Sign of the Times (Harry Styles song)

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"Sign of the Times"
Harry Styles - Sign of the Times (Official Single Cover).png
Single by Harry Styles
from the album Harry Styles
B-side"From the Dining Table"[1]
Released7 April 2017 (2017-04-07)
Format
Recorded2016
Studio
Genre
Length
  • 5:40 (album version)
  • 4:06 (radio edit)
Label
Songwriter(s)
Producer(s)
  • Bhasker
  • Salibian
  • Johnson
Harry Styles singles chronology
"Sign of the Times"
(2017)
"Two Ghosts"
(2017)
Music video
"Sign of the Times" on YouTube

"Sign of the Times" is the debut single as a solo artist by English singer and songwriter Harry Styles from his self-titled debut studio album. Released on 7 April 2017 by Columbia Records, it was written by Styles, Jeff Bhasker, Mitch Rowland, Ryan Nasci, Alex Salibian, and Tyler Johnson, and produced by Bhasker, Salibian, and Johnson.[2] Musically, it was described by critics as a pop rock and soft rock ballad. Its accompanying music video was released on 8 May.

Background and release[edit]

Rumours about Styles embarking on a solo career sparked in 2015, when it was reported that Sony Music wanted Styles to release a solo album during One Direction's hiatus.[3] By the end of 2015, four new songs written and performed by Styles were registered on the ASCAP online database, which was believed to be for his potential debut solo album at the time.[4] Shortly after, Styles signed with American agent Jeffrey Azoff and inked a record contract with Columbia Records.[5] In September 2016, Styles appeared on the cover of Another Man, which led to media speculation about a new album on the horizon.[5]

In February 2017, the CEO of Columbia Records, Rob Stringer, revealed that the album was close to being finished and called it "authentic".[6] A month later, it was reported that the album sounded like David Bowie and Queen,[7] and was later revealed to have been executively produced by Grammy award-winning producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Fun, Mark Ronson).[8] The same report also hinted that the lead single would be released in late April or early May and sounded "like it would be a smash in any decade".[7] The same month, US radio host Elvis Duran accidentally revealed during his show that Styles' debut single would be released on 7 April 2017.[9] On 25 March, Styles teased the new single with a television ad during The Voice UK.[10] On 31 March, the singer revealed through social media that his single is titled "Sign of the Times".[11] On 7 April, the song premiered during Nick Grimshaw's breakfast show on BBC Radio 1.[12]

Composition[edit]

The song is a pop rock, soft rock, piano ballad,[2][13] with glam rock influences.[14] According to Billboard, it "folds in psychedelic soul, indie rock and spacey pop".[15] The "apocalyptic"[16] power ballad shows influences from 70s British rock.[17] The track was co-written by Jeff Bhasker, Alex Salibian and Tyler Johnson. Also credited were Mitch Rowland, Ryan Nasci, and Styles (who received the top credit). Rowland played guitar and drums, Nasci the bass, and Bhasker the piano, keyboard and lap steel parts. A 25 voice choir provided harmonies throughout the song. The track was recorded at Village Studios in Los Angeles and Geejam Hotel Recording Studio in Port Antonio, Jamaica, and was mixed by Spike Stent.[18] "Sign of the Times" is composed in the key of F major and set in a 4/4 time signature at a moderately slow tempo of 60 beats per minute.[19]

The idea of the song was conceived by Styles while playing chords on the piano in Jamaica.[20] Styles explained to Rolling Stone that "The song is written from a point of view as if a mother was giving birth to a child and there's a complication. The mother is told, 'The child is fine, but you're not going to make it.' The mother has five minutes to tell the child, 'Go forth and conquer.'"[21] The entire song was cut in three hours according to Bhasker, who called it "an instant classic-sounding record from conception to completion".[20]

Music video[edit]

Directed by Yoann Lemoine, the song's music video was released on 8 May 2017.[22] It features Styles singing in a meadow, flying in the skies, and walking on water. A writer from USA Today humorously described Styles as "auditioning to be Marvel Comics next superhero or in a new biblical epic".[23] It was filmed on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.[24] The video's stunt pilot, Will Banks, stated that Styles flew more than 1,550 feet high during the shoot. Banks also claimed that no green screen or CGI effects were employed during filming.[25] A stunt double was used for some scenes.[26]

