If you were to invent an artist to keep the flame burning for classic rock in a musical mainstream increasingly unfriendly to the genre’s traditions, they’d probably look and sound a lot like Harry Styles.
A dashing, long-haired, highly fashionable and occasionally gender-bending young Briton who dates pop stars and supermodels, makes free-love music videos, worships at the altars of Mick Jagger and Stevie Nicks and sells out arenas worldwide with his guitar-based, lightly psychedelic pop-rock? At times, Styles’ superstardom almost feels fictional, like some character a middle-aged writer would draw up for Russell Brand to play in a slapstick comedy, despite the archetype being almost entirely absent from the last decade-plus of popular music.
But it isn’t just real, it’s still growing. Styles’ sophomore LP Fine Line posted one of the best first-week numbers of 2019 — moving 478,000 equivalent album units in its first week, double the first-week number for his 2017 self-titled debut — and it’s still in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 albums chart seven months later. While traditional radio success eluded Harry on his first album, Fine Line has seen two of its singles, “Adore You” and “Watermelon Sugar,” wholeheartedly embraced on the airwaves, becoming his first two top five hits on Billboard‘s Pop Songs chart — and his first two top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 since his solo debut “Sign of the Times” bowed at No. 4.
Yet for all his current success and acclaim, the world’s biggest young rock star continues to be ignored at rock radio. While he appears well on his way to becoming a pop radio fixture, Styles has never even cracked any of Billboard‘s rock or alternative airplay charts.
Rock radio’s initial reluctance to embrace Styles was hardly surprising, given his musical roots as one-fifth of the massively successful vocal group One Direction. Despite having their own fair share of rock-flavored hits, 1D was considered to be firmly in the pop lane, especially by radio. So have virtually all rock-leaning groups to fall under the “boy band” umbrella, even including acts like the Jonas Brothers and 5 Seconds of Summer who play some or all of their own instruments. Even though Styles’ solo debut was clearly more indebted to David Bowie and Queen than Michael Jackson and ABBA, he was still very much “Harry Styles of One Direction” — and like all the group’s alums, had to prove himself as an artist outside of their well-established milieu.
However, at this point, Harry Styles no longer needs the “of One Direction” to establish his place in the musical mainstream — he is very much a solo star in his own right, with his own identity (and plenty of his own fans) totally outside of 1D’s massive shadow. And as his own artist, though many of his songs are pop-accessible, his chosen lane is obviously rock, as evident by his (oft-namechecked) classic rock influences, his full-band setup, and his predominantly guitar- and piano-driven songs. As traditional rock music continues to fade from contemporary relevance, and youth-appealing, streaming-embraced stars like Styles are in particularly short supply, there would certainly be good reason to embrace him as part of the format — particularly at alternative radio, where many stations have already begun to stretch their playlists to include pop-approved, less traditionally rock stars like Billie Eilish and Post Malone.
There are few indications to this point, though, that many are interested in doing so with Styles. While “Watermelon Sugar” continues to climb at pop radio, only one station monitored by Billboard for our Alternative Songs airplay chart has attempted to play it: Alt 92.3 (WNYL) in New York, which gave it a paltry two spins in the prior tracking week. (WNYL declined to speak to Billboard about Styles for this story.)
Part of the reason for this is, simply, that Styles’ label Columbia Records isn’t actively working his songs to rock or alternative radio. Even in a streaming age where programmers don’t need to literally be sent an artist’s song to have the ability to play it, that still matters. Radio columnist Sean Ross (of the Ross on Radio newsletter) explains that songs not being promoted to a certain radio format “tends to be the number one explanation for, “Why isn’t anybody playing this?'”
“I wish radio, in general, showed more enterprise on music,” Ross says. “But there’s no reason to expect that even the stations that play a quirky, pop-leaning version of the alternative format would go out of their way to play a Harry Styles song without being asked.” (Columbia also declined to comment to Billboard on their promotional strategy for Styles.)
It’s also worth noting that pop radio has also been slow to embrace Harry Styles — even going back to the One Direction days, where despite the group’s massive popularity, they only ever notched two top 5 hits on Mainstream Top 40 (as many as Styles has already as a solo artist). By choosing “Adore You” as an advance single from Fine Line — following the more reintroductory first taste “Lights Up” — Styles’ team made their priorities clear. “Last time around, Harry Styles presented himself as a rock artist, and didn’t find a home at rock or pop radio,” Ross says. “This time, he’s clearly pursuing pop radio with the singles that have been chosen.”
One place on rock radio where Styles might have better luck finding a home is at Adult Alternative, where both “Sign of the Times” and “Watermelon Sugar” have received airplay. It’s not a ton in either case — “Watermelon Sugar” is currently only being played at two stations reporting to Billboard‘s Triple A listing, WCLX in Burlington, Vt. and KVYN in Napa Valley, Calif. But neither station views playing the song as all that out of character for their brand.
“It fits what we’re doing, and we don’t care where it came from,” WCLX programmer Chip Morgan explains. “We like Harry… and that’s it. It’s a great summer song.” Playing a song by a top 40 artist who comes from the pop world doesn’t mean a ton to Morgan, because he says that they “don’t pay attention to top 40” at WCLX anyway. “Before [‘Adore You’], we didn’t really know that much about [Styles],” he admits.
Despite his younger-leaning core following, it makes sense that Styles might also appeal to more Adult Alternative listeners, because his older musical reference points are actually much more in line with traditional Gen X and boomer sensibilities than the millennials and Gen Z-ers that mostly comprise his fanbase. “On KVYN, it wouldn’t be a rare thing to have a mix of music where Harry Styles was donuted in between Tom Waits and the Grateful Dead,” explains Nate Campbell, director of music and programming for the station. “I’m sure other radio programmers would laugh at this, and that’s fine with me. But that’s how we are choosing to try and entertain our market. And reception has been good, I’d say.”
It’s unclear whether the rock radio world will ever fully accept Harry Styles as their own — or if Styles’ own team will see much advantage in pushing him as such, when they’ve already conquered the much-bigger pop world. But Morgan and Campbell agree that it’s crucial for radio programmers in 2020 to be open-minded when it comes to filling their playlists, and not to be too influenced by what musical world an artist originally comes from.
“I may have some reservations in the back of my mind about ‘credibility’ when it comes to some pop acts,” Campbell admits. “But I think it’s important to quickly move past my own biases, based on my belief that [our genre’s defintion] IS amorphous now — it’s a completely different listening world now in this streaming era. And it’s important to take that into consideration when trying to blend your radio station in with that listening landscape.”
Additional reporting by Kevin Rutherford.