A special treat to end the week with – another essay from one of our Theology 101/G students, this time focusing on the theme of contemporary messiahs, or supersaviours. In particular, this essay considers the messianic qualities of Harry Styles, singer in the band One Direction and all round pop icon and hearthrob. The author of this fabulous essay is Courtenay James. Courtenay has just finished up her second year of a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Auckland, majoring in History and minoring in Ethnomusicology. She will spend her third and final year on an study abroad exchange to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An enthusiastic and unapologetic boy band fan, she spends most of her time thinking about her one true love – Harry Styles.
So, sit back and enjoy Courtenay’s essay on the heavenly Harry.
Thou shalt worship no other God: Unless he’s Harry Styles
by Courtenay James
According to Rolling Stone, Harry Styles is ‘the boy of the year of the girl’ (Sheffield, 2014). Genetically blessed with deep green eyes, just-rolled-out-of-bed hair and legs a supermodel would envy, Styles has a Jagger-esque aura about him, gliding coolly around in gold leather boots, too tight skinny jeans and his signature crucifix strung around his neck. One quarter of the uber boy band One Direction, Styles is undoubtedly the most popular, the most praised and in many ways, the most significant member. The phenomenon of teen worship of celebrities is nothing new, however recent cultural changes and Styles himself have changed the way celebrity idolatry works in society. It has even been suggested that ‘perhaps fame is the new religion, and celebrities our Gods’ (Abane 2009, p. 1). For many teen girls, Styles is in fact, their God/Jesus/Saviour/Messiah or any other religious figure that accurately embodies their adoration for him. Despite the Book of Exodus explicitly stating that there shall be no others before God, girls (religious or not) have disregarded this statement, elevating their own personal God, Harry Styles to the status of super saviour (Exodus 20:2-6; 34:14).
The phenomenon of ‘fandom’ is not a new concept, however the following that Styles and his fellow band mates have amassed has taken on a distinct identity.Teen girls are arguably one of the most powerful demographics on the planet – collectively, they have the ability to influence popular culture, set trends and have purchasing power worth billions of dollars each year. Teen girls are wirelessly connected, shaped by social media and shaping its development in return. Social media is a space ‘in which to engage in a practice (fandom) that has been ridiculed, dismissed and scorned by the dominant adult culture for decades’ (Mitchel and Walso 2007, p. 284). Despite their collective power, more often than not teenage girls are seen as the polar opposite of powerful; governed by emotion and controlled by what’s ‘hot or not’, teenage girls are assumed to be guided by emotion rather than logic, heart over head, an assumed trait that is viewed negatively in society.
A major part of Harry Styles’ appeal is his ability to validate the otherwise disregarded feelings of the teen demographic that worships him so dearly. The One Direction fandom views Styles as their almighty leader, a figure who creates a safe and supportive environment for fans to express emotions and passions. This imagined community is created through various means, whether it be the music the band produces, attending concerts or interacting with fellow fans on social media platforms such as Twitter or Tumblr.
The elevation of Styles to supersavior status is in part due to his unwavering crusade to empower young women. From the band’s first single “What Makes You Beautiful” to the track “Girl Almighty” off their most recent album, One Direction has made it their ‘core mission [to sing] to girls about how excellent they are’ (Sheffield 2015). “Girl Almighty” is a 3 minute and 21 second devotional from One Direction to their fans. The use of religious language in the lyrics is clear, with words such as saviour, light, believer and the title itself, “Girl Almighty”. One key lyric is repeated throughout the song, ‘I’d get down, I’d get down, I’d get down on my knees for you’. The song makes clear that the band members have not only fallen in love with the Girl Almighty, they worship her. “Girl Almighty” uses the same logic that Styles does in his attempts to make young women feel powerful, so much so that the song was used in a fan organized charity drive for Women’s Aid, ‘a charity that helps to support women and children suffering from domestic violence’ (Maximum Pop 2015).
