The Ridiculous Joy of Teenage Girls (or How I was Radicalized into the Harry Styles Fandom)
Sometimes it is odd teaching at the same all-girls high school I attended. It is important to note at no point in high school was I a cool girl. My friends and I had a joint Disney princess themed 16th birthday party. We attended Lord of the Rings midnight premieres in full costume and referred to each other by the names of fictional characters we related to perhaps too closely. We started a rock band at sophomore retreat with a kazoo and a cookie tin and kept it up through senior year, ending with an electric guitar and crowd surfing. (If any part of this sounds like it might have been cool in retrospect, rest assured it has only been baptized by unapologetic joy.) At no point was cool really an option – but also, I wasn’t much concerned with it.
I’m not sure when, but that changed between high school and 2011 when One Direction rose to fame. A newly minted college grad – sophisticated, self-aware, and semi-indie in my music taste – I was pretty sure that I was too cool for boy bands. I dismissed them for a decade.
That is, until I returned to teach at my alma mater and came under those most dangerous of influences: boy-band merch and the passionate joy of teenage girls.
This is the story of what my teenage students taught me. As such, I will be relying on their wisdom, most particularly a current senior who I had the joy of teaching as a sophomore and junior.
In early January of 2020, one of my sophomores, Dylan, came to first period toting a Harry Styles blanket in honor of his newly released album.
Dylan had made it her mission to get all her classes to take a picture with the blanket and, thus, spread the gospel of this 25-year-old British boy-bander. First thing, she and my other sophomores bounced up with an invitation to get in the picture and join their joy. I looked at that pink and blue blanket emblazoned with the larger-than-life grin of this rockstar, and I replied a little teasingly: “I’m good.”
I still remember Dylan’s face dropping a little, and she still remembers her disappointed thought: “Does Ms. Davies not like Harry Styles? That’s too bad. I feel like this would be her kind of thing.” They took their picture without me and class went on.
Cut to a couple months later and we were stuck at home and in the first months of a global pandemic. Isolated, I was somehow reminded of Dylan’s joy. I thought I would listen to Fine Line... just to see what the fixation was all about.
That was the beginning of the end.
I might have started with just appreciating his songs, but it progressed. From obsessively repeating his albums, to making One Direction playlists, to scouring for concert videos and interviews, to somehow knowing the birthdays of band members, to reading no fewer than ten books he had referenced, to literally losing sleep watching YouTube fan videos, to writing pages of journals unpacking song lyrics and instrumentation choices – I went off the deep end.
Granted, I could wax poetic in mature English Teacher fashion about the cinematic scope, poetic authenticity, vocal prowess, sophisticated allusions, and freeing sense of connection that this album brought into a dark time. I could almost make the rabbit hole I went down make sense to a reasonable adult.
But really, that self-conscious justification must not be allowed. The magic of learning from high school girls (and Harry Styles) is that their joy is ridiculous, immoderate, too much.
So, let this instead be a paean to those virtues.
They are ridiculous. Harry’s form of ridiculousness might be making “Beep boop” noises, dancing around in sparkly vests and suspenders, and moving with the boneless confidence of being adored. Dylan’s form of silliness might be treating her Harry Styles concert as sacramental: “It was basically my wedding day. My friends brought flowers. My parents may as well have been driving me to the church as to a concert. When he splashed water on the pit it was like a baptism.” Both invite you to be unapologetically and authentically yourself
They are kind. Arguably, Harry’s simplest song and overall brand is Treat People with Kindness. And, as Dylan admits: “It’s easy to be dismissive of that. Super Cheesy. Target Anthem. But it means something that a person makes that their goal. Do good for others. Do good for yourself. Sure, take time for yourself, but at the same time, take time for others.” I see that kindness daily in my students. It is cheesy and silly and sincere and small. They will tie each other’s shoes, see each other’s work, join in each other’s loves.
They connect. Part of the draw of Harry Styles is his gift for connecting from stage. But more impressive are the connections his fans form. My freshmen advisees used Harry to connect when we could only meet virtually; one of my most poetic students used “Golden” as the launch pad for her paper on The Great Gatsby where she found her voice. As Dylan so wisely sees: “That shared connection is like a rocket launch.” They connect with other art and artists: “Once you find someone with the same taste in music, you just know you have a connection, know we could probably talk about Taylor Swift, and Tyler the Creator, and Frank Ocean, or whatever.” They connect with shared human experience: “He’s crying. We’re crying. Let’s cry together. There is a lot of unity in that.” They connect with each other based on shared values: “We knew we needed to put each other first and watch out for each other.”
They are brave. In writing conferences, often my students will share fears: the fear of failure, the fear of negative comments on papers, the fear that she shouldn’t be one of those girls, the fear of being too much. Yet, with bright eyes in the next breath, students like Dylan will share that if Harry can write “Sweet Creature” and “Lights Up” and talk about his struggles as something to grow from, then she can embrace challenge and “value all the work people do, putting their heart and soul into what they do, no matter what it is. Including myself.” She now owns her criticism and can laugh now: “I can grow but I have to be confident with and love who I am now to do that.” I think as a teacher it is easy to forget how much our students risk every time they write, have a new thought, change their mind, admit to not knowing enough. They take leaps, and those leaps are motivated by what they love.
It is hard to express the bravery and generosity of their joy. In that spirit, I owe you one more story.
About a year into my Harry Styles rabbit hole, I was getting worried. Was it too much? So, I turned to the same Ursuline best friend with whom I had shared the silliness of a Disney birthday (to say nothing of 16 years of friendship since then) and tried to follow the example of my students. I wanted to be brave, connect, and share (and also figure out what exactly my fixation was about). Even with a decade and a half of trusting her to know and love me, I was scared. Yet, as I shared, things began to make sense.
I realized that the magic of Harry Styles is that he has somehow maintained the authentic joy of my teenage students. The knowledge that when given permission to love joyfully and without ego, you give yourself permission to walk through the world with the confidence that the correct people will delight in you – ridiculousness and all.
A couple weeks later, my friend told me she had a present for me – apropos of nothing. I came over and she brought out a beautiful gift bag. As I pulled out tissue paper, two gold and silver sequin pillows emerged. As I looked at her curiously, she pushed the sequins the other way, revealing the dimpled smiling face of Harry Styles. On my very own pieces of ridiculous merch. And I literally cried.
Because I risked authentic teenage joy 16 years ago, I have a friend now who knows and loves me not despite my immoderate affection for Harry Styles but because of encompassing that joy and all the joys we have known since – serious and silly and seriously silly.
I owe my students for that reminder. I owe them the same love encompassing their ridiculous joys. And I owe Dylan this picture of my prize possessions as penance for ever teasing her about her Harry Styles blanket.
She was right. Harry Styles is my kind of thing.
Rachel Davies currently teaches mostly junior and senior level English at an all-girls independent school. She has also taught middle school and high school English in Central Texas, and K-8 Music at a Title I charter school. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Dallas. Beyond her background in English and teaching, she also has a Master of Music in Opera Performance, and has a career as an operatic mezzo. Rachel is an inimitable young troubadour who composes both melodies and manifestos, spreading joyful truths while on her sojourns.