Never Go Out Of Style
There is a small risk here I'm going to begin by rehashing old arguments, but the point is still worth making. Watching the various members of the uber-boy band One Direction be turned into solo stars in their own right always gives me a wry smile, given that they were never a group to begin with but instead were failed X Factor auditionees as solo stars. The producers didn't rate their talents enough to take them up on that option but instead called them back to see if they fitted for the idea of a boy band they were creating specifically to compete on the show. Fast forward seven years or so and suddenly we are back to square one as it is now presumed that each, in turn, has the polished talents and the charisma to have a stage of their own.
If you had to pick one One Directioner to be pushed to solo fame then it was perhaps always going to be Harry Styles. Easily the most charismatic (and dare we say it best looking) of the bunch, his ability to send fellow female auditionees doolally was already the stuff of gossip columns even during the pre-broadcast stages of the show in 2010. Fast forward to actual celebrity and he's made headlines for seducing one of the show's co-hosts before moving on to genuine American superstars. What his voice sounds like is irrelevant. Harry Styles is publicity gold and genuinely needed little grooming or marketing.
So it was that last week, following in the footsteps of ZAYN, Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson he unveiled his first ever solo single to what has to be acknowledged was widespread acclaim. Sign Of The Times is a pop music event in every sense of the word. A lavish, haunting and intense ballad which had just about every reviewer groping around in their memories for a hot take on just who it reminded them of. The song is Bowie-esque in its conception and scale but has shades of George Michael in its production and delivery. It is Coldplay attempting to be Pink Floyd and just about getting away with it. In the hands of any other artist Sign of The Times would be hailed as a masterpiece. You understand completely why a song of this magnitude has been handed to an act as high priority as Harry Styles even if at the same time it seems a shame to waste it on a former reality TV star. But such is the millstone Harry Styles will always have around his neck - the boy who once upon a time wasn't quite good enough to pass muster in front of Simon, Cheryl, Danni and Louis.
The single is Number One on the Official UK Singles chart this week, bringing, for now, the domination of Ed Sheeran to a crashing halt. I'd have been tempted to write "inevitably" but in actual fact, his sales victory was by no means inevitable. Front-loaded from the outset, a midweek lead of over 15,000 on Monday had slipped to just 8,000 copies two days later and indeed the Harry Styles single tops the charts this week by a margin of a mere 3,000 copies. It is easily the most-purchased track this week, but quite significantly only ranks 6th place on the streaming chart.
Comparisons with his former colleague Zayn Malik are inevitable and I see no reason to shy away from them here. We cannot compare chart sales as the methodology has shifted since and we would not be comparing like with like. So let's deal with actual numbers instead - ZAYN's debut single Pillowtalk entered the charts at Number One in February 2016 with a paid for sale of 62,778 and 4,971,000 streams. Harry Styles, by contrast, saw his single purchased a mere 39,428 times and picked up just 3,520,000 streams. This was by no means the walk in the park some were predicting for the single. It has topped the charts with a total sale that is no more than average (and in 2017 terms quite some way below it) and it owes a great deal to the good fortune to be released at the precise moment the Ed Sheeran juggernaut is finally running out of fuel.
There was a presumption that the whole One Direction factor would be enough to give him a substantial edge. Yet the group themselves launched a full five and a half years ago - a lifetime in pop music terms even in this era of supperannuated and everlasting hit acts. The knicker-wetting hysteria, the weirdly obsessive Twitter-based followers and above all their guaranteed sales core actually belong to a generation ago - and significantly a generation whose purchasing habits are no longer in step with the streams-first nature of the business now. On that basis perhaps it isn't so much of a surprise that Harry Styles was given the A* material to open his solo career with. To make the biggest splash of all he genuinely needed all the help he could get.
One Direction do therefore become one of only a handful of groups to see more than one of their members go on to reach the top of the charts as solo performers, this thanks to ZAYN's Pillowtalk grabbing a week of glory just over a year ago. One Direction are therefore now level in these terms with Take That (Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams), one behind The Beatles (John, Paul and George) but still seem unlikely to match the all-time Queens of solo success The Spice Girls who over the years have seen four of their five members hit Number One in their own right with only Victoria Beckham famously (and notoriously) managing no more than a Number 2 hit.
