Harry Styles first announced the title of his debut solo single on Instagram on March 31, 2017. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Prince's album Sign O' the Times was released almost exactly 30 years previously on March 30, 1987.
Styles premiered the single, the first song to be heard from his debut solo album, on April 7, 2017 during the BBC Radio 1 Breakfast show. "It's the song I'm most proud of writing, I think," Styles told the host Nick Grimshaw, adding, "I wrote most of the album in Jamaica, I was in Jamaica for two months. I just wanted to not be distracted… I really liked being away from everything."
Styles co-wrote the guitar-driven power ballad with American producer Jeff Bhasker, who has previously worked with Kanye West, Jay Z, Alicia Keys and Mark Ronson. It features additional production by Alex Salibian and Tyler Johnson.
The lyrics are "deeply personal" to Harry, according to sources.
Just stop your crying, it's a sign of the times
Welcome to the final show
Styles explained the song's meaning to Rolling Stone: "Most of the stuff that hurts me about what's going on at the moment is not politics, it's fundamentals," he said. "Equal rights. For everyone, all races, sexes, everything."
"'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,'" Styles continued. "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.'"
Making a solo debut with a six minute classic-rock epic is a bold move in an era where three minute R&B, rap and dance tunes are ruling the airwaves, but Styles said he simply wanted to make the sort of music he enjoys. The One Direction star said:
"I think it's hard to not have influences from what you grew up listening [to]. I think everyone reacts differently to different types of music. I was with the guys who I was writing it with and we just wanted to make what we wanted to listen to and that has been the most fun part for me about making the whole album."
Harry performed the song during his live solo debut on the April 15, 2017 episode of Saturday Night Live
. The show marked his first appearance on the NBC comedy series since December 30 2014, where he'd joined the rest of One Direction to sing "Night Changes
" and "Ready To Run
The song's music video was filmed on and over Scotland's Isle of Skye. The clip starts with Harry walking across the open landscape before noticing that he has started to levitate. The star takes a leap off a small rock and takes flight over the island's rugged terrain and bodies of water then up into the clouds.
The singer's flying scenes were shot with just a harness attaching him to a helicopter above. Harry admitted to Britain's Capital FM how scared he was. "Yeah that's how I go to work," he said. "Go to grab my coffee, I just drop in. The usual, wahey! It was mental if I'm honest. (The harness) helps with those high notes! But no honestly, actually, if I didn't feel safe, I wouldn't have done it."
In The New York Times, Styles was asked if news events like Brexit and the tribulations of Donald Trump made their way into his songwriting. He replied: "We're in a difficult time, and I think we've been in many difficult times before. But we happen to be in a time where things happening around the world are absolutely impossible to ignore. I think it would've been strange to not acknowledge what was going on at all. For example, 'Sign of the Times,' for me, it's looking at several different things. That's me commenting on different things."
He added: "It's a time when it's very easy to feel incredibly sad about a lot of things. It's also nice sometimes to remember that while there's a lot of bad stuff, there's also a lot of amazing people doing amazing things in the world."
The music clip won Best British Video at the 2018 BRIT Awards. The category was opened up to a fan vote, which probably explains why the popular 1D star came out on top.