On Monday morning, Louie Dean Valencia, a professor at Texas State University, arose at his normal 5 a.m. wake-up time in the faculty residence of the San Marcos campus’s honors college and drove to Austin. By 7:15 a.m., he had joined hundreds of hopefuls in a line that wrapped around the outside of the new Moody Center. These music fans weren’t there to buy tickets—most had secured their coveted floor tickets months ago. They simply wanted to get as close as possible to Harry Styles.
The shiny, sleek University of Texas arena, which has been transformed into Harry’s House for his sold-out six-night “Love on Tour” residency that began Sunday, was handing out exactly one thousand wristbands each day that allowed early admission into “the pit,” the standing-only area around the stage, so that fans could secure prime spots. For the next couple of hours, he got to know the hopefuls in the long line around him: a mother and teen daughter from El Paso, a woman in her twenties from Waco, and a man from India who had recently moved to town. They compared how much they had spent on tickets—he paid $175 while another spent close to $2,000—and watched sadly as the free tacos were all given out before they got any. They did receive “Keep Austin Moody” stickers in “Love on Tour” signature colors.
Chatting with Harry fans is one of Valencia’s favorite pastimes. Not just because he’s a huge fan himself but because it’s research. The thirtysomething native Texan is a digital history professor with a doctorate from Harvard who’s currently teaching two classes, one on queer youth history and the other on “the Practice of Public History.” Lately, though, he’s most often referred to as the “Harry Styles professor.” In the spring semester at Texas State, he’ll teach two different courses: “European Fascisms and Historical Memory” and a new undergrad honors class called “Harry Styles and the Cult of Celebrity: Identity, the Internet, and European Pop Culture.” Since announcing the class on Twitter, Valencia has become a celebrity among Harry obsessives around the world.
By 9:45 a.m., Valencia was the proud bearer of a Harry Styles pit wristband—he was number 842. The orange and white paper band actually complemented the autumnal shades of his concert-ready outfit, which was a study in contrasts: a mesh polo top with chocolate and white vertical stripes paired with brown and orange plaid pants. The retro look was a nod to Harry’s love of the sartorial surprise. (It was also a purposeful echo of the singer’s current role in the movie Don’t Worry Darling, set in the fifties.)
Now is a good time to be a Harry fan. The 28-year-old British superstar is promoting Harry’s House, his third solo album since his days as a member of boy band One Direction, in the worldwide “Love on Tour.” The tour includes several multinight residences—his Austin shows were the only such stop in the South. The single “As It Was,” the Instagram Reels anthem of the summer, has spent a record-breaking fifteen weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and Don’t Worry Darling, directed by Olivia Wilde (Styles’s unconfirmed girlfriend) and costarring Florence Pugh and Chris Pine, was the box-office winner when it opened this past weekend—despite (or because of?) the gossipy drama surrounding the production. Styles’s next film, My Policeman, opens in October.
The Austin shows kicked off Sunday night, but Valencia didn’t want to read much about the first one as he camped out in a coffee shop until it was time to return to the arena at 4:30 to take his 842nd spot in line. He had seen enough to know what Styles wore: a burnt orange suit with maroon fringe. “It seems like he was appeasing a lot of people in Texas with that outfit,” he said as he sipped on his fourth coffee of the day. “I watched a couple of videos on Instagram, but I really want to be surprised tonight.” A few things he knew for sure, though: there would be a lot of cowboy hats, especially pink ones, and fabulous boas in all colors. And Styles at some point would be given a rainbow flag, which he would wave proudly. “It’s part of the ritual. I guarantee it,” said Valencia, who estimates he’s seen Styles ten times, either with One Direction or as a solo artist.
Styles’s comfort with gender fluidity is one of the main reasons that Valencia, who lived for several years in Spain and whose work centers on fascism and antifascism, decided to build a course around the singer. “His transgression of gender norms and the fact that he explicitly is feminist, antiracist, a proponent to end gun violence, and generally is a proponent of inclusion makes him an interesting case study to understand European and global youth countercultures,” Valencia said. He understands—and welcomes—all the attention his class is getting because of Styles’s intense fan base, but more serious issues are at play in today’s political climate. Styles manages to fight fascism just through his art. “His concerts promote inclusivity, plurality, and diversity in a way that isn’t politicizing those issues but is entirely organic,” Valencia said. “It’s all there in the song ‘Treat People With Kindness.’”
Styles has recently been accused of queerbaiting because he publicly dates only women and has yet to put a label on his sexuality. Valencia understands the criticism but doesn’t agree with it. The fact that Styles refuses to put himself in a box “says something in and of itself,” adding, “He’s dancing on stage with a rainbow flag, and he’s in bed with men in his music videos. Does he need to come out?”
