Harry Styles dances like someone alone in his bedroom — only the bedroom is the enormous main stage at Coachella and his audience of stuffed animals is a heaving hormonal sea of besotted young men and women.
Having emerged atop a staircase to squeals of ecstasy across the festival field Friday night, the English heartthrob and former boy-band sensation swanned down to center stage like Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” slipped off the fabulous feathered robe he’d been wearing to reveal a more-fabulous sequined jumpsuit, then proceeded to shake, shimmy and whirl as he opened his headlining set with a breathless run through his new single “As It Was” (dreamy-jittery a-ha-style synth-pop) into his old hit “Adore You” (woke-romantic soul-rock about how “you don’t have to say you’re mine”).
One-two punch promptly delivered, he took in the expanse of the massive crowd before him and grinned. “It’s big in here, innit?” he asked, as though he’d have worn the jumpsuit had there been just a few of us out there.
Maybe he would’ve: For all his Freddie Mercury-at-Live Aid showmanship, Styles performs pop stardom with a distinctly personal touch — not in the sense that his lyrics divulge much about his closely guarded private life but in the way he makes his fans feel like they’re taking part in the rituals alongside him. It’s why he’s been able to transition credibly from his teen-idol days with One Direction to his current status as perhaps the only Gen Z hero allowed to have a mustachioed guitarist take three separate solos in one song (as Mitch Rowland did to great fanfare in “Woman”). He’s skilled, he’s savvy, he’s insanely sexy. But somehow he’s never too cool for the room.
Styles is on a world tour right now behind 2019’s “Fine Line” — like Coachella, it was delayed a couple years by the pandemic — and here he did bits and pieces of that glittery, well-rehearsed road show, including a throbbing “Golden,” a hard-rocking “Kiwi” and a moment where someone throws a pride flag onstage and he grabs it and gives it a hearty wave. He also reached back, as he always does, for 1D’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” which inspired a singalong loud enough to make you realize how many of today’s Coachella-goers weren’t alive when the festival started in 1999.
Yet Styles also used the opportunity to launch his upcoming album, “Harry’s House,” which is due next month. In addition to “As It Was,” he played two unreleased cuts from the record: “Boyfriends,” a lovely acoustic ballad with lush, Laurel Canyon-ish vocal harmonies — one presumes the album title is a nod to Joni Mitchell’s “Harry’s House,” from “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” — and “Late Night Talking,” which summoned some of the same wearing-a-sportcoat-in-the-’80s energy as John Mayer’s recent “Sob Rock.”
Before “Boyfriends,” he asked how many people in the crowd had had a boyfriend and how many hadn’t. Then he added: “To boyfriends everywhere: F— you.”
Because this was Coachella, Styles brought out a surprise guest in Shania Twain, the pop-country icon who laid some important groundwork back in the ’90s for any musician interested in combining aw-shucks and gee-whiz. Together they sang a pitch-perfect version of Twain’s bouncy “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” — seminal gender-studies text, it turns out — and a slightly wobblier take on “You’re Still the One,” for which they sat on matching stools, her bedazzled outfit just as sparkly as his.
Movingly, Styles told the crowd, “In the car with my mother as a child, this woman taught me to sing.” And with a deeply trained ear for a viral soundbite, he added, “She also taught me that men are trash.” Twain told Styles she was “a bit starstruck” to be onstage with him and that it was “surreal” to sing with him, since he was “just a little kid” when she wrote “You’re Still the One.”
The duo’s connection appeared genuine, just as it did when Styles launched his first two albums with concerts in Los Angeles and he brought out Stevie Nicks for unannounced duets. A twentysomething dude who stans middle-aged women for their artistry? He’s earned the stanning he himself receives.
After Twain split, Styles did a tart “Watermelon Sugar” with help from a large marching-band horn section that briefly conjured memories of Beyoncé’s all-time-greatest Coachella performance in 2018. Like Beyoncé, he wants to build a world for his audience — a place better than ours, a place ruled by love and mutual respect (and gleaming textiles). Unlike Beyoncé, Styles isn’t putting himself up for the job of that world’s unquestioned leader. He’s a fan, almost like you, working through his many enthusiasms, ensuring you’ve got a place in the celebration.