The 23rd of March was a big day – for fanatical lovers of music and attractive men, at least. It was the day that the reigning prince of pop and sequins, Harry Styles, announced the title of his upcoming album, Harry’s House (out 20th May). For good measure, he also dropped the album artwork and in typical Styles fashion, sent the internet into a frenzy. Shot by Hanna Moon, there he was, in head-to-toe Molly Goddard, standing in a cream room while looking at the floor pensively, one ring-laden hand on his hip, the other placed by his chin to signal that deep thoughts are rattling through his brain.
And no wonder. He’s only stood on the bloody ceiling! Those deep thoughts, we suspect, might’ve sounded something like: “Why is this lampshade protruding out from the ground? How do I beat gravity to chill on that lovely mid-century sofa that’s floating above my head? And, most importantly, how the hell did I get here?!”
Billie Eilish may have some answers for him. Back in 2019, she climbed walls and crawled around the ceiling for a performance of bad guy on SNL. And Eilish apparently loved defying gravity so much that, just last month, she returned to the ceiling at the Grammys for a more subdued performance of break-up song Happier Than Ever (the upside down sofa in this set has particularly strong parallels to Styles’ album artwork, as noted by writer Rachel Handler.) This time, the ceiling was flooded with water, mimicking the cathartic downpour that washes that man right outta her hair in the track’s music video.
Pop stars seem to love going all topsy turvy on us. Just look at Ariana Grande, who in 2018 flip-turned her whole life upside down for the release of her fourth album, Sweetener. The upturned album artwork was just the tip of the iceberg: Ari’s Insta posts forced fans to rotate their phones 180 degrees to read her captions, the Inception-style music video for no tears left to cry saw her scale inverted buildings and ladders, and at Christmas, she even had an upside down tree installed in her swish New York apartment. When asked about the whats and whys of her flipped festive decor, she simply replied: “Sometimes life just be upside down.” True, that.
There are at least three reasons why a chart-topping artist might decide to turn things on their head in their visuals. The first is obvious: it’s just a cool optical illusion. This is the category that 50 Cent’s In da Club video falls in, which he replicated during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show (round of applause for the core strength, please). Same goes for Ludacris, who gets hit by a bus before returning to the streets upside down in the video for Pharrell collab Southern Hospitality.
But more often than not, an upside down music video or set gives us insight into an artist or character’s psyche, used to represent two antithetical moods: jubilation or turmoil. Fred Astaire, for instance, is one happy chappy as he tap dances and twirls across the ceiling in the 1951 musical Royal Wedding. He’s fallen in love, you see, and there’s nothing like a bit of romance to lift you up so that you can click your heels on the roof.
And who can forget Lionel Richie, who wrote a whole song about dancing on the ceiling in the ‘80s (not the first person to do this, mind you: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart beat him to the punch in 1930 for the musical Evergreen). Naturally, he and a flat full of friends got their groove on across the ceiling in the music video, to the detriment of his imaginary neighbours’ sleep. “Oh, what a feeling!”
The other mood, turmoil, is perhaps best (read: most melodramatically) illustrated by Zac Efron in High School Musical 3: Senior Year. While performing Scream, he processes the tough emotions that come with graduating high school while sliding around East High School’s rotating corridors, before letting out a somewhat roaring “Arrrrrghhh!” at the end of the song. Cuh-raaaay-zeee!
Grande’s upside down Sweetener era was a more nuanced approach to addressing hardships in her life. The album was released in the wake of the tragic Manchester Arena bombing which occurred during her Dangerous Woman tour. Lyrically, she responded by throwing positivity into the world – “I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up,” as she put it on lead single no tears left to cry – but the “sometimes life just be upside down” aesthetic pointed to the pain said event caused. Like Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever performance, there was an element of catharsis; turmoil transformed into acceptance. You can’t control when your world gets turned on its head, so you’ve got to learn to climb walls to keep from falling.
It’s perhaps too early in Styles’ Harry’s House era to say what his upside down album artwork represents. We’ve heard three songs from the album so far: As It Was, which has now topped the UK charts for five consecutive weeks, Boyfriends and Late Night Talking, which he debuted at Coachella last month. Each song has a melancholy undertone, which he flips on its head via either upbeat production or lyrics like “I just wanna make you happier, baby”. So, what’s going on in our Hazza’s head? And why is the furniture in his “house” all superglued to the ceiling? We’ll find out on Friday, when the album finally drops. For now, we’ll just keep our feet on the ground.