Harry Styles, Lil’ Nas X, and the politics of male rock star style

Every time Lil Nas X steps out wearing a dazzling Balmain cropped blouse or Harry Styles rocks a pink manicure and pearl necklace, their fans fade, the internet explodes with a thousand pieces of thought about the state of gendered fashion, and the not-so-fun social conservatism types grab their pearls. This is nothing new. If you are flipping old versions of rolling rock or circusyou’ll realize that all that really happened is that our rock stars (a term today that has little to do with the musical genre) have gone back to dressing like rock stars, with all the sexual trimmings.

Fifty years ago, David Bowie introduced his gender-defying Ziggy Stardust character. 10 years later, came Prince’s trade record breakout, 1999And then he showed up on the red carpet with all of his booty on display in a way that made Kardashian blush. Although recent decades have favored a more aggressively heterogeneous aesthetic, the fact remains that popular music, since the days when Little Richard wore his perfect vibe and Elvis Presley rocked his hips in his “Jailhouse Rock” outfit, has been one of the Western music arenas The prevailing few culture in which men can freely design themselves in a way that excites and ignores bisexuality and treats the male body as an unabashedly sexual being.

Rock and roll started as music for young people. He is obsessed with identity formation. says Tim Riley, music critic and professor at Emerson College who wrote the book The Fever: How Rock and Roll Transformed Sex in America. “People have always been more free in rock and roll to express their eccentricity than in most other media. Places like Hollywood have been playing catch-up for a long time.”

Harry Styles embraces gender fluid tailoring and playfully subverts “polite” accessories, as seen in (clockwise from top left) the Gucci leather and boa suit he wore on stage at the 2021 Grammy Awards; Arturo Obegero embroidered set from the “As It Was” music video; The 2019 look at the Met Gala by Gucci; Gucci Love on Tour costume; A corrugated silk moirei suit designed by Harris Reed for the “Lights Up” video.

Indeed, there may be no better measure of an era’s sexual mores and gender politics than in the coffers of our most respected male musicians. Some notable examples right now: At the 2021 VMAs, Lil Nas X commissioned Versace to create a tribute to Prince. Styles used to wear genderless feminine or designer clothes in his music videos, from the sheer Lazoschmidl blouse in “Lights Up” to the two-piece Arturo Obegero in the red he chose for “As It Was.” Even Shawn Mendes contrasts his understated, boy-next-door personality with a penchant for displaying his chiseled torso. Then there’s Bad Bunny, who can get away with just about anything—from a powder blue suit, like the one he wore at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, to a pink puffer jacket, as seen in Jacquemus’ recent campaign, where he was otherwise naked and on Jet Ski – and make it feel exciting. Damiano David, lead singer of the award-winning Italian rock band Eurovision, often mixes fetish gear with Gucci’s underwear. And speaking of lingerie, Troy Sivan recently revived the great tradition of rock star thongs; His stylist, Kadeer Rajab, often gets direct messages from fans about the brand the singer wore in his “You” video. (The thong was $10, purchased on Hollywood Boulevard.)

“Right now, everything is unpredictable,” says Storm Pablo, a designer who works with Bad Bunny. “I think that’s really cool for us, because the style we go with is about feeling. We’ve developed this really funky look.”

In order to understand the pendulum swing from Axl Rose in Betsey Johnson leggings to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell The ’90s and early 2000s vibes, it’s helpful to take a look back at the Reagan years. In 1985, Tipper Gore co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center, after being shocked by the words one of her daughters was listening to. The group produced a list called “Filthy Fifteen,” which featured songs they found most offensive. You can’t help but feel that Gore and her pals were particularly uncomfortable with male sexuality: Prince’s Darling Nikki took number one, but the list also included entries from Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe and Judas Priest, whose lead singer, Rob Halford, He will appear gay years later. Meanwhile, the HIV/AIDS crisis raged, decimating gay communities and shattering the sex-positive spirit and gender redefinition these musicians had implanted.

What next, now that a guy in an embroidered suit has stopped getting so much reaction? Most likely, we will reach a point where it seems that the classification of fashion by gender is completely outdated.

When Generation X came of age, looks were sinister, bulky, and body-neutral: Kurt Cobain’s casual fondness for women’s dress or sunglasses was the exception, and most of his Sub Pop Records compatriots were content with his thrift-store uniforms, flannels and ill-fitting jeans. Mainstream hip-hop stars like Notorious BIG wore loose-fitting shirts and Timberland work boots. The stylistic shift has also coincided with a change in the way music is marketed. Suddenly, rock music was directed primarily at straight, angry guys. No need for flashy outfits – JNCO jeans will fit right in.

