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Opinion – Harry Styles’ win highlights complexities of privilege

After a career-pivoting and rather surprising ‘Album of the Year’ win sent fans into a frenzy for its ‘tone deaf’ claims of adversity. But is there a case for considering who Harry meant by ‘people like me’? 

Beyonce, Adele, Lizzo. Harry Styles was certainly up against some stiff competition for Album of the Year at the 2023 Grammys.

But in a rather surprising twist, his album ‘Harry’s House’, a bubbly album that was at times synthy, at times melancholic, took home the biggest award of the night.

Style’s sprawling fan-base seemed overjoyed. White mums everywhere jumped for joy as Britain’s poster-boy of pop achieved career-changing recognition from the biggest academy in music.

Others weren’t as happy. As he took to the stage to receive his award, Harry was heckled by various members of the audience. One shouted ‘get off the stage!’, another ‘Beyonce should have won!’

Bitter losers are no stranger to the Grammys, a show which has become as famous for its live antics and mishaps as it has for the stars who are up for awards.

Some would argue the entire ordeal has become more of a pop culture talking point than it has a credible autocratic power in Hollywood, much like the Oscars.

Months before winners – even nominees – had been announced, focus turned to the Grammys historic lack of inclusion and diversity, especially its consistent failure to award Black artists in leading categories.

Though she lost to Harry, Beyonce did make history after winning her 32nd Grammy. That makes her the most awarded artist in the academy’s history.

Still, it matters that Beyonce lost to Harry. She was beaten in one of the most prestigious categories of the entire show.

Year after year, Black artists have been confined to niche, genre-specific categories, like best dance/electronic album, for which Beyonce won her record-breaking award.

And again and again, white cis men dominate the biggest, juiciest, most formidable spots on music’s leader board; if you believe the Grammys for all their pomp and circumstance, then that is essentially what they purport to be.

So, it’s understandable that Harry’s win ruffled some feathers. Though Lizzo certainly seemed overjoyed for her competition and close friend.

t’s not just his achievement that has caused an ongoing conversation, either. Harry’s speech caused an international swathe of raised eyebrows both from within and outside of his devoted fan base, after the singer claimed things like this didn’t happen ‘to people like me’.

Come again?

If we’re not mistaken, white cis men are the most likely kind of people to take home these awards. In fact they dominate everything, from pop culture to politics.

Although – and I pause for winced reaction – I do think there’s a case for unpicking Harry’s statement.

It certainly was tone deaf, and perhaps it isn’t the right time to be bringing up these kinds of questions, but Harry’s statement does ask us to consider the complex layers of privilege we constantly navigate.

Not one to jump to the defence of a rich, successful, conventionally attractive cis male, but I don’t think Harry intended for his statement to be taken as a comment on race. Or even an ostensible lack of privilege.

It came off more as sincere disbelief, perhaps a reference to his upbringing in working class Northern England, the son of a divorced single mother in an area of the country with poor social mobility.

That’s certainly no rags to riches story, but it is a lifetime away from Hollywood fame and a Grammy for Album of the Year.

Instead of attacking Style’s misjudged – and undeniably ignorant – statement, we could use it as a springboard for unpacking privilege, and the idea that one overarching privilege rules them all (i.e. white and male).

As Raven Smith said of Harry’s speech, ‘privilege isn’t a fixed point – it ebbs and flows from person to person, family to family […] some of you [won’t] believe I’ve come out in defence of such an indisputable successful white guy, whose opportunities are abundant. Either way, the privilege discourse won’t conclude any time soon’.

At the end of the day, the most positive thing we can take from Harry’s win is that his reaction was genuinely heart-warming – if you can see past the swathe of Black artists snubbed in his place.

If anything, Styles’ reminds us that any obstacles that stand between us and our dreams – be they a single mother from North England, or a systemically unjust systems thwarted against us from birth – should make us even more proud when we do reach those dreams.

Our lack of privilege is what, in essence, makes our successes more powerful. They should not be seen as war wounds, for that ensures people are continually reduced to the things they’ve overcome, and not the things they have achieved.