Man at His Best

Harry Styles Could Become The Next Frank Sinatra

With a new solo record and a role in a World War II epic, Styles' auspicious start as a pop idol will be a footnote—just like it is for Sinatra.

BY Michael Sebastian | May 19, 2017 | Culture

There's a moment in Morgan Spurlock's 2013 documentary One Direction: This Is Us when Harry Styles pokes at the existential dread inside every pop star that one day they might not be famous. "One of the reasons why I don't like the word famous [is] because then people use it afterwards and they go, 'He used to be famous, or he's not famous anymore,'" he says. "And it's just the weird thing of, like, I was a guy before, I was the same guy during, and I'm the same guy afterward."

After logging six years with One Direction, it's impossible Styles will ever not be famous. But until recently, it appeared his former band mate, Zayn Malik, was overshadowing him. And in the world of boy and girl bands, washing out as the second most-famous member amounts to ruin—it's being Lance Bass instead of Justin Timberlake or Kelly Rowland instead of Beyoncé.

But Styles needn't fear this fate—the 23-year-old is poised to become the new Frank Sinatra. They're both magnetic and indescribably charming, but the comparisons go beyond their preternatural charisma. They both started as teen idols. Sinatra relaunched his career as a grown-up musician with an unlikely role in a war movie—which is the exact play Styles is making this year with his part in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

Styles's opening salvo lands today with the release of his first solo record, a self-titled album layered with classic rock influences. It will sell millions of copies, and Styles Kreminologists will parse every lyric looking for references to his love life—not least of which his short-lived relationship with Taylor Swift in 2012. That relationship amounted—publicly, at least—to a photograph of the pair walking through Central Park. It came just two years after Styles walked into an X-Factor audition, got rejected as a solo artist, and was instead teamed up with four other teenage boys who failed to advance. They formed One Direction and were signed to Simon Cowell's record label. Little more than a year later, they were international superstars.

Styles was the alpha peacock in a band of peacocks, channeling the rakish charm of Mick Jagger—he not only bears a striking resemblance to the rocker but also has a reputation for sexual proclivity—and the giddy earnestness of Paul McCartney. His foil in the group was Zayn Malik, a brooding and swarthy self-styled artist who spent his free time painting and ultimately quit the band in early 2015. While Styles has spoken glowingly of One Direction, Malik, who now dates Gigi Hadid, has turned his back on it. "That's not music I would listen to," he has said of One Direction.

In January 2016, the band went on indefinite hiatus. Styles mostly retreated from public view as Malik gavotted with Hadid and put out a successful solo record, Mind of Mine, an attempt at a kind of Frank Ocean lite that featured the sexy R&B single "Pillowtalk."

Soon the public will meet Harry Styles the serious actor. In July, Christopher Nolan's World War II epic Dunkirk hits theaters, featuring a deep bench of serious actors like Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh. Styles has somehow elbowed his way into this pack for his acting debut. It's unclear how much screen time Styles gets in Nolan's film about the historic evacuation of the Allies from the shores of France in the opening days of World War II. Gossip sites have reported that Styles was given a bigger role after impressing Nolan, but the latest trailer barely features him. One thing we do know about his role is that he drowns.

"Some of the stuff they're doing in this movie is insane," he told Rolling Stone. "And it was hard, man, physically really tough, but I love acting. I love playing someone else. I'd sleep really well at night, then get up and continue drowning."

There will be comparisons between Styles and other boy-band breakout stars like Timberlake or, given the sound of his new album, classic rockers like Rod Stewart or even Paul McCartney. Styles has sought to cultivate these comparisons with subtle references of his own. During his mini-concert on The Today Show this week, he wore a pink suit—a nod, it seems, to the Clash's Paul Simonon who once called pink "the only true rock and roll colour."

The role in Dunkirk, however, begs the comparison to Sinatra—whose "My Way" was the first song Styles performed in public.

In America at least, Sinatra is the original teen idol. He spent the 1930s—when he was briefly in a boy band called the 3 Flashes—and 1940s performing sold-out shows to screaming teenage girls. There was even a name for it: "Sinatramania." By the early 1950s, Sinatra was desperate to relaunch his career. He was, as The Daily Beast noted, "too old to play the kind of innocuous musicals he had made in the 1940s, and, as a grittier sound was coming into popular music, his record sales were in decline." Sinatra's luck changed when he was cast in the 1953 war movie, From Here to Eternity. A lightweight actor, Sinatra was slated to appear alongside some of the biggest actors of the day: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, and Donna Reed. Sinatra's casting is now the stuff of legend. The alleged way in which he was cast—through Mafia strong-arming—was depicted in the famous horse head scene in The Godfather. (This is almost certainly not true.)

However he got the part, it began the most significant comeback in pop culture history. The Best Picture-winning From Here to Eternity earned Sinatra an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. That same year he signed a deal with Capitol Records, and the music we know associate with Sinatra started rolling.

Dunkirk is Styles' From Here to Eternity moment—the ideal canvas to broaden his appeal from young women to the general public— even to the men openly hostile to boy bands. Make no mistake: Styles isn't in a hurry to ditch his base. Here's what he told Rolling Stone about appealing to an older audience:

"Who's to say that young girls who like pop music—short for popular, right?—have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That's not up to you to say. Music is something that's always changing. There's no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they're not serious? How can you say young girls don't get it? They're our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don't lie. If they like you, they're there. They don't act 'too cool.' They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick."

That's an excellent point, but if Styles does what no one is expecting and, like Sinatra, earns his own Academy Award for Dunkirk, the 30-year-old's will take notice—and he'll be more than a former pop idol. As the saying goes, men wanted to be Sinatra and women wanted to be with him. Styles is halfway there. After Dunkirk, he'll have gone all the way.

From: Esquire UK