“It wasn’t great to be seen in anything but slept the day before. It was totally personal, let’s say it was kind of like anti-magic,” said event producer Ellen Sheppard Gallagher, former director of shows for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Face it – even if it’s not inflamed. Every musician who gets up there adopts some kind of self-reflection, to put himself in his shoes. This is always reflected in their clothes.”

In the early days, the style of the male top 40 was bleak. Nickelback scored eight number-one hits on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock charts, but specifically no memorable outfit. (One exception during this era was André 3000 for OutKast, in his impressive collection.) The politics of deference in the Obama years prompted a focus on the tailored suit, culminating in Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s 2013 anthem, “Suit & Tie.” Suddenly, the biggest rock stars on the planet adopted the same dress code as him 30 rocksJack Donaghy – Great for polishing their images as multi-link tycoons, but not so much to spark the audience’s imagination. Wasn’t music supposed to provide relief from a strained corporate culture?

Lil Nas X often goes for body looks, accentuating or stylizing it, including (clockwise from top left) the Atelier Versace suit and matching cowboy hat he wore to the 2020 Grammy Awards; layer of gilded armor from his three-part collection from Atelier Versace at the Met Gala in 2021; Balmain’s pearl-encrusted jumpsuit from the 2022 Grammy Awards; Purple Atelier Versace suit with train, from the 2021 VMAs; Crystal-embellished cropped top and pants, Balmain, from the 2022 Grammy Awards.

Which brings us back to sequins, ruffles, and glitter. As a new generation re-establishes sweeping nods to rock star style, it looks to the past. Harry Styles drew much of his portrait on the well-established tradition of music ownership in England: His green faux-fur rattlesnake over a leather jacket (sans shirt, of course) at the 2021 Grammy Awards was a tribute to glam rock pioneer Mark Bolan of T. Rex. The Burberry skirt dress that Bad Bunny rocked on the same night was an echo of the Michael Fish-designed “dress man” scandal that Mick Jagger made famous in 1969. Lil’ Nas X’s best looks remember not only Prince, but hip-hop pioneers like Fab 5 Freddy’s Never shy away from the full leather look.

The previous generation avoided questions about its identity by espousing the comforting ambiguity of male femininity. “You’ve got your mother on a whirl. Bowie sang on ‘Rebel Rebel’ not sure if I was a boy or a girl.” I’m not a woman. I am not a man. I’m something you’ll never understand,” Prince echoed 10 years later. In 2022, after LGBTQ+ communities have been fighting for decades to be themselves, such cunning performances may be in danger of falling apart. Today’s audience is calling for greater clarity and authenticity: Lil Nas X, Sivan, and Ole Alexander from UK chart-topping Years & Years magazine, Styles flies flags of pride at his concerts and on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy FallonBad Bunny once wore a T-shirt in honor of a murdered trans woman. However, some pessimists assume their clothes are little more than a style race designed to grab attention and spark discussion on social media. “I definitely see it on the internet all the time. Some people feel he does things just to get certain groups of people excited,” says Pablo of his reactions to Bad Bunny. “It’s not that. We’re definitely moving with a goal.” Rajab points out that unlike Hollywood stars, who often appear on the red carpet to promote projects that are not their own, musicians sell themselves as producers. “Musicians try to align their style with the music they’re playing — really that stage in their lives,” he says.

Regardless of the personal narratives, the true strength of all these costumes is revealed in the cascading effect they have on audiences. “Once the audience saw rock stars wearing these things on stage, they felt much freer to embrace those fashions themselves,” Gallagher notes. Rajab, for example, opened his eyes when he started working with Sevan after spending most of his career in magazines and advertisements. “It’s always now in the back of my mind, how expressing yourself and increasing confidence can have such an impact,” he says of the response he’s seen from Sevan’s fans. “They can’t afford these designer brands, so they make their own versions. They collect everything they can from the thrift store and create their own personalities.”

Riley sees a straight line from Elton John to Lil Nas X, but also wonders what’s next, now that a man in an embroidered suit has stopped causing so much reaction. Are we doomed to go back to men in lousy shirts and jeans? Probably. Most likely, we will reach a point where it seems that the classification of fashion by gender is completely outdated.

There is no doubt that rock ‘n’ roll helped reshape our views of sex in the post-war period and brought ideas about free love and gay liberation straight into the mainstream. Young musicians today are growing up in an environment where sex is no longer a taboo. The Rolling Stones were the music of their ancestors. Generation Z is increasingly questioning bisexuality, and those old, hermaphrodite intercourses are no longer enough. “It’s all about the culture you’re really grappling with, ‘Who am I?’ How does it fit me? Riley says. “The question now is, what will culture see as dominant forms, not only of males and females, but of new identities as well?”

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