Anatomy of a heartthrob

Tuesday, July 3, 2018 - 5:45pm

Harry Styles

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Harry Styles is staring at me, and his eyes are bright green, wide open and beautiful. He’s kneeling down to come closer and his gaze is a straight shot directly down the center of the camera lens, piercing right through the screen to meet mine. “I’ve got a fire for a heart,” he says in a low clear voice, as if the nearly 800 million people watching didn’t already know.

Harry’s stare, and my subsequent heart-pounding magnetic reaction to it, is no coincidence. The fact that I feel as though he’s looking at me and me alone isn’t a mistake, because he doesn’t just happen to be a pretty boy looking into a camera, and I don’t just happen to be unable to look away. A lot of people are born with good faces, but heartthrobs aren’t made by accident.

Even though every aspect of a boy band performance is deliberately, artfully calibrated to maximize irresistibility, heartthrobs do their best to make it all seem effortless with those floppy mops of hair they all seem to have, falling into their eyes whenever they hunch over the mic stand. It’s tantalizingly messy, makes you want to run a hand through it — and that’s exactly the point. Shirts are always unbuttoned just one too many, in a quiet masterclass of revealing just enough to make you want more. In videos if they’re not looking dead on at the camera they’re usually backlit, with the roving lights crossing shadows over their faces, lighting the backs of their shoulders, the slopes of their necks, the tips of their curls. The cuts in their videos are quick, images rushing one after the other like a memory — a flash of a smile, a hit of the drum, a couple strides across the stage. It makes the viewer feel like you’re always chasing after them, always trying to get a better look.

It’s both mesmerizing and menacing, because the promise of a heartthrob is not unlike the promise of a pick-up artist. They look you in the eye and they swear that you light up their world like nobody else, that they hold a want that’s all-consuming and all for you. Then they smile, flip their hair out of their eyes and move on to the next girl at the show. The heartthrobs of the world chose their audience of young girls carefully, harnessing the power of teenage obsession by giving it a focus and tangible shape in the form of a boy with a guitar. 

If you ask me, there’s not much separating a boy band and a rock star, not in performance style, looks or audience demographics — the only discernible difference is the genre of music and the credibility that follows when the critical world assigns rock musicians a heavyweight status they don’t offer to boy bands. An ineffable rock star swagger unites the two, a type of posturing that can’t be taught, but can be harnessed with laser precision on the audience to incite a violent fervor of teenage lust.

There’s a classic performance of Zeppelin doing “Stairway” at Madison Square Garden that puts the swagger on display. Robert Plant makes even the act of standing up seem lazy, his body propped up at an angle, barechested in just a vest and all that curly hair. You pay close attention to his every move: The way his hand curls around the microphone, every pulse of his hips, every arc of his neck when he lets his hair fly back. Jimmy Page is close by. You can barely see his face. He’s slumped over his guitar. He’s wearing a dark jewel-encrusted jacket open with nothing under, and he’s covered in blue light — hair, skin and fretboards all glinting. They drip an almost alien sexuality, making an otherworldly spectacle of their very bodies on the stage. A careful push-pull of parts obscured and parts revealed. A shirt flaps open but the face is covered in the dark. A guitar gleams bright for only a second before the light roves somewhere else.

You can’t tear your eyes away by design, because sex and lust were always the pulse that drove the charisma of classic rock stars.

The fantasy of the heartthrob has remained remarkably consistent over the years, because by and large, teenage girls haven’t changed. If you went to a Stones concert in ’64, a Zeppelin concert in ’74 or a One Direction concert in 2014, the audience would be pretty much the same. Still a deafening roar of screams, still throwing their bras onstage, still reaching their hands in the air, to dance, yes, but mostly to grab hold of the boys onstage, because they feel (just as they've always felt) the pulse underneath the upbeat pop songs, the pulse of sexuality that's being sold.

It’s no accident that boy bands like One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer are marketed to teenyboppers, just barely on the cusp of discovering their sexuality, suddenly presented with a few perfect specimens onto which they can safely project all of their dreams and desires. Harry Styles would never spread rumors about you the way the boys at school do. All Harry Styles wants to do is look you in the eye, tuck a stray hair behind your ear and sing just for you about how beautiful you are. It’s a fantasy, a push-pull of what to reveal and what to obscure, all in the process of making real what had only ever been a figment of the imagination of teenagers everywhere.

In 5 Seconds of Summer’s single “Youngblood,” lead singer Luke Hemmings sings, “You push and you push and I’m pulling away / pulling away from you.” Here he’s tapping into the heart of the boy band’s promise, the promise of the oh-so-charming pick-up artist. “Youngblood / say you want me, say you want me,” he sings, almost taunting his audience, who wants him to want them as badly as they do him, knowing full well it’s the only desire that he could never ever satisfy. To them, he’s pushing and pulling away, but they want to be the girl he’s singing to, the one he wants so bad it hurts. But he’s not singing to them and he never will — he’s singing to their hunger, the indescribable desire screaming out of control that all teenage girls carry with them.

It’s funny, because boy bands are almost universally dismissed as light and disposable, but there’s nothing delicate or gentle or any of the other attributes we call stupid and code feminine about the hunger that propels them. There is a fundamental violence in a horde of girls chasing these boys through a mall like they want to eat them alive. Or in a stadium full of people chanting the name of a boy until their throats are hoarse, like a teen girl funhouse mirrored two minute hate. They form a mob, screaming and starving, an obsession that’s both completely insane and completely innocuous. Innocuous because it’s a well regarded fact, universally understood that this is just what teenage girls do. They bare their teeth with tears running down their faces and young blood pulsing through their outstretched hands reaching for the stage, curling into fists and punching the air, clawing and screaming, making presents of their very bodies — making any excuse to get closer.

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