Valencia’s twenty students, who will be chosen through a lottery system, will study many facets of modern celebrity and internet and European cultures through Styles, while also learning audio-recording skills. Their final project will be a podcast, but the syllabus itself is a work in progress. Valencia is waiting to see My Policeman, which comes out in October, before figuring out how it will all come together. In that movie, Styles plays a fifties-era policeman who is married to a woman but is in a closeted relationship with another man.
By 5 p.m. Monday, Valencia had secured his spot in the pit, just about four rows from one of the two walkways extending out into the crowd from the circular stage. The professor bopped his head and sang along with everyone else to the sound system, which played everything from Willie Nelson to Queen, songs to warm up a crowd that didn’t need warming up at all. Several fans recognized Valencia and snapped photos with him—this had happened to him at the Madrid and Manchester shows this summer, so he was prepared—and one stranger actually made him a pink sign to hold that said “I TEACH A CLASS ABOUT YOU!” On the large screens over the stage, messages reminded people to register to vote (the registration tables in the corridor seemed to be doing brisk business ) and promoted the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety.
Then suddenly—or was it finally?—around 9 p.m. there was Harry, emerging from below the stage like an apparition. Instead of a suit, he donned a black-and-white checkered crewneck shirt tucked into gold pants with orange circles that echoed the ones adorning Valencia’s wristband. The mismatched patterns and textures were a triumph of sorts for the professor in plaid and stripes. The pitgoers around him squeezed in closer while those on the periphery were in constant motion, a wave of green boas and neon pink cowboy hats oscillating on the floor, following Styles as he danced and ran (at the same time!) all over the stage.
“How many are you actually from Austin?” Styles shouted to the crowd of 15,000 screamers.
The crowd responded with a roar.
“How many are you from somewhere else?”
The crowd response with a huge roar.
“Welcome, people of Austin and the surrounding area!”
Styles and his talented and energetic band commanded the stage as they played hits including “Watermelon Sugar” and “Golden,” while the audience performed just as hard, singing every word, dancing, and hugging each other in seeming disbelief that they could be this happy. Styles was both smooth and natural, professional and joyous. He gracefully caught gifts thrown his way and used them as props before deftly tossing them back as if it had all been choreographed: oversized pink glasses, several cowboy hats, and, as Valencia predicted, a rainbow flag. He read out loud from a few of the hundreds of homemade signs, congratulating various birthday and anniversary celebrants. In a highlight of the night, he singled out a father wearing a sparkling rainbow-colored suit over a red-and-white polka-dot shirt, topped off with a backward baseball cap. After asking the man’s name (Rex) and determining that he was there with his daughter and his best friend, Styles asked the girls who had dressed him. Despite their delirious shock, the girls managed to mouth that he had dressed himself. This pleased Styles greatly. “We love you, Rex! Thank you, sir!” he shouted. It was too much for the girls, who screamed their own I love yous at Harry before turning to face each other and sinking down to the ground in a hug. The crowd went wild.
The show itself lasted about an hour and a half—definitely the shorter side for a big arena act (no one tell Springsteen this is possible)—but then again, Harry has to do it all over again four more times in Austin. So would Valencia, although not the pit line. He had tickets to the Wednesday and Thursday shows, both with friends and with assigned seats (to be clear, though, no one sits at a Styles show).
Valencia beamed with a post-concert glow. He was especially impressed with Styles’s “flawless” performance of “Sign of the Times.” But he added that his favorite moment was when the singer made his one “political” statement of the night, telling the crowd that no one can tell you what to do with your own body. “This is something he actually says some variation of in all his shows, but this had particular resonance” in audience composed of so many Texas women. (Valencia’s video of that moment would later be shared on Instagram by the advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood in Texas).
No one wanted to leave Harry’s House. Lines for merchandise and all the many photo ops set up around the complex were even longer than before the show. The night’s other celebrity, Rex, who turned out to be Rex Crumpton from Tulsa, elicited cheers and photo requests as he made his way out through the concourse with daughter Aubrey and her best friend, Marley. They had come to Austin for the week to celebrate Aubrey’s eighteenth birthday—she and Marley were going to four of the shows. The suit had been a complete surprise when she saw her dad on the escalator at their hotel—just the first of several big surprises. They were already forming their strategy for the pit for Wednesday’s concert. Everyone lingered among the wayward boa feathers and discarded signs.
Just one mile away, the Texas Capitol glowed in the September night. The governor’s recent orders to investigate the families of transgendered youth has terrified Texans across the state. The restrictive abortion laws have had a similar chilling effect. But for a few golden hours at least, thousands of Texans were able to purge those fears. Harry Styles’s residency is a much-welcome antidote, especially for a professor who spends much of his time studying the dark side of humanity. The importance of this moment will definitely be in his syllabus.