With ‘Lights Up,’ Harry Styles enters era of dark pop

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In 2017, singer Harry Styles released his self-titled debut studio album. The record marked a sharp shift for the former One Direction member, as the singer shifted from light, radio-friendly pop to folk songs and slow-paced, emotional ballads. The lead single from Harry Styles, the dramatic soft-rock melody “Sign of the Times,” signified the singer’s strengths as, debatably, the biggest breakout from the boy band. 

Last week, Styles released the newest single in his musical repertoire — the deliciously mysterious, nostalgia-infused pop song “Lights Up.” Now with an established solo career, the singer seemed to do much to promote both the single and his new cultural image in the lead-up to the song’s release. A series of posters with the words “DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE?” in large, white bold-face lettering were seen in major cities across the world — lyrics that would eventually be recognized as belonging to the single. This sprawling campaign, along with a website dedicated to personalized, positive messaging from the singer, created an energy of anticipation around the release that seemed relatively rare in today’s music industry.

“Lights Up” is an exemplary showcase of Styles’ range as an artist. Unlike his previous album, a collection of music that leaned into natural, raw sounds and acoustic instrumentation, “Lights Up” is unabashed in its rich production and synth-pop ambiance. The beats of the drum and the steady bass create a groovy undercurrent reminiscent of Tame Impala. Styles’ vocals create an additional layer of warmth and dreaminess, melding the clarity and smoothness of pop vocalists like Charlie Puth with the fervor and dynamism of OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. 

Styles undoubtedly seems to be influenced by his pop genre contemporaries in creating his new sound; while the single doesn’t sound as unexpected, nuanced or individual as the entirety of Harry Styles did upon its release, it does indicate promising beginnings for the new era of synth- and -funk-pop that Styles seems to be entering.

The accompanying music video similarly contributes to the mystery and sensuality of “Lights Up.” The music video alternates between a number of fascinating visual elements. In some shots, a shirtless Styles is seen drifting around, disoriented and in slow motion, in a crowd of beautiful people. In others, he wades and floats around a body of water in a loose-fitting shirt and bell-bottoms, the atmosphere glowing with a red tint. The video is simple but magnetic, consistent with the dichotomous nature of the pop track — a song that feels at once youthful but mature, basic but complicated, cryptic but oh so crystal clear.

That is, just as the singer seems to be abandoning the clarity and precision he brought to the table in Harry Styles, he seems to be just as assured as ever as takes his next musical steps.

Anagha Komaragiri is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.