Harry Styles’ ability to make girls feel important is one of the key factors in his elevation to the position of modern messiah. When performing, usually to tens of thousands in large stadiums, ‘every limb of his body is an instrument he uses to express to girls how happy he is to bask in their presence’ (Sheffield 2015). Styles is an enigma, encompassing all the boy band stereotypes (the ladies’ man, the baby, the dreamboat and a little bit of the bad boy) while at the same time completely rejecting them and forging his own identity.
Aware of his supersaviour status, Styles uses the phenomenon of celebrity worship to campaign for social justice, using his fame as a call to action to raise awareness of various causes. The importance he places on female empowerment is shown through his involvement in Emma Watson’s #HeForShe campaign, a movement for gender equality that has a strong presence on social media. Styles tweeted a photo of himself holding a sign with the hashtag #HeForShe, with the caption ‘”I’m supporting @UN_Women and @EmWatson in #HeForShe As should you..”, which garnered almost half a million favourites on Twitter. Styles consciously uses his immense influence on fans to raise awareness of philanthropic causes. The phenomenon of celebrity worship often results in fans imitating what their idols do, say or think, adopting various aspects of the celebrity’s identity in a way to feel a greater connection with them, in a similar way to religious devotees who aim to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Styles takes advantage of this devotion on social media, in interviews and in concerts.
The recently launched Action1D campaign, an effort that ‘supports the United Nations’ own 2015 Time for Global Action campaign to eradicate poverty, inequality and climate change’ (UN News Centre 2015) encourages fans to join together to create change. A promotional video on the Action1D website has Styles encouraging fan involvement, with a short monologue that includes statements such as ‘over the years you have shown us what you can achieve if you rally together’ and ‘time and time again you’ve shown us how incredible, passionate and creative you all are. And now we want to ask you to come together with us and use that to make a change for good (ibid).
Arguably his most passionate philanthropic cause is marriage equality. Unafraid to demonstrate his support for the LGBT community, Styles is frequently seen on stage at One Direction concerts with a rainbow flag draped across his shoulders. Matt Bellassai, a writer for Buzzfeed, proclaimed on Twitter that ‘@Harry_Styles is the most important LGBT icon of our time we are so blessed to have his prancing, flag-waving presence on this earth’. A 2013 protest by the Westboro Baptist Church outside a 1D concert in Missouri led to Styles tweeting ‘Despite the company outside, I believe in equal rights for everyone. I think God loves all. Thanks for coming to the show though,’ which was retweeted over 200,000 times. His mention of God in his tweet is significant, as both a response to the Church who labelled One Direction as ‘fag-enabling [and] God-hating’ and as an affirmation of his personal beliefs (Sieczkowski 2013).
Although ambiguous about his specific personal religious beliefs, he has affiliations with both the Christian and Jewish communities. Despite not actually being Jewish, Styles was named number 73 on the Jewish Chronicle’s Power 100 list (Jewish Chronicle 2015). According to the Chronicle, Styles ‘may not be Jewish but he seems very much at ease with a Jewish lifestyle, [wore] a silver Star of David at the Teen Choice awards, hangs out at kosher eateries and is not afraid to throw the odd Yiddish word or two into the conversation’, not to mention his Hebrew tattoos and his mention of Jewish festivals such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on social media (ibid). His place on the list is most likely due to the 25 million Twitter followers he influences, and is justified by the Chronicle due to the fact that ‘his Jewish knowledge is stronger than one has any right to expect from a 20-year-old boy-band singer from rural Cheshire’ (ibid).
