The Harry hype is real. For its first day back in three years, Coachella has been absolutely buzzing with glee at the prospect of the former One Direction star making his debut as headliner of the California festival. About to release his third album, Harry’s House, a not-so subtle reference to the Joni Mitchell song “Harry’s House/Centerpiece”, the pop singer relies on sonic references that are as calculated as his outfits. He’s as much a muse to Gucci and British designer Molly Goddard as he is a musical magpie, with influences spanning David Bowie to Elton John and Fleetwood Mac. His shape-shifting chart fodder is made with wide-open stages and mammoth audiences in mind.
Tonight, the crowd is the biggest it’s been all day, and Styles is resplendent in a giant fluffy coat resembling a plucked ostrich. Halfway through his opening song, the brand new “As It Was”, the coat comes off. Styles is now a human mirror ball in a sleeveless, sequined jumpsuit – which just about covers his nipples, but leaves his bristly man-cleavage and heavily tattooed arms on full display – and a pair of Cuban heels. It’s all very, very Freddie Mercury.
“Good evening,” he offers earnestly. “My name is Harry. It’s a pleasure to be here tonight.” The chat is a touch end-of-the-pier cheeseball: lots of references to “giving it 200 per cent” and how “we’ve got some old ones and some new ones and some surprises”. But he certainly delivers on the surprises. Not content with simply wowing the old school fans – of which there are evidently many – by playing One Direction’s 2011 hit “What Makes You Beautiful”, he also brings out Shania Twain. The country superstar is wearing even more glitter than Styles, and, in her spangly mini dress and white Gogo boots proceeds to belt out “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” as Styles occasionally joins in. Mostly he just looks on adoringly.
As she settles down on a stool, Twain also delivers her breakthrough Nineties hit “Still the One”, but not until the two share some fawning compliments. “In the car with my mother as a child, this lady taught me to sing,” says Styles. “She also taught me that men are trash.” Then it’s Twain’s turn: “I’m kind of lost for words. I’m a bit starstruck.” Styles later tries to lean into his evident Jackson Browne and James Taylor obsession with new track “Boyfriends”, a soppy acoustic number about men taking their partners for granted, which he introduces to cheers with a dashing: “To boyfriends everywhere, f*** you.”
If Styles’s aim tonight is to transform from pop prince into rock titan, he’s not succeeded. The likes of “Watermelon Sugar” and “Adore You” are flawlessly delivered, but the rehearsed lines and their somewhat corny delivery lack the spontaneity of a proper rock’n’roll show. It’s his boundless glossiness, though, that makes him a star.