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The Harry Styles Show (and Some Music) Comes to Madison Square Garden

Over the weekend, Harry Styles began a 15-night stand at Madison Square Garden, an impressive feat befitting one of the most popular musicians in the world. (He’ll begin a similar stretch in October at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif. — his tour supporting his latest album, “Harry’s House,” consists of a series of residencies.) But Styles, who came to fame as part of the British boy band One Direction, is still relatively early in his solo career, and is still establishing his sonic ideas. Two New York Times critics attended the first two nights of his Love on Tour run in New York to see how he wielded his gravitational pull.

JON CARAMANICA I always liked One Direction, more or less. Or maybe I liked what the group represented: a rejection of the hyperprocessed boy band, and by extension an acknowledgment that doing the least can still earn you the most. They weren’t trying to delude audiences about their artistry — their casualness was foundational to their appeal. But that approach wears thin in a solo act, and time and again during the Harry Styles show at the Garden on Saturday night, I found myself vexed. Off-the-charts charisma, collective exuberance, decently competent band, and yet at the center of it all, Styles was inscrutable. Musically, at least. I’ve rarely if ever seen someone more confident in their ownership of the stage, but everything underneath felt slight. All razzle, no dazzle. What am I missing? (I’m not missing anything.)

LINDSAY ZOLADZ Hmm, Jon, maybe a boa? Despite all of the construction around Madison Square Garden, I had no difficulty finding the venue’s entrance: I just followed the trail of rainbow feathers shed from the signature Styles neckwear that at least half of the audience seemed to be sporting. My thoughts today (and over the next several weeks of Styles’s 15-date residency) are with the Garden’s cleanup crew.

I’ve long considered One Direction to be the quintessential boy band of the fan-service era — expertly primed to respond to the demands of their devoted, social-media savvy stan army — and after catching Styles’s show on Sunday night, I’m ready to declare him the defining solo artist of that era, too. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a pop star wave so much from the stage in my entire life? Roughly a third of his performance seemed to comprise waving, pointing and blowing kisses to various sections of the audience, whose volume approximated a jet taking off. Most of the time I could not hear Styles’s voice well enough to determine if he was hitting all the notes, though the crowd’s reaction was energetic enough that they did not seem to care. This show felt, as so much of Styles’s music does, first and foremost for the fans, which — I agree — can sometimes make the man at the center of it all feel like a bit of an enigma.

CARAMANICA Let’s try to distill the Harry Styles musical proposition. He has nowhere near the determined agita of, say, Shawn Mendes; nowhere near the vocal litheness of Justin Bieber. (Also:#FreeZayn) And it goes without saying that despite the rampant Eltonisms on display throughout Styles’s solo catalog, and the (sub?)conscious echoes of John’s sartorial glamour in Styles’s Gucci gear, he has nowhere near John’s verve or panache. It is all quite a brittle foundation upon which to build this fame skyscraper.

But yes, the waving. Also the utterly-at-ease shimmying. And that thing he did mid-show where he took a fan’s cellphone and tried calling her ex on it. (Josh, if you’re reading this, you got washed, buddy — everyone at Madison Square Garden hates you.) See also: him singing “Happy Birthday” to his friend Florence. Florence Welch, of the Machine? No. Florence Pugh, his co-star in the upcoming film “Don’t Worry Darling”? Also no. Florence, daughter of Rob Stringer, chairman of Sony Music Group? Yes.

This is the essence of his appeal — his is not a top-down sort of fame. He’s the approachable but protective friend, the one who leads with good judgment and progressive wholesomeness. (At previous shows, he’s helped people come out, or to confess their love.) That’s part of why, even though public discussion of Styles often centers on his dating life or the ways he flirts with gender fluidity, his actual show is conventional and chaste. The most risqué bit was when he explained how the in-the-round performance would work. Sometimes, “we’ll be ass to face,” he said. “I’ll be sure to distribute face and ass equally throughout the show — there’s plenty to go around.” It was cheeky. Even “Watermelon Sugar,” his lightly erotic hit, was dry.

ZOLADZ Styles did not call any exes at our show, but he did a funny bit where he attempted to count all of the “golf dads” in the audience — 34, apparently. He also broke some solemn “bad news” about something that had happened just before the show: “I’ve blown my tongue on some soup.” So yes, effortlessly charismatic banter, and he works every corner of the stage. The set and wardrobe were a bit more minimal than I anticipated; I expected at least one costume change. But I would describe the look he was going for, in a red-and-white-striped jumpsuit, as “sexy candy cane.” The fashion, the fans, the force of personality — it feels like we’re talking about everything but the music here, which is perhaps telling. How did the songs strike you, Jon, and did you get anything out of them that you don’t get on his records?

CARAMANICA Basically, we’re of opposite opinions on Styles’s albums — I’m more partial to the most recent one, “Harry’s House,” and I know you lean more toward the previous one, “Fine Line.” When the songs were … funkier — and I use that designation extremely loosely — his performance felt more full. I’m thinking “Satellite,” and also “Cinema,” both from the new album — the rhythm section is in the lead, but doesn’t overpower him. I also liked what he did with “Adore You,” melting the chorus into more of a restrained tease. But when he went unadorned, like on “Matilda,” the air in the room felt heavier. And “Sign of the Times,” the first Styles solo hit, was ponderous, a karaoke take on mid-1970s power-mope.

ZOLADZ I sometimes detect a divide between the music Styles wants to make — the big, bold, if somewhat generic-sounding ’70s-style rock of his first album — and the more pop-oriented fare that better suits his personality. Not surprisingly, the songs that worked best for me live were the ones that manage to satisfy both of those impulses, like the groovy, Tame Impala-esque “Daylight” or the still-ubiquitous hit “As It Was.” I wish he’d ended the set on that note, but regrettably he had one more song to play after that, the stomping, Led-Zeppelin-cosplay rocker “Kiwi,” an unfortunate live staple that I consider one of his weakest songs. But, as ever, he seemed to relish playing the role of bombastic rock star, even if the material itself didn’t always electrify.

I found it refreshing, though, that Styles is not shying away from his former group on this tour: The first song on his preperformance playlist is One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” — much to the shrieking delight of the thousands of fans who sang along to every word — and during his set he actually played a louder and more rock-oriented version of One Direction’s 2011 hit “What Makes You Beautiful,” which happens to be from an album that his former bandmate Louis Tomlinson recently called a disparaging word we can’t print here. How did you feel about Styles’s raucous 1D cover, Jon?

CARAMANICA That was one of the musical high points, if not the peak. It was as if a rowdy bar band momentarily inhabited Styles’s very deliberately understated crew. On Saturday, too, people absolutely lost it when the opening bars of “Best Song Ever” hit right after the conclusion of Blood Orange’s temperate and tasteful opening set. It was the purest release of pent-up demand that I’ve witnessed in quite some time. And that’s how the rest of the night went, too — demand leading supply. Fervor without feeling (and certainly without friction). An arena-size canvas merely doodled on with pencil.

And for the record, a friend lent me her pink-and-white boa for a few songs — it didn’t help.

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