017 profile with The Guardian, the former One Direction member described himself as "forgettable" and endorsed the idea that he was the "lowliest" member of the group, citing the fact that he never had a single vocal solo during his time with the band. "I'm trying to work out why it is that I'm [doing this]," he said, as a few offerings off his upcoming solo album played in the background. So he did what any uninspired artist would do: he went back to his "roots" and listened to the music he grew up with. "I grew up loving bands," Tomlinson told MTV. "Because I'm from the north of England naturally everyone's obsessed with Oasis and Arctic Monkeys." Consequently, Tomlinson's new single, "Kill My Mind," sounds like a mediocre tribute to early aughts British rock.

Louis Tomlinson Kill My Mind Liam Gallagher super imposed over an image from Tomlinson's "Kill My Mind" lyric video


"Kill My Mind" is melodically reminiscent of a 2006 Arctic Monkeys B-side, while lyrics like, "kept me living from the last time, from a prison of a past life," attempt to carry the metaphorical significance of an Oasis record, but mostly just don't make any sense. Tomlinson's attempt at a low nasally growl when he sings, "and you hate me, and I want more," just sounds like Liam Gallagher mimicry. Thematically, Tomlinson's wish-washy narrative makes it sound like he's trying to appear more prolific and rock-and-roll-esque than he actually is. Even the lyric video shows a cartoon Tomlinson directly copying the outfit and stance of Liam Gallagher during an Oasis performance. All of it feels fraudulent, none of it is compelling, and all of it suggests Tomlinson would rather be a third Gallagher brother than himself.