By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Here’s a question for you: who originated the phrase ‘watermelon sugar’? The expression has been brought to a whole new audience by Harry Styles, whose 2019 song of that name has attracted considerable commentary because of its surprising meaning.
But ‘watermelon sugar’ predates Styles’s song, and has a curious literary link. Before we come to that, though … just what is the meaning of the Harry Styles song, which he wrote with Mitch Rowland and the two producers of the song, Tyler Johnson and Kid Harpoon?
‘Watermelon Sugar’: meaning
The song uses the taste of strawberries and watermelon sugar to suggest, without ever explicitly mentioning, the real meaning of the song: female pleasure and, specifically, the female orgasm.
Styles eventually confirmed that this was the subtext of the song, after speculation had spread among commentators and fans. Ripe strawberries on a summer evening, tasting sweet and delicious but always leaving the singer wanting even more (in an endless Lacanian cycle of desire where ultimate satisfaction is actually staved off), symbolise the pleasure the singer gains from giving pleasure in the bedroom, we might say.
Those ‘berries’ are warm and wonderful. They’re addictive: he isn’t sure he could live without them. They (the berries, of course … what else?!) give him a ‘high’, a feeling of delicious ecstasy and intense pleasure.
Why watermelons, though? We can only speculate: perhaps it’s the natural moistness of the fruit when fresh; perhaps the pink hue of the fruit’s ‘flesh’ suggesting other things; perhaps, even, the shape of a watermelon slice, triangulating to a point … perhaps only Styles and his songwriting collaborators can answer that question.
However, as The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols notes, the watermelon is a longstanding symbol of fertility, not least because of the ‘vast number of seeds’ which it contains. Indeed, the dictionary goes on to observe that in Vietnam, young married couples used to be given melon-seeds as a kind of blessing for the anticipated fruitfulness of their marriage.
Strawberries, meanwhile, are a well-known aphrodisiac (with good reason: consuming them actually boosts testosterone), so the sensual – and, indeed, sexual – connotations of them are also well-established. The mere taste of them – juicy, soft, and deep red, the colour of sin and lust – is, from a scientific perspective, enough to get us ‘in the mood’.
The strawberry was also a symbol for Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, because of its heart shape and red colour – although perhaps the tapering shape of the strawberry is designed to put us in mind of other body parts in Styles’ song.
But taste isn’t the only one of the traditional five senses which Styles refers to in the song’s lyrics. There’s also sound: this fruity feeling sounds, he tells us, just like a song. This is, we can deduce, a reference to another sweet thing: the sweet sounds of the woman’s moans as she experiences the heights of pleasure.
Taste, of course, takes us to the oral, so we don’t need to spend too long wondering how the singer might be giving this pleasure to the female addressee of the song. (Here, we use ‘singer’, as is our wont in these posts, as an equivalent for the literary term ‘speaker’, when analysing a poem: just as the speaker of a poem and the poet who wrote the poem may not be one and the same, so the ‘singer’ in the song’s lyrics may not be expressing the experiences of the singer, in this case Harry Styles.)
‘Watermelon Sugar’: analysis
There is a longstanding tradition in literature, especially poetry, of using fruit to symbolise sexual desire and temptation. Of course, the ‘forbidden fruit’ Adam and Eve ate in the Book of Genesis is partly a symbol for carnal knowledge, and after they have eaten that fruit (unspecified in the Bible, though usually identified with the apple), they become aware, and ashamed, of their nakedness.
And in Christina Rossetti’s classic 1862 poem ‘Goblin Market’, the various fruits on sale at the titular market introduce the theme of sexual temptation which runs throughout the poem. Fruit is lush, luscious, delicious, voluptuous … and so is … well, you get the idea. No doubt Seamus Heaney was drawing on similar connotations when, in his poem ‘Blackberry-Picking’, he seized upon the blackberries as a symbol for a loss of innocence (including sexual innocence).
‘Watermelon Sugar’ in fiction
But in fact, Harry Styles’ song owes the origins of its title to a novel. In Watermelon Sugar by the American author Richard Brautigan is a post-apocalyptic novel, published in 1968 but written several years earlier, and set in a commune in the wake of a terrible disaster. In this post-catastrophe world, many items are made from watermelon sugar, hence the novel’s title.
In 2020 during the Tiny Desk Concert, Harry Styles confirmed that the title ‘Watermelon Sugar’ was inspired by Brautigan’s novel. Curiously, Styles’ ex-girlfriend, Camille Rowe, was also a fan of In Watermelon Sugar, leading to speculation that the song was inspired by her.