At the 65th Grammy Awards, Harry Styles’s turntable plinth went the wrong way and his entire dance performance had to be done backwards without warning, leading to a low-level hum of unrehearsed-ness—but that’s not why we’re here. After winning Album of the Year, Harry Styles thanked his interpreter in sign language, a cute and inclusive moment, but that also isn’t why he’s trending today. Harry Styles wore a harlequin jumpsuit; he later dressed as a human firework. I refuse to speculate on the size of his wick here, but there’s something incredibly arch about performing at the biggest music award show on the planet—American pomp and pageantry at its absolutely delicious, glistening height—in a look that echoes a British working men’s club curtain. Styles elevated a cheap, jazzy, ubiquitous moment of sparkle to Grammys status. But this isn’t why the internet is alight, either.
We’re here because during his album of the year acceptance speech, Styles uttered the phrase “This doesn’t happen to people like me very often,” and the internet is doing a massive “Come again!!!?” It’s not that people can’t believe the successful, wealthy, yacht-summering, Grammy Award-wining singer and part-time Hollywood actor has struggled—it’s that they can’t quite believe anybody who looks like Styles, any homogenous white guy, especially such a conventionally beautiful one, has the audacity to publicly signal a lack of privilege outside the value of his (white) face. When Styles says “people like me,” he doesn’t necessarily mean his story is rags-to-riches, please fetch the violins. He probably means a lower-middle-class, rurally English son of divorced parents. These are not not struggles.
The fairly innocuous comment scratches at the surface of a deeper-rooted issue. There are myriad reigning supremacies on this planet—some you see and some you don’t—and most of us are aware of how far we deviate from the cis, white, straight, and male (to say nothing of the European or thin or tall). We’re all working out where we fit in the social and economic pecking order; how we’re perceived, what we’ve been handed, what we’ve inherited, and what we’ve actually earned on our own. Styles’s inherited whiteness makes his privilege feel inherent—hell, that privilege is inherent. And his talk of struggle for guys like him can feel glib, given the global systemic suppression of guys that aren’t like him, that aren’t afforded that same rights by way of birth.
It’s becoming hard to talk about intersectional privilege—the fact that some privileges outweigh others—and the ways that white male privilege can be challenged. (It feels like trouble just saying this out loud.) It’s a bit like Sam Smith crying on their mansion porch during the pandemic, and the prevailing idea that if you’re rich, you don’t quite have the right to feel sad. Have you noticed how immoral and dastardly and cutthroat rich people have to be for us to stomach them on TV? We see people’s privileges—usually the ones we don’t have—and cannot bear the idea that there’s still struggle, that their elevated end of the playing field isn’t completely rock-free. We need to believe that what they’ve achieved is because of the exceptional hand dealt to them at birth; that we’d achieve similar things with similar privileges; that they should count their blessings and shut up.
All this nepo-baby discourse, all this talk of leg-ups and familial privilege, and in 2010, a 16-year-old, completely unknown Harry Styles skived off school and walked into an X Factor audition. Of course there’s built-in white, male privilege at play, but there’s being a pop star’s son or daughter, or the nephew of a music exec, or rich enough to intern at a label, too. Thirteen years ago, Styles was a nobody. On Sunday, Styles won album of the year at the Grammys. (That he won it over Beyoncé is…another matter.) The journey between the two doesn’t have an easy takeaway.
I don’t know how to conclude this. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that sometimes, the internet isn’t the best place for a nuanced conversation about how one clear and present privilege doesn’t cancel everything else out. It’s actually impossible to separate the strands of the plait, to de-spaghetti it all. Privilege isn’t a fixed point—it ebbs and flows from person to person, family to family. Some of you will read this and nod because Harry’s privileges are only part of his story; others will not believe I’ve come out in defense of such an indisputably successful white guy, whose opportunities are abundant. Either way, the privilege discourse won’t conclude any time soon. See you at the next round.
This story was originally published on Vogue.com.