2019 American Music Awards

Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss How Harry Styles 'Lights Up' the Hot 100 at No. 17 This Week

Courtesy of Columbia Records
Harry Styles

Two and a half years after making his solo debut with the anthemic "Sign of the Times" -- lead single from his chart-topping, critically acclaimed self-titled debut album -- Harry Styles has returned with "Lights Up," his first new song since 2017.

Whereas "Sign" was a classic power ballad with a soaring refrain and a somewhat literally soaring video, "Lights Up" is a shuffling, elliptical groove with a provocative, sexually charged visual. This week, the song bows at No. 17 on the Hot 100, the One Direction alum's second-highest entry on the chart to date, below "Sign." 

What does the debut mean for "Lights" and Styles' much-anticipated sophomore album? And what direction do we want to see Harry go in from here? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below. 

1. So, No. 17 -- not quite as high as the No. 4 debut for "Sign of the Times" a couple years ago, but better than any other Harry Styles (and most other solo 1D) singles since then. If you're Harry, how are you feeling about that initial bow?

Hilary Hughes: Not terrible, to be honest! Anticipation is a crucial factor here, and it’s not surprising that “Lights Up” didn’t match “Sign of the Times” on the chart front based on context alone -- and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. How can you compare them when one is the breakout single of a solo artist, and one who comes from a wildly successful, adored boy band at that? With “Sign of the Times,” no one knew what to expect from Styles’ first showing, and everyone was swept away by that grand, dramatic introduction of a ballad. The chart performance of his new libidinous dance-rock jam has to do with the fact that while we were still chomping at the bit to hear new music from Styles, we just were at an 8 on the eagerness scale instead of the 10 that “Sign of the Times” saw. That’s why I don’t think this is such a dip.

Chris Payne: For a few minutes I'd probably mull over the fact I didn't even sniff Justin Bieber and Dan + Shay's No. 4 debut the previous week or that I finished one spot behind "Old Town Road," 33 weeks after it first charted. But then I remember I'm the beautiful human Harry Styles who's played that game many times over the past decade, done quite well thank you very much, and now clearly invested in a brand of prestige pop-rock that's more concerned with spellbinding arena concerts and hey, maybe my first Grammy.  

Andrew Unterberger: Based on how uncommercial the song is for 2019, I'm pretty damn happy with No. 17. Not like "Sign of the Times" was streaming or radio catnip for 2017 either, but that song was big, epic, obvious -- "Lights" doesn't sound so much like a comeback party as the winding hallway entrance to one. For this song to land in the top 20 anyway shows it's a journey a whole lot of music fans are still interested in taking. 

Taylor Weatherby: I’m pleased: a top 20 debut is nothing to scoff at, especially considering most of my 1D cohorts’ singles haven’t achieved that. From a third-party perspective, though, I’m not sure Styles is the kind of artist that really cares about the chart achievements anyway. But if he is, he can rest assured that he’s still the One Direction guy people care about most: “Lights Up” has twice the amount of Spotify streams and almost twice as many YouTube views as Niall Horan’s “Nice to Meet Ya,” which arrived just one week prior; and three times the Spotify streams/YouTube views as Liam Payne’s “Stack It Up,” released in September. Regardless of where he landed on the Hot 100, it’s pretty clear Harry Styles fans haven’t gone anywhere -- and are ready for more.

Xander Zellner: Fairly satisfied, if not a little underwhelmed. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a top 20 debut, but this is Harry’s first release in over two years. It’s hard to not hope for a giant splash into the top 10 with your new comeback single. That being said, it’s his second-highest-charting solo song of his career, and he hasn’t had much trouble staying in the limelight lately, so it’s not all that bad.

2. "Lights Up" isn't really a kick-down-the-door type of comeback single, more of a sneaky slither back into the spotlight. How close is it to what you were hoping for from Styles' return? 

Hilary Hughes: I appreciate that he’s experimenting with different textures and sounds from the jump, but my immediate reaction was slight disappointment -- not because he doesn’t sound great, but because he doesn’t sound like himself. I thought that this was a Kevin Parker co-write after the first listen, the Tame Impala feel was that strong. Philip Cosores at Uproxx mentioned that “Lights Up” sounds like “a Man of the Woods highlight” and I can’t get that description out of my head. I was hoping we’d hear something that sounds like a progression for Styles -- something to build on the depth and breadth of his debut album, something that actually sounds like Styles. I didn’t get that from “Lights Up;” I got “This is Styles trying on Timberlake and Tame Impala for size.”