The music video won British Artist Video of the Year at the 2018 Brit Awards[27] and Best Music Video at the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards.[28] It was nominated for two awards at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards: Best Pop Video and Best Visual Effects.[29] As of May 2019, it has received more than 510 million views on YouTube.[30]

Accolades[edit]

Year Organization Award Result
2017 MTV Video Music Awards[29] Best Pop Video Nominated
Best Visual Effects Nominated
Nickelodeon Brazil Kids' Choice Awards[31] Favorite International Hit Nominated
Favorite International Music Video Nominated
Rockbjörnen[32] The year's foreign song Nominated
Teen Choice Awards[33] Choice Song: Male Artist Nominated
2018 BMI Pop Awards[34] Pop Award Won
Brit Awards[27] British Artist Video of the Year Won
iHeartRadio Music Awards[35] Best Music Video Won
Myx Music Awards[36] International Video of the Year Nominated

Critical reception[edit]

Billboard's Gil Kaufman wrote, "Every artist is an accumulation of their influences, and in [this song] they come fast and furious, as Styles appears to be both showing his range and making a clear effort to step boldly away from the manufactured, plastic pop of his past". Kaufman opined it "rakes in influences from Pink Floyd and David Bowie to Queen, Spacehog, Suede, Coldplay, The Beatles, Eric Carmen and Prince".[15] Also for Billboard, Jason Lipshutz wrote it is "resolute, determined, wholly committed to its messaging and sound, radio trends be damned. Although it wears its influences on its sleeve (Bowie) nothing about this single bends toward someone else's expectations". He concluded saying the song "sounds effortless, but to arrive without any incomplete features is an accomplishment in a music industry where pop artists are expected to produce new music at an unsustainable rate".[37] Tim Jonze of The Guardian described it as "a ballad, but not so much in the boyband style" and compared the song to the music of American indie rock band The Walkmen.[38] Jonze also addressed early rumours that the song would be influenced by the music of David Bowie, noting, "If it is indeed Bowie-esque, then it's the Bowie of Hunky Dory".[38] Jamieson Cox writing for Pitchfork felt the "sky-scraping Bowie ballad" manages to sound like both Fun's "We Are Young" and Coldplay's "The Scientist".[39] NPR's Ann Powers argued the song mirrors more closely "Britpop anthems" like Blur's "Tender" or The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" "than anything Bowie released in his prime".[40]

Brittany Spanos of Rolling Stone thought it "aligns much more with the Seventies-inspired pop-rock of One Direction's more recent albums like Made in the A.M.".[41] Anjali Raguraman from The Straits Times considered it the "strongest" track on the album, saying "the conviction of his delivery is beyond his years".[42] In The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber opined that the song "continues with One Direction's po-mo project of recycling classic-rock sounds as bubblegum. But he's now embracing such sounds with more abandon, less chirpiness, some trend bucking, and the kind of uplifting lyrics that nod to planetary anxiety". Kornhaber described the song opens with ballad piano, "encroaching" violins, and Styles "crooning in pain", "but then there's the bwang of a guitar and the song rockets into an arena-rock reverie that feels so, so familiar to anyone who remembers the '90s but also so, so foreign to today's landscape".[43] Since it was released on the 30th anniversary of Prince's Sign o' the Times, Spin's Andy Cush commented, "it's clear that this is Styles's attempt to distinguish himself as an artist with real depth. But the music itself has almost nothing to do with Prince–instead, think Oasis, Elton John at his most bombastic, '70s John Lennon". Cush noted it "has only those three chords, and it goes straight for cruising altitude with an onslaught of cymbals and guitar on the first chorus, expecting you to be moved without pausing to consider why".[44]

