In all my years of supporting Harry Styles, either as a member of One Direction or a solo musician, I’m embarrassed to say that I have never seen this man perform live. Well, sort of. The closest I ever got was when I took a 1 a.m. Megabus from Baltimore to New York to watch One Direction perform on the Today show in 2013. The closest my friends and I managed to get to the band was directly behind and across the street from the Toyota Summer Concert Stage with a huge, red orb obfuscating our view.
Still, despite my limited experience, I’m largely skeptical of Styles as a good live act. I’ve seen enough of his televised performances and recordings of his shows to know that he doesn’t exactly have the Mick Jagger-like vivaciousness he’s always trying to mimic, and that his Prince-esque costumes (although, he still looks good somehow in his ugly, cleavage-bearing jumpsuits) aren’t as mesmerizing as people say. His live singing is either disappointing or just fine. And he’s always either lowering his songs by several keys or completely avoiding high notes seemingly to prevent his voice from cracking.
And in case you think my opinions are totally ill-informed, I’ve also heard several accounts from recent concertgoers and people who attended his Coachella set in May that, while the vibes were nice, he’s no Bruce Springsteen.
That being said, my most recent bone to pick with the British heartthrob has less to do with how magnetic of a performer he is or isn’t, but how well he can select songs, particularly his choice to perform “What Makes You Beautiful” as his one and only tribute to his One Direction days on his current tour (titled Love On Tour).
When a friend told me that he pulled out this 2011 tune during his recent residency at Madison Square Garden, I was both alarmed and offended. I watched him perform One Direction’s breakout single on a livestream of his Coachella set (terribly, I might add). He also performed it on his first solo tour in 2017. But I was hoping this was a short-lived stunt that he would eventually learn just doesn’t work when performed solely by him in his matured, gravely voice.
Maybe he wanted to show the world that he could successfully sing the bridge, which Directioners will remember, was always a struggle for him. According to setlist.fm, he’s performed the song at all 15 MSG shows and will most likely continue this tradition as he begins to tour the rest of the country.
To be clear, my issue is not with “What Makes You Beautiful” itself, which I still think is a solid pop song. And I understand the excitement of hearing that initial guitar riff almost a decade after it was released. But it’s maybe the 17th best One Direction song in their five-album catalog ,and the most uninspired choice for a 1D callback. It makes me wonder if Styles assumes that his fans won’t respond as enthusiastically to the 50 other hits the boyband had over their six year-long career. Does he think that his audience now is made up of people who weren’t deeply obsessed with One Direction? Why not pull out a deep cut for geriatric Directioners like myself?
It would still be a safe but more interesting choice if Styles selected an acoustic ballad from one of One Direction’s later albums, like “Night Changes,” “Story of My Life” or “You and I”—although, he would have to phone in Zayn to hit that high note. I also think Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” would be a brilliant choice, given that the band covered the song in their 3D concert film and its current popularity on TikTok. My ideal pick, though, would be “Stockholm Syndrome” off the group’s fourth album FOUR, which continues to be a fan-favorite despite not being released as a single. He at least had the foresight in 2017 to perform it throughout Harry Styles: Live On Tour to counterbalance the more boring choice of “What Makes You Beautiful.”
At this point in his mega-watt career, I understand that Styles nodding to his boy band period in any form or fashion is a gift. Technically, he doesn’t have to remind us of his X Factor beginnings if he doesn’t want to. However, if he is going to pay tribute to 1D, at least do so in a way that truly honors the group and their musical contributions, not a silly karaoke performance where he spends half of the song shouting into the mic like someone’s drunk dad with a truly horrible arrangement. The boys—maybe not Liam—and Simon Cowell deserve better than this!