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‘Treat People With Kindness’ Music Video: The Conversion of a Non-Styles-Fan

Written by Rebecca Brown

After the bleak year that was 2020, Harry Styles opted to open 2021 with a bang by releasing his music video to his single Treat People With Kindness, starring himself and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Already the video has amassed over 22 million views and 1.7 million likes on YouTube. What is it about Styles and Waller-Bridge’s collaboration that resonates so strongly with a locked-down audience? The answer seems to lie in the combination of politics and pop.

Waller-Bridge and Styles’ collaboration is perhaps unsurprising. Phoebe Waller-Bridge famously has a love for attacking controversial topics – as the Guardian journalist Simon Hattenstone phrases it, ‘Waller-Bridge depicts characters who say the unsayable, do the undoable and defy every stereotype of feminine behaviour’.

In recent years, Harry Styles has been doing the exact same thing. For those of us that don’t follow his regular work, it was his recent cover of Vogue that truly marked his place as a pioneer in androgynous fashion and by extension, progressive politics. Conservative Republican Candace Owens took to Twitter to express her displeasure, demanding we ‘bring back manly men’. In a very Waller-Bridge-esque response, Styles satirised this by using it as his caption in an instagram post wearing a classically ‘feminine’ suit. Both Waller-Bridge and Styles seem to have an affinity for refusing to conform to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ boundaries and as a result, their collaboration is made all the more meaningful.

The song itself is taken from his second album, Grammy-nominated ‘Fine Line’ (2019), and is a simple pop song promoting kindness, with backing vocals done by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the indie-pop band Lucius. In sending this simple message, Styles places himself on the moral high ground against trolls like Owens. The video employs an extreme aspect ratio and the traditional sparkle, glitz and glamour of the theatre are emphasised by the black and white colour palette.

The choreography done by Paul Roberts remains refreshingly androgynous too, refusing to conform to the typical hyper-sexual ‘girl band’ dance routines for Phoebe nor the preppy ‘boy band’ dances of Styles’ past years with One Direction. The costuming further emphasises their equality in non-binary dress; they both wear almost matching tailcoats and Styles is the significantly more sequinned of the two. The combination of mirrored choreography and costume merged with a Roaring Twenties, art deco set illustrates the unisex nature of showmanship and art.

Picture credit: YouTube screenshot

Treat People With Kindness was quickly dubbed the “feelgood video of the year” by Grazia. Directed by brothers Ben and Gabe Turner, here the creative team are proving that there is no one divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, ‘pop art’ or otherwise. Instead, art is just art and ‘art is never without consequences’ – especially when sung by a man who wears dresses. Even the epitome of ‘pop’ art is political. TS Eliot believed that pop culture, which we supposedly consume purely for pleasure, ‘may have the greatest and least suspected influence on us’. (Eliot, T.S.  ‘Religion and Literature’ (1935)

This video does just that, mingling figures representative of progressive politics and feminism and gender fluidity with preppy, happy, pop music. Couple this with a current surge of progressive politics surrounding gender amongst the younger generations, rejecting figures like Candace Owens and traditional gender roles, and you get both a significant message and a welcoming audience. This is why Styles’ song and subsequent video is more than something to be sneered at; the creative team are transcending the boundaries of political art and art with a wide outreach intended for consumption by the masses. Treat People With Kindness’ video is, proudly, both high and low art in one and its message and the way it is delivered can strike a chord with everyone.

Written by Rebecca Brown