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Of all the British cultural icons named Harry, the Boy Who Lived and the Duke of Sussex among them, none can rock the stage (or head-to-toe florals) like Harry Styles. After joining the pantheon of boy-band heartthrobs as a member of One Direction, Styles brought his silky voice and easygoing charm to his 2017 solo debut. On Oct. 11, he surprised fans with the release of “Lights Up,” the lead single from his forthcoming album. Once again, Styles’s pop-star sheen propels a track with enough verve to light up even the darkest of autumn nights.
Styles’s latest release has all the makings of an instant chart-topper while subverting pop’s most tired tropes. As the song opens, gently pulsing synth chords cast an effervescent veil over his voice without overwhelming the underlying guitar and piano riffs. In a refreshing change from the recent surge of bass-fueled dance tracks, the beat here acts as accompaniment, not centerpiece. Styles begins the song with a question. “What do you mean?” he asks. Instead of waiting for an answer, he continues: “I’m sorry by the way / Never going back now.” Styles’s use of “by the way” and jaunty tone turn his apology into a flippantly unrepentant afterthought, every bit as unrestrained and gleeful as the carefree vocal run that follows.
Styles takes a more introspective turn in the chorus, opening up about the “dark / Running through my heart” and the pressure of life as a performer. “Lights up and they know who you are,” he sings, setting the last two words of each phrase to an unexpectedly melancholy minor third. He concludes the chorus with a blunt question, seemingly for both himself and his audience: “Do you know who you are?”
After a series of descending piano octaves, the bridge explodes with buoyant energy. Styles dismantles the chorus’ ambiguity, directly urging his listeners to “shine” and “step into the light.” He then reaffirms a sentiment from the first verse: “I’m not ever going back,” he declares, placing defiant emphasis on every syllable.
Styles’s exuberant embrace of his identity on “Lights Up,” as well as its release on National Coming Out Day and music video featuring Styles dancing in a sea of statuesque men and women, has led many fans to interpret the song as a declaration of his sexuality. Styles, though, has “never felt the need” to elaborate on his orientation. “I don’t feel like it’s something I’ve ever felt like I have to explain about myself,” he said in a 2017 interview with the Sun. Like Styles himself, his music needs no labels to shine.
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