The other notable thing about Sign Of The Times is its length - the track clocking in at a huge 5:40 in its unedited form. That's enough to make it the longest-running Number One hit since Stan by Eminem topped the chart in December 2000 with a full length running time of 6:44. The longest Number One single in chart history remains All Around The World by Oasis which topped the charts in 1998 and which demanded your attention for a full 9 minutes 38 seconds.
With such a tenuous grasp on the top of the charts Sign Of The Times could well wind up as one of the shortest-lived Number One hits for many months. Not that the label seem all that bothered about the prospect of it being a one or two week wonder on the charts. Plans are advanced for his debut album to come out next month. The last time Harry Styles released something that quickly, Taylor Swift wrote half an album about it.
Everybody Still Wants To Fly
Still, if we can take one thing away from the events of this week it is that for the first time since January we aren't talking about Ed Sheeran having the Number One single in the UK. Shape Of You is dumped down to Number 2, still far and away the most played track of the week with a massive 6.8m streams, but its paid for sales have now taken the inevitable dive, the track now merely Number 4 on the old school sales table. Presuming it just doesn't have anything left to climb back to the top, the Number One run of Shape Of You ends this week at 13 weeks - the only single in chart history to have the rather superstitious number as its total weeks at the top. The arrival of the Harry Styles single at the top also spoils the rather fun run that Sheeran's Galway Girl single had embarked on, its dip to Number 3 ending its own 5-week stay at Number 2 meaning it too falls short of potentially breaking the seven-week record for a hit in the runner's up position.
Green Light On Your Skin
Nobody else was stupid enough to release a high profile new track (or tracks) in opposition to the Styles single so the rest of the upper end of the singles chart takes on a rather more familiar look, although once again the gradual drifting away of the multitude of Sheeran and Drake tracks allows everyone else to consolidate their positions still further. The most prominent winner is Rag'N'Bone Man whose second hit single Skin lifts to Number 18 (Sales: 7, Streams: 35) to reclaim the chart peak it first scaled on March 9th - you guessed it, the last week before the Sheeran invasion.
Meanwhile at 20 (Sales: 18, Streams: 31), one place behind Boney's other hit, is Lorde who claims a new peak with Green Light thanks to a seven place climb and who can now boast a second Top 20 hit to finally follow her Number One debut Royals from 2013.
We Don't Have To Take Our Masks Off
It may not be the simplest viral video craze to participate in, requiring no small amount of musical skill, but the growing appeal of the "Mask Off Challenge" has seen the track in question - Mask Off by Future continue its rise up the charts, the single jumping 33-26 (Sales: 42, Streams: 17). The production of the rap hit (which I can't properly share here as it doesn't yet have an official video) is based around a distinctive flute line, and it is this melody which has become the subject of the YouTube challenge, with other musicians attempting to recreate it in their own style. Spontaneous or some clever marketing, who knows? But it helps to make this track more notable than might otherwise have been the case. Future until now has been best known for his collaborative work on more than a few Drake tracks. With this single he now is well on the way to a bone fide smash of his own.
Last Thing On My Mind
Harry aside, the single creating the most buzz in the last week has been On My Mind from Disciples. The South London trio are best known for working with Calvin Harris on 2015 hit single How Deep Is Your Love, although they can boast one 'solo' hit of their own as well - They Don't Know which reached Number 24 a few months before the Harris track. The house cut On My Mind was actually the tenth most purchased track last week, its overall chart position of Number 34 a consequence of low levels of streams which see the track reach a mere Number 83 on that chart. Keep your fingers crossed though, this is easily the coolest club cut of the moment. And it doesn't sound in the least bit tropical either.
This isn't quite the biggest disparity between sales and combined chart placings of the week though. That honour goes to the new Beyonce single Die With You which was bought enough times to rank at Number 19 on the sales chart, but as a Tidal exclusive (can't imagine why) for now it attracted practically zero attention as a stream and consquently only charts at Number 62.