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Everyone knew of One Direction when they were big, and so it’s no surprise that Harry Styles was just as popular, if not more so, when he released his solo music. And two albums later, his very first single is still one of his most beloved songs. It was an interesting choice for a debut single since it was so different. But it proved highly successful and is such a powerful song in his discography. The real meaning of the song, though, isn’t from his perspective at all. At least not fully. 

Harry Styles performed "Sign of the Times" on Jimmy Fallon's episode of 'Saturday Night Live' on April 15, 2017
Harry Styles performed “Sign of the Times” on Jimmy Fallon’s episode of ‘Saturday Night Live’ on April 15, 2017 | Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

‘Sign of the Times’ was Harry Styles’ first solo single

One Direction famously went on hiatus as a band in 2015, not that long after Zayn Malik left the group. Since then, all of the members have made solo careers, and Styles released his first solo album in 2017. It was titled Harry Styles and was pretty eclectic in its tone and had a range of slow to upbeat songs. 

“It’s a bit weird, I feel like I’ve been hibernating for so long now and you hear it in the safety of the studio and now it’s time to give birth […] it’s the song I’m most proud of writing,” Styles shared on the BBC 1 Radio show. 

As stated above, the very first single was “Sign of the Times,” and it is a doozy, emotionally. Even if you weren’t a fan of Styles before this song, it was completely different than anything he’d done with One Direction, and really set the tone for the type of music he made on his own.

It starts off with just piano then adds guitar, drums, and more, until the climax is just a euphoric expression of instruments. It’s an interesting combination with the sadness in the lyrics, and emotion Styles conveys throughout. 

It’s actually from the perspective of a dying mother during childbirth

While it does carry a ton of emotion and has really strong lyrics, the song’s perspective isn’t Styles’. It’s actually him telling the story of someone else: a mother who is dying. 

 Styles told Rolling Stone in a feature from 2017:

‘Sign of the Times’ came from ‘This isn’t the first time we’ve been in a hard time, and it’s not going to be the last time.’ 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.’

According to Genius’ lyric breakdown, some people were shocked to hear that it was told with this story in mind. But if you listen to the words, it makes a lot of sense. For one, several times in the song, the singer urges someone to “stop your crying, baby, it’ll be alright.” Because even though something really devastating is going on, and might continue to make you sad, the singer urges you to keep pushing through. Then, the singer says:

They told me that the end is near

We gotta get away from here

The dying mother’s time is nearly up. So even though she’s conveying all of this to her baby, she will have to leave them soon. In the second verse, the mother also sings about “Breaking through the atmosphere / And things are pretty good from here,” signaling that she’s “going toward the light” as they say. 

Remember everything will be alright

We can meet again somewhere

Somewhere far away from here

This is eluding to that light again, which is heaven (if the singer believes in that). 

It shares a name with a Prince album


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Overall, the song is gorgeous. And whether the listener hears it from that perspective, or takes it to heart in their one life, it is pretty powerful

“Harry really led the charge with that one, and the rest of the album,” producer Jeff Bhasker told Rolling Stone.

Notably, singer and musical icon Prince’s ninth album is called Sign o’ the Times, along with a single from that album. Genius reported that Styles released the cover art for his single on the 30th anniversary of that Prince album. And while the similarities seem to stop there, Styles reportedly did want to name his album “Sign of the Times” too, but didn’t because it already existed (according to the Rolling Stone feature). 

But Sheena Easton, a Scottish singer who sang with prince on the song “U Got the Look,” told BBC that she’s “sure [Prince] doesn’t mind.”

“Prince was such a giving, loving person, I’m sure he’s up there saying ‘go for it,’” she added. 

The song made Styles’ mother cry, and after all this, it’s easy to hear why. The bridge of the song sends off a parting message of advice for the mother’s child. 

We don’t talk enough, we should open up

Before it’s all too much

Even though her time is up, she wants her child to seize the day because the future is so unknown.