Billboard's critics' list placed it first on "Every One Direction Solo Single, Ranked" in May 2017, stating that "[the song] spends six minutes climbing its way skyward and just keeps going once it gets there, not ostentatious so much as naturally weightless, the first One Direction solo single to truly achieve escape velocity from the group's gravitational pull."[45] Rolling Stone ranked it as the best song released in 2017.[46] Billboard staff considered it the 8th best song of the year[47] and best rock song of the year.[48] Pitchfork ranked it as the 87th best song of 2017.[49] Spin staff ranked it as the 13th best boy-band solo debut single.[50] In 2018, Rolling Stone ranked it 49th among the 100 Greatest Songs of the Century So Far.[51]

Commercial performance[edit]

"Sign of the Times" reached number one on the UK Singles Chart with a combined sales of 62,900 units.[52] In its first week, it recorded 39,000 digital downloads combined with 3.5 million streams that give 23,472 equivalent units, ending Ed Sheeran's run of 13 consecutive weeks at the top of the chart with "Shape of You".[53] In the United States, the song debuted at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. In its first week, it sold 142,000 copies (topping Digital Songs), earned 16.5 million streams and 23 million airplay impressions.[54] It managed to hit the number one in record time on the US iTunes charts, reaching the top in 19 minutes, beating Adele's previous record at 50 minutes.[55] It was certified platinum in the country, making it the top certified rock song of 2017, according to RIAA.[56][57] It ranked number nine on the Most Shazamed Songs of 2017.[58] "Sign of the Times" managed to be on the Shazam's Hall of Fame, the most Shazamed songs of all time at 100th.[59]

Cover versions and usage in media[edit]

Kygo and Ellie Goulding performed a cover of the song on BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge.[60] Hanson performed a cover on KIIS 106.5.[61] Paul Cardall made a classical cover of the song.[62] Alex Boyé released an 'Africanized' orchestral cover.[63] Sabrina Carpenter collaborated with YouTube star Jasmine Thompson on a cover.[64] LANY released their recordings for Spotify's new Singles series which included a cover of "Sign of the Times".[65]

"Sign of the Times" was used for a commercial ad for Google released in December 2017 in the United States, under the title of Google: Year In Search 2017.[66] It was also used as a soundtrack for an episode in the second season of the popular CW drama Riverdale.[67] It was one of the early Olympics Brand Synchs for 2018, airing throughout Europe, Asia, the U.S, parts of Africa spanning the globe.[68]

Live performances[edit]

Styles performed the song for the first time on the 15 April 2017 episode of Saturday Night Live's 42nd season.[69] On 21 April, Harry appeared on the BBC's The Graham Norton Show, for his debut solo performance in his native UK.[70] He performed it live on the French talk show, Quotidien, on 26 April 2017.[71] He also performed the song on The Today Show on 9 May,[72] and on The Late Late Show with James Corden on 15 May.[16] On 9 November, Styles performed the song on X Factor Italy.[73]

Charts[edit]

Certifications[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[143] 3× Platinum 210,000^
Austria (IFPI Austria)[144] Gold 15,000*
Belgium (BEA)[145] Platinum 30,000*
Brazil (Pro-Música Brasil)[146] Platinum 40,000*
Canada (Music Canada)[147] 3× Platinum 240,000double-dagger
Denmark (IFPI Denmark)[148] Platinum 90,000^
France (SNEP)[149] Platinum 133,333*
Germany (BVMI)[150] Gold 200,000^
Ireland (IRMA)[146] Platinum 15,000^
Italy (FIMI)[151] 2× Platinum 100,000double-dagger
Mexico (AMPROFON)[152] 3× Platinum 180,000*
New Zealand (RMNZ)[153] Gold 15,000*
Norway (IFPI Norway)[146] Platinum 60,000double-dagger
Poland (ZPAV)[154] Platinum 20,000*
Spain (PROMUSICAE)[155] Gold 20,000^
Sweden (GLF)[156] 2× Platinum 80,000^
Switzerland (IFPI Switzerland)[157] 2× Platinum 40,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[158] Platinum 600,000double-dagger
United States (RIAA)[159] 2× Platinum 2,000,000double-dagger

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone
double-daggersales+streaming figures based on certification alone

References[edit]

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Sign of the Times Chords