Chris Payne: For me, 2017's Harry Styles introduced a sound worth revisiting: the millennial pop star chasing elegant classic rock balladry, writing a solid album, but ultimately failing to transcend his influences. I totally think Harry could have a solo classic in him and I'm happy to hear him take another stab at that first formula: "Lights Up" sounds like it lives in the same the world as his self-titled, but with a healthy dose of added pizzaz. I approve.

Andrew Unterberger: I'll admit I was hoping for something a little more undeniable. "Lights Up" is good and growing on me, but I'd prefer it as an alluring, "Meet Me in the Hallway"-style album opener than a "Sign"-style massive lead single. I wouldn't call it a disappointment, and it is a pretty tasty appetizer for whatever's to come with LP2, but as a song I'm just not that invested in "Lights Out" yet. 

Taylor Weatherby: Not close whatsoever, but I am so here for it. I’m happy he’s trying something different than the guitar-heavy rock vibe that he explored on his first album, and it’s cool to hear his voice with a little more production on it. Though that does mask the power of his voice a bit, I’m also not worried that “Lights Up” is indicating we’re going to get a full record of production-heavy experimental tracks like this one. I see it more as a flex of his versatility. And thanks to the near-orgy happening in the video, something tells me “Lights Up” is also an indication that Styles is going to be exploring his sexuality even more on this next go-round. Definitely here for that.

Xander Zellner: Not very close to what I was expecting or hoping for, but I’m still happy with the song. I was hoping he’d lean into the folk-ier songs from his debut album (“Two Ghosts,” “From the Dining Table”) and go in that direction, but the soft rock/soulful sounds we get on “Lights Up” are still welcomed.

3. Speaking of "Sign of the Times" -- a couple years on, how are you feeling about it compared to what your initial reaction was in 2017? Hotter, colder, or about the same? 

Hilary Hughes: Hotter, but that was a slow burn. It definitely grew on me, and largely because the variety on Harry Styles makes it shine so much more than it does as a standalone track. At first I was confused about the choice for “Sign of the Times” as the first single -- why lead off with a slow, heavy, existential ballad? I’ll gladly eat those words. That’s never a song I skip but savor, and it showcases his voice -- those high notes! -- in a way that no other track on his self-titled album does.

Chris Payne: Cooler. Now that the excitement of Harry's first solo song has worn off, it's easier to appreciate "Sign" for what it is: satisfying Bowie/Queen cosplay that's serviceable for debuting a project, but not what you'd want defining your career someday.

Andrew Unterberger: Hard to get much hotter on a song I considered my favorite of 2017, but I feel like I appreciate what an achievement "Sign" was more now, if anything. To announce your solo debut with a fully formed, timely-but-timeless statement like that -- with the complete confidence and control of someone who'd already been doing this for decades -- it's just not something you see very often these days. And it shows in the top 20 debut for "Lights Up" that even though Niall, ZAYN and Liam all had bigger radio hits in their first go-round, it's still Harry that fans are most interested in following wherever he goes. 

Taylor Weatherby: About the same. I never loved “Sign of the Times” the way others did, probably because I was hoping for a more pop-leaning sound in Styles’ post-1D debut. It did grow on me, and I do think the rock lane/classic sound fits Harry’s voice perfectly (plus, bless that belting finale). Overall, it’s not my favorite thing a One Direction guy has released, and not my favorite from Styles' first album, so my feelings haven’t changed.

Xander Zellner: About the same, in that it’s a good song that was incredibly bold to release as his first-ever solo single. It’s a nearly six-minute piano ballad that was such a departure from anything One Direction released. And somehow, it worked! Not necessarily as a pop radio smash, but as a memorable debut single.

4. It's been a pretty wooly time for 1Ders re-entering the pop fray, with the lads' new songs kinda landing all over the place. Which of them are you most satisfied with, or which do you find the most encouraging?

Hilary Hughes: I gravitate towards Styles’ output more than the rest, but I think that’s solely based on personal preference as I’ll take piano ballads and straightforward rock -- and pop that embraces either of those -- over pretty much anything else. I find that he isn’t overshadowed by his collaborators or reliant on their help, and I can’t say the same about any of the other four. (Except for maybe ZAYN, but even then, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” is his standout track for me, and that’s a duet with Taylor Swift.)

Styles has pursued a timeless quality while the rest of the guys have found success banking on the present and really riding pop’s of-the-moment proclivities (Liam’s “Strip That Down” with Quavo; Niall’s Maren Morris duet “Seeing Blind;” Louis’ foray into EDM with Steve Aoki on “Just Hold On,” etc.). “Lights Up” through me for a bit of a loop, but I’m convinced this is “Sign of the Times” all over again in that I’ll feel way better about it once I hear the rest of the album.