In relation to Lawrence and Jewetts’s exploration of The American Monomyth, Styles has qualities similar to the author’s definitions of the contemporary messiah, which are evident in the way he is perceived by fans and in the media. A popular topic of discussion in the media, Styles is often discussed similar to the way the supersaviour is described by Lawrence and Jewett, as ‘utterly cool’ and ‘divinely competent’ (2002, p. 47). The media representation of him varies, from tabloid fodder to appearances on best dressed lists. However, the most in depth assessment of Styles’ came in a 2014 Rolling Stone article where he was described as ‘unprecedented’ and a ‘pure enigma’ (Sheffield 2014). Focusing on his charisma and enthusiasm, the author praises Styles for his divine competence, stating that ‘if [Styles] has any inner turmoil, he keeps it to himself… the strain of the pop hustle never leaves a mark on him. He has all the flash, without the neurotic wear and tear’ (ibid). The article later goes on to describe the developing mystery surrounding Styles, as ‘the more famous he gets, the more mysterious he seems’ (ibid). The article’s main narrative is one of praise, and comes to a point where the author states ‘Try to find a photo where he looks weary or bored. You can’t’ (ibid). The Rolling Stone article is a reflection of the way Styles has indeed shown qualities of a contemporary messiah. His philanthropic involvement, unwavering enthusiasm and the air of mystery surrounding him are all self made Messianic qualities, separate from the supersaviour status imposed on him by fans.
A popular topic for British tabloids, Styles has been the subject of various articles since his career began. The most popular topic seems to be his love life, however his philanthropic efforts and occasional ‘healing powers’ also seem to be well publicized. A 2014 Metro article ran with the headline ‘Kiss from Harry Styles gives mute girl back her voice, proves 1D star is basically Jesus’, describing a 15 year old girl who suddenly ‘came out talking’ after Styles moved closer to her during a concert (Yeatman 2014). The article quotes the 15 year old talking about the ‘miracle’, as she states ‘when he blew a kiss in my direction, a scream came out’ (ibid). The article finishes with a final quote from the girl, summarising the power of Styles; ‘No psychiatrist, no speech and language, no doctor or nurse could bring my voice back, but One Direction could (ibid). A 2014 Huffington Post article ran with the headline ‘Harry Styles Comforts Fan Mid-Panic Attack, Restores Our Faith In Humanity’ (Scherker 2014). Alongside media reports of Styles’ saviour-like behaviour, various posts on social media highlight his supposed divine being. A quick search of ‘Harry Styles is God’ on Twitter finds thousands of posts, mainly from the key fan demographic of teenage girls. Examples of tweets include ‘Harry is an angel sent from God to save me’, ‘Yo, God is real I saw him tonight taking the human form of Harry Styles. I’m feeling blessed’ and a personal favourite, ‘not to overreact or anything but Harry Styles is actually Jesus Christ himself’.
His ever growing hair has caused many fans to compare his looks to the ‘original’ Jesus Christ, with fans photo-shopping an image of Styles into Jesus’ likeness. A major element of Styles ‘supersaviour’ identity with fans is due to his physical appearance, similar to the #HotJesus phenomenon on Twitter. Harry Styles is not immune to sexualisation and neither is religion. As mentioned in the 2014 Rolling Stone article, his growing fame creates a sense of mystery about him (Sheffield 2014). Not unlike Jesus Christ, Styles has devoted followers that would do or say almost anything to be close to him or even see a glimpse of their hero. Fans devote money, time and attention and go to extremes to meet him and be in his presence, an encounter which many fans consider to be one of the best moments of their lives. The mystery of Styles causes disbelief that he is actually real until seen in person, on a scale similar to that of the Disciples not believing that Jesus had risen in Mark 16: 9-11, ‘When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it’ and Matthew 28: 16-17, ‘When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.’ Described as the ‘St. Thomas Effect’ in celebrity culture, this fan disbelief is compared to the ‘disciples of Jesus Christ [wanting] to touch him…to prove he was real’ (Lee 2009, p. 82). Comparative fan behaviour is seen in fans mobbing, following and often aggressively taking photos of Styles.
