Breaking out of the boy band bubble is hard. Just ask anyone who has ever tried. You want to be bold, show the world that you’re more than the choreographed steps, diabetes-inducing sugary choruses, questionable matching outfits and neon hair extensions that defined your former group. But bounce too far out of the zone and you might lose the room, making all those teenybopper fans forget why they loved you in the first place.
Harry Styles is clearly not burdened with such mundane concerns. Bucking the lane-hugging trend set by his former One Direction mates — Zayn Malik‘s The Weeknd-like power ballad “Pillowtalk,” Niall Horan‘s sweet acoustic butterfly kiss “This Town,” and Louis Tomlinson‘s Steve Aoki-assisted EDM banger “Just Hold On” — Styles has dared to cut the “cute one” chord with his rock-influenced debut single “Sign of the Times.”
Sure, it’s got a memorable melody and isn’t going to make Mastodon worry about crowd creep anytime soon, but not many recovering boy banders have the stones to drop a trippy first single that references David Bowie, Coldplay, Oasis, The Beatles, Spacehog and Pink Floyd. For proof, look at the totally predictable early solo efforts by everyone from Justin Timberlake and Nick Jonas to JC Chasez, Jordan Knight, Omarion, Robbie Williams and Ashley Parker Angel.
OK, maybe breakout O-Town member Angel’s 2006 Goo Goo Dolls-meets-Sum-41 single “Let U Go” — co-written, ahem, by pop maestros Max Martin and Dr. Luke — is a bad example.
But you know who really blazed the trail for Harry? Johnny No Name. Yup, you heard that right. In case you forgot about JNN, that was the nickname adopted by the baddest of the Backstreet Boys: A.J. McLean. The “wild one” cooked up the alter ego in 2000 to go undercover when he wasn’t onstage with BSB. In fact, his anonymous doppelganger even had an unnecessarily complicated backstory that involved juvenile diabetes (which somehow afflicted his dog as well) and a stint in prison thanks to a case of mistaken identity. It was all part of a charity effort aimed at raising funds for VH1’s Save the Music Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
More importantly, the cover story allowed McLean — employing a shaky British accent — to bust loose and indulge his rock side during concerts where he performed covers of songs by Stone Temple Pilots, Tonic, George Thorogood and Rage Against the Machine. Yes, Rage. He eventually released his little-known rock-ish solo album Have it All in January 2010 and dropped the guitar-heavy, Lenny Kravitz-like peace anthem “Live Together” in 2015.
In between Las Vegas dates with BSB, McLean has been working on the Live Together album, which he told Rolling Stone last year is influenced by everyone from Royal Blood and The Heavy to Walk the Moon and the music he heard growing up with his mom — Three Dog Night, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
Your move, Harry.