Chris Payne: Here and there, I've really enjoyed some solo singles from non-Harry former 1D'ers: Liam Payne and J Balvin's "Familiar," Niall Horan's "Slow Hands," Zayn and Taylor's "I Don't Wanna Live Forever," and most recently, Louis Tomlinson's "Kill My Mind." It's been established that each of these guys can muster a solid Top 40 track when the situation's right (which is definitely not the norm for broken up boy bands!) but if you're counting on any of them to outdo Harry in the full-length department, you're crazy. 

Andrew Unterberger: I find all of them except "Lights Up" to be kind of a bummer, to be honest. I appreciate Niall and Liam's efforts in trying to resurrect a kind of turn-of-the-millennium trash rock with their respective latests, and I'm glad ZAYN helped get "Trampoline" into the Hot 100's top 20, but "Lights" is the only one that leaves me more intrigued with what's to come next, not less. 

Taylor Weatherby: Niall Horan’s “Nice to Meet Ya.” He was always cast as the blonde-haired good boy in 1D, and while his album Flicker had edgier moments, the airy production and roaring electric guitar in “Nice to Meet Ya” feels like he’s totally breaking free of his uncorrupted past image (brown hair and all). That’s helping his confidence soar, and in turn, making me even more excited to hear what he has coming. I’ll also give a shout-out to ZAYN's contribution to the new version of SHAED's “Trampoline.” The haunting production is a perfect match for his sultry voice, and I’d love to see Malik do more of that on his next solo releases. 

As the resident One Direction stan at Billboard, though, I do want to give all of these guys props -- they’re each trying such different things, but for the most part they’re staying in lanes that work for them. I’d love to see Tomlinson dive into more of a pop-rock sound like he did with “Kill My Mind,” and Payne clearly knows how to make a club-ready hit. Something I also find encouraging? The fact that Horan, Payne and Tomlinson are still talking about wanting to reunite 1D. Here’s hoping Styles will say the same on this next promo run.

Xander Zellner: Oy, I have to go with “Lights Up.” It’s a safe comeback song that leaves me hopeful for his future album, which is something I can’t necessarily say about the Louis, Liam or Niall songs. (ZAYN is in another category considering his most-recent album, last year’s 27-track Icarus Falls, was less than stellar, and his remixes of already-popular songs have been unmemorable.) The first-week sales and streaming figures are pretty promising for “Lights Up,” but radio is going to be a deciding factor. It earned 1.7 million radio impressions, which, for contextual purposes, is quite low. It sounds to me like it’d be a good fit for pop, Hot AC, or even Triple A radio (“Sign of the Times” made onto all three formats), but only time will tell.

5. What's one thing you'd like to hear Harry do on his much-anticipated sophomore album that we haven't really heard from him on his solo stuff thusfar?

Hilary Hughes: I want a minimal, straightforward, soul-baring, just-Harry-and-his-guitar moment. I’m not talking about “Sweet Creature”-level folk or “Ever Since New York,” but something far more lo-fi than that. I want a song that sounds like a demo, basically, something that shelves the intense production and gives us little more than a single instrument and a voice -- I don’t think he needs much more than that to really shine, so I want to see that hypothesis proven.

Chris Payne: I don't want Harry to get all features-obsessive, but I do think he's got a killer duet in him. Maybe with Halsey, a longstanding pop radio duets queen who many moons ago was writing songs ABOUT Harry? Or maybe he plays into his classic rock chops and kicks it old school with Stevie Nicks or Elton. 

Andrew Unterberger: I'd like to see him go full-on absurdist rawk. He showed some promise on Harry Styles' "Kiwi" and "Woman" for kicking out the jams with a wink and a sneer, but there's plenty of room for a personality of his size to get heavier and funnier on this upcoming album. C'mon Harry, let's hear your "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" already. 

Taylor Weatherby: A duet. We've seen every other 1D guy do at least one feature/collab, so it's about time we hear Styles team up with another artist. I'm thinking someone like Maggie Rogers would be cool, but I could also see Styles wanting to go more old school with someone like Bonnie Raitt (or his favorite, Stevie Nicks). Regardless of era or genre, I think his voice would be awesome paired with a female artist's. His former tourmate Kacey Musgraves, perhaps? Their cover of Shania Twain's "You're Still the One" was incredible -- imagine the original content they could whip up together!

Xander Zellner: Definitely some collaborations. I’d love to see a Harry/Adele duet, or a One Direction reunion with Harry/Niall.

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.