Despite his elevation to supersaviour status and the various characteristics of the modern messiah that Styles encompasses, he is in reality a 21 year old human from small town England, thrust into the spotlight on a reality television singing competition. He is not always prophetic or eloquent when delivering his messages of social justice, for example a recent crusade against SeaWorld was delivered to fans with a simple ‘Does anybody like dolphins? Don’t go to SeaWorld’. However, the dynamics of celebrity culture and the power of the teenage girl demographic have elevated Styles to a level of cultural superstardom, where he is no longer human but rather a divine being. To many, for various reasons (and by many, I mean millions), Styles is a God. And in the true era of 21st century consumerism, where not even religion escapes commodification, you can even purchase a Saint Styles candle for at home worship sessions.
“Harry Styles Prayer Candle. Saint Styles! Great Gift! Premium Handmade 9″ Soy Candle!” Etsy. Accessed October 8, 2015. https://www.etsy.com/nz/listing/241254717/harry-styles-prayer-candle-saint-styles.
“JC Power 100: Numbers 100 – 51.” The Jewish Chronicle. Accessed October 7, 2015. http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/121977/jc-power-100-numbers-100-51.
“One Direction Fans Make ‘Girl Almighty’ Empowerment Song for Women’s Aid. What a Bloody Lovely Idea!” Maximum Pop. April 26, 2015. Accessed October 4, 2015. http://www.maximumpop.co.uk/girl-almighty-1d-fans-give/.
“One Direction Launches New Campaign in Support of Action/2015.” UN News Center. July 10, 2015. Accessed October 1, 2015. http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2015/07/british-band-one-direction-rally-youth-to-take-action-on-poverty-climate-change/.
Scherker, Amanda. “Harry Styles Comforts Fan Mid-Panic Attack, Restores Our Faith In Humanity.” The Huffington Post. December 12, 2014. Accessed October 1, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/12/harry-styles-comforts-fan_n_6315014.html.
Sheffield, Rob. “Harry Styles: Boy of the Year of the Girl.” Rolling Stone. December 12, 2014. Accessed October 3, 2015. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/harry-styles-boy-of-the-year-of-the-girl-20141212.
Sheffield, Rob. “16 Reasons One Direction Are on Top of the Stadium Rock Game.” Rolling Stone. August 6, 2015. Accessed October 4, 2015. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/live-reviews/16-reasons-one-direction-are-on-top-of-the-stadium-rock-game-20150806?page=2.
Sieczkowski, Cavan. “Westboro Baptist Church Pickets One Direction Concert; Harry Styles Responds.” The Huffington Post. July 22, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/22/westboro-baptist-church-one-direction_n_3634663.html.
Yeatman, Dominic. “Kiss from Harry Styles Gives Mute Girl Back Her Voice, Proves 1D Star Is Basically Jesus.” Metro. July 13, 2014. Accessed October 8, 2015. http://metro.co.uk/2014/07/13/kiss-from-harry-styles-gives-mute-girl-back-her-voice-proves-1d-star-is-basically-jesus-4797064/.
Abane, Richard. Religions of the Stars: What Hollywood Believes and How It Affects You. Michigan: Baker Books, 2009.
Lawrence, John Shelton, and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
Lee, C. J. P. Celebrity, Pedophilia, and Ideology in American Culture. Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2009.
Mitchell, Claudia A., and Jacqueline Walsh. Girl Culture [Two Volumes] an Encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Pub. Group, 2007.
@aubrieharmonn. Twitter Post. October 4, 2015, 1:52 PM.
@badlandhemmo. Twitter Post. September 12, 2015, 2:48 PM.
@cailynveronica. Twitter Post. September 12, 2015, 11:50 PM.
@Harry_Styles. Twitter Post. July 19, 2013, 9:11 PM. https://twitter.com/harry_styles/status/358393633147326465
@Harry_Styles. Twitter Post. September 25, 2014, 11:45 AM. https://twitter.com/Harry_Styles/status/515165253068660736
@MattBellassai. Twitter Post. September 14, 2015, 12:05 PM. https://twitter.com/MattBellassai/status/643455570461200384
One Direction, “Girl Almighty,” in Four, Columbia Records, 2014.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV.