Intertextuality’s Role in Forming Subject Positions
Intertextuality refers to the notion that a text is never decoded on its own – instead, its meaning is influenced and co-constructed by other texts. Thus, it is critical to acknowledge other relevant texts when analysing a particular text’s meaning. Intertextuality can be intended or inescapable. The latter refers to the lack of control a producer has over the other texts that an audience has consumed which will inevitably influence their understanding (Krijnen & Van Bauwel, 2015).
Such is the case with Harry Styles’ reputation and media coverage. During his time as a boyband member and still to this day, the media has frequently referred to Styles as a “womanizer” (Twersky, 2019). At the same time however, many fans have slash shipped Styles with fellow band member Louis Tomlinson. The dispute around his sexuality remains a topic of actuality, although Styles himself remains ambiguous about his identity, repeatedly choosing not to label his sexuality in interviews (Roach, 2018).
Rather, during his more recent career as solo artist, Styles has “embraced a more flamboyant, glam-rock aesthetic with wildly patterned, glittery suits and jumpsuits” (Roach, 2018, p. 180). During his concerts, he takes pride flags from the audience, waves them around and fixes them to his microphone, prompting fans to be themselves and “treat people with kindness”, a phrase used as his tour tagline (Roach, 2018).
Intended intertextuality is equally of equal relevance to understand the music video. While Watermelon Sugar’s lyrics appear at first to reminisce about a past love and summer evenings, interpretations have quickly turned towards less innocent themes.16 Furthermore, the music video can be seen as connected to the previous video for the song Lights Up, also representing Styles surrounded by women and men (Styles, 2019a). Lights Up was released on National Coming Out Day, with a media campaign surrounding the lyric “Do you know who you are?” (Styles, 2019a), prompting many fans to interpret the lyrics as Styles addressing his sexuality.
2 In fact, Zane Lowe voiced a common interpretation of the lyrics, arguing that “everyone’s kind of figured out what it is about, the joys of mutually appreciated oral pleasure”, to which Styles simply answered “Is that what it’s about? I don’t know” (Styles, 2019b, 25:03), leaving the song open to interpretation.
These examples of intertextuality examples, and all other texts that an individual may have consumed, allow for a plethora of subject positions, or all the possible ways an individual may understand a text (Krijnen & Van Bauwel, 2015) – to illustrate, some may read Styles as a womanizer, others as an icon of the queer community.