Would his gaydar be going off? Would he frown upon the new hedonism of the Watermelon Sugar music video?
There’s no doubt that Oscar Wilde, whose work is heavily influenced by the philosophies of aestheticism, would have something to say about Harry Styles, the singer whose evolution embodies Wilde’s idea that “Each of us has heaven and hell in him.”
Harry Styles’ career took off while a member of a bubblegum pop boy band in which he was known endearingly as the one who wore bow ties and blazers. Ten years later, he made a complete 180-degree turn as a solo artist, underscored by the release of the hit-single-turned-anthem-of-the-summer Watermelon Sugar, the music video for which he is singing about cunnilingus while surrounded by several bikini-clad women.
Harry Styles is not anywhere near as superficial or morally destructive as Dorian Gray, the fictional character upon which much of Wilde’s aesthetic commentary surrounds, yet the contrast between One Direction era Harry Styles and Watermelon Sugar era Harry Styles is as stark as the contrast between Dorian Gray’s first and last portrait. Oscar Wilde certainly would have an opinion on why that’s the case. His views on literary and artistic aesthetics — creating art for the sake of art, freeing it from morality or utility, and rejecting the limitations of society on artistry — all appear in Harry Styles’ artistic journey as well in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. We can therefore piece together what Wilde might think about him.
One Direction Fame
“I have given away my whole soul to some one who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day.”
It is in this comment that Basil Hallward, the artist whom Oscar Wilde speaks through in The Picture of Dorian Gray, acknowledges the superficial misperception subjected to his painting into which he regrettably put too much of his soul. Wilde would recognize the same in the art that Harry Styles created while in One Direction. Harry Styles became an accidental sellout who, based on his humble beginnings, no doubt cared about the art of making music even while in a boy band. However, under the control of Modest! Management, his talents were exploited and diluted to fit a brand. Wilde would’ve recognized that Harry Styles’ musical talents were more substantial than just lyrics commercialized for 12-year-old girls, because to Basil Hallward, Dorian Gray’s portrait was more substantial than paint on a canvas — it embodied “the harmony of soul and body.”
“All the candor of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world.”
Harry Styles was only 16 years old when he auditioned for The X Factor and became part of One Direction, his only prior real-world experience being working part-time at a local bakery. Wilde would compare this naive, X Factor Harry Styles’ to the person Dorian Gray was before Lord Henry Wotton messed with his head. To highlight the destruction caused by excessive indulgence in worldly pleasures, Wilde depicts Dorian’s new lifestyle as one controlled by consequences, most of which are visually manifested in the prized painting of his likeness. Wilde would therefore view Harry Styles covering his body in tattoos as a symbolic representation of his failure to keep himself “unspotted from the world,” physical evidence of being corrupted by the toxic influence of fame and the music industry.
“People are afraid of themselves nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself.”
Much of Harry Styles’ music career has been defined by the creative repression of One Direction. Oscar Wilde, who was familiar with repression and censure in both his personal and professional life, would say that Harry Styles owes himself, just as Lord Henry Wotton reminds Basil Hallward. Harry Styles lost his individuality in a boy band, and Wilde would agree that it was his duty to reclaim it by means of establishing a new solo career. In accordance with his philosophy on aestheticism, which addresses the limitations of society on artists, Wilde would never classify One Direction music as “true art,” because he would consider the expectations of One Direction fangirls as a limitation on songwriting. In fact, Wilde believed that “art should never try to be popular,” but One Direction’s music seems to exclusively do just that — to cater to teenage girls for the sake of marketability.
“A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognized himself for the first time.”
While in One Direction, Harry Styles never had the chance to establish a personal style on his own terms, as the band stylist and her team was in charge of dressing each of the members in a cohesive, marketable, boy bandish way. Since beginning a solo career, Harry Styles now has his own designer, and has liberated himself from the basicness of white t-shirts and normal-colored pants. Oscar Wilde, a fashion pariah in his own time, would determine that the current, comparatively avant-garde-dressing, much happier-looking Harry Styles is the real Harry Styles.
“‘It is such a bore putting on one’s dress-clothes,’ muttered Hallward. ‘And, when one has them on, they are so horrid … the costume of the nineteenth century is detestable. It is so somber, so depressing. Sin is the only real color-element left in modern life.’”
As someone who always kept a flower in his lapel and was known for dressing as if he was going to a costume party every time he stepped out in public, Oscar Wilde would’ve undoubtedly shared the same “sinful” fashion principles as Harry Styles. Harry Styles’ flamboyant Wilde-reminiscent way of dressing doesn’t jive well with the stereotypically girl-crazy boy band image. But his sense of style is no longer Seventeen Magazine friendly; instead his fashion faux pas frequently land him on all the Worst Dressed Lists, which Oscar Wilde would’ve been featured in too, had they existed in his time.
“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.”
Through Basil Hallward, Oscar Wilde points out what he believes to be a flaw in the contemporary art scene, that beautiful art worth showcasing should not revolve entirely around the artist’s ego. Harry Styles, on the contrary, always puts all of himself as well as his love life into his lyrics, thereby committing “artistic idolatry,” as Wilde describes it. Basil Hallward, and therefore Wilde, speaks to the distaste for capitalizing on love, especially how poets “know how useful passion is for publication. Nowadays a broken heart will run into many editions.” So even though this is what sells Harry Styles’ music, Oscar Wilde would question the motivation and value of Harry Styles’ songs, and would disagree about what the poet’s relationship to his art should be.
“But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them! And yet what a subtle magic there was in them!”
After conversing with Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian Gray compares his internal conflict to “curious pulses of music.” Wilde therefore considers music, especially the words, as influential as new hedonism is to Dorian Gray, a sentiment reflected in his famous quote “Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory.” Wilde would therefore easily consider Harry Styles’ new music as art, though he would place a great deal of emphasis on the lyrics and their relationship to aesthetics.
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
The most talked-about Harry Styles song to-date is Watermelon Sugar, which touches upon the same themes Oscar Wilde addresses though Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward. The song sneakily talks about oral sex, which is only made obvious upon careful re-listening or by watching the metaphorically explicit music video depicting an indulgent Harry Styles sloppily eating and suggestively touching the “watermelons” of his female friends. Basil Hallward would deem this behavior as a product of new hedonism and would condemn Harry Styles’ disregard for conventional morality. But Lord Henry Wotton would deem it as a necessary extension of his “natural passions,” and he would likely praise its relationship to the Hellenic ideal. Therefore, Wilde himself would appreciate the balance of heaven and hell, particularly the way in which the sexual meaning is beautifully and melodically hidden in the deceptively innocent repetition of “watermelon sugar,” a direct reference to Richard Brautigan’s 1968 novel In Watermelon Sugar.
For Watermelon Sugar alone, Oscar Wilde would be proud of Harry Styles’ masterfully aesthetic approach to creating a musical work of art, especially his adherence to the idea that morality makes art irrelevant, because it shouldn’t exist for any motive other than beauty. It’s very likely that Harry Styles could’ve actually been inspired by Oscar Wilde, at the very least by his way of dressing, because even his fashion designer Harris Reed, admitted in an interview with GQ Magazine that he is drawn to “things that I imagine Oscar Wilde wearing.” But Oscar Wilde probably would’ve hated to be compared to Harry Styles, as he prided himself on his individuality, which ironically is something the two share. Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde’s artistry certainly paved the way for people like Harry Styles, and for us as well, because taking on an aesthete approach, especially in the way Oscar Wilde does, adds an exciting new dimension to our perception of art and its relationship to the artist.