No, Harry Styles wasn’t insulting Beyoncé – Americans are race-obsessed fools
“This doesn’t happen to people like me very often.” So said 29-year-old Harry Styles, accepting his Grammy Award for Album of the Year on Sunday night. Most normal people assumed that by “people”, Styles meant a boy born outside of Birmingham and brought up in between Crewe and Manchester, far from the bright lights of London and the Brit School. But the internet is not full of normal people, and outrage ensued, as critics claimed that Styles was ignoring his white privilege – and, worse, having a pop at Beyoncé.
Styles also drew ire by arguing that “there’s no such thing as ‘best’ in music”, and refusing to say that he thought Beyoncé would win, instead saying merely that “you never know with this stuff”. The critics didn’t hold back. “‘This doesn’t happen to people like me’,” wrote the American podcaster Sam Sanders, “is the most white privilege-iest thing to ever be uttered at an awards show ever for all time [sic].” “Beyoncé continues to be boycotted, without AOTY [Album of the Year] and used as a token to disguise the Academy’s racism,” complained the pop-culture website Pop Tingz.
Styles may have had a wobbly night – not least because the turnstile on which his dance number was meant to be performed rotated in the wrong direction – but an attack on “Queen B” this was not. To most Britons, Styles’s accent is the clue that he’s different from many a young London silver-spoon star; yet this subtlety is almost entirely lost on Americans. True, that Cheshire accent has been muddied by his recent attempt at a transatlantic twang while filming Don’t Worry Darling.
And having a finance director for a father hardly puts you in league with British pop’s history of working-class heroes, from The Beatles to Oasis. Yet these days the industry has changed, and Styles is quite clearly different to the likes of Florence Welch or Marcus Mumford, who seem to fit into the world of fame as if they were born to it.
We’ve been here before. In 2019, when Sam Fender, born in North Shields, dared to explain why “white privilege” sounded like a difficult concept to the white men with whom he grew up, he was labelled tone-deaf and racist. This is the success of the “white privilege” label: admit it and you’re damned, deny it and you’re deluded. But in importing a particularly American brand of racial politics, discussion about success within the British arts only becomes skewed.
Unlike in the States, class is a greater defining factor of success in Britain than race or gender are – a fact that many commentators seem to want to forget. “The debate raging online about where Styles sits on the class spectrum is a fascinating insight into Britain’s class obsession,” wrote one writer in The Guardian. That sound you can hear is a nation of working-class music-lovers choking on their own scorn.
Styles, in truth, is both right and wrong. Poor boys and girls have often made it to the top, though often that has been on account of the sheer tenacity of their talent. Barry Keoghan is currently flavour of the month in Ireland for his performance in Martin McDonagh’s film The Banshees of Inisherin, despite his extremely tough and poverty-stricken upbringing, which involved going in and out of the care system.
Bands have often capitalised on class difference, too – admitting whether you were an Oasis or a Blur fan was as much a class signifier as the tea-vs-supper debate, and it did neither band any commercial harm. Some fans have also pointed out, amusingly, that Adele, who was also up for Album of the Year at the Grammys, was born and raised in Tottenham.
A working-class hero Harry Styles may not entirely be, but he certainly isn’t a white-privilege villain either. And we would all do well to remember that awards ceremonies, and the speeches made at them, may be full of glitz and glamour, but they bear little relevance to the politics of the real world – or to the real people who live out there.