I’m not going to pretend here: The summer leading up to my freshman year of high school bears a permanent scar from the impact of One Direction’s unprecedented rise to fame.
Every once in a while, I act like I’ve outgrown them, but the truth is that anything remotely related to One Direction will always grab my attention, as well as all of my money. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid them, One Direction is a British-Irish pop boyband signed to Syco Records by Simon Cowell, consisting of members Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, Niall Horan and Zayn Malik. Formed in 2010 during the British televised singing competition “The X Factor,” One Direction placed third and subsequently released their first single, “What Makes You Beautiful,” in September 2011. The band followed this up with their first full album, “Up All Night,” which was released globally in early 2012 to meteoric success, topping the charts in sixteen countries.
The success of One Direction only increased as they embarked on the “Up All Night Tour,” a name that took on a very literal meaning as the band released albums and toured consistently from 2011 until their announced hiatus in 2016.
Since the advent of The Boyband, it’s expected, and considered to be almost inevitable, that after the whirlwind of matching outfits, preset personality types, sold-out concerts and synchronized dances, a group will experience a sudden nosedive and break up, with tension, infighting and “creative differences” marring the end of a pop legacy. The pressure of superstardom always seems to force someone to crack, a fissure that never bodes well for the future of a nonstop sensation.
One Direction has managed to eschew most of the standard boyband conventions; most notably, their outright rejection of choreography in their concerts. Unlike predecessors NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, the British boyband embraces a more casual approach at their concerts, with each member doing their own thing while performing to crowds of thousands. However, there are just some things that no band can escape.
After the departure of Zayn Malik in March 2015 in the middle of the band’s world tour (a dark day for the One Direction fandom), speculation and public scrutiny were relentless in their search for cracks in the perfect facade. For fans, Malik’s decision to leave the band seemed to come out of the blue, both a slap in the face and a dream come true to those who had remained devoted for so many years.
On the other hand, however, Malik’s newfound freedom from a tightly controlled entity like One Direction presented a new opportunity that the public sphere hadn’t seen since Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé. What would a solo career look like for a former member of the world’s biggest boyband? Would the band Malik left behind continue in fragments, or a come together to form a better whole?
Comparison is an inescapable part of both being in a boyband and writing about them. Due to the manufactured, bubblegum-pop sound associated with the profession and the derisive way people tend to view groups with predominantly female fan bases, an emerging solo artist usually tends to go for a sexier, R&B sound. It has the dual effect of establishing the soloist as more mature and keeping the upper end of their female demographic.
No one illustrates this better than Justin Timberlake. To the younger audience, Timberlake may be known better as a solo artist than the former heartthrob of NSYNC. After his emergence in the public sphere of entertainment, Timberlake appears to be the standard by which all boyband reformers are measured.
The question, then, is who from One Direction is destined for similar greatness?
To be honest, I couldn’t tell you. What’s fascinating about One Direction is that each member has released music since the hiatus (what contract expired for this to happen?) and none of them have taken the same approach—or even the same sound.
Zayn Malik’s early departure gave him a leg up on the competition, allowing him to broker a deal with RCA, the same label housing the likes of Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown. Exactly a year after the official announcement declaring that he was no longer part of the band, Malik released his full-length album “Mind of Mine.” The album, and the accompanying single, “Pillowtalk,” garnered significant commercial success, setting records and establishing Malik as an R&B artist in his own right. With the rest of One Direction still being, you know, One Direction, it seemed that Zayn Malik was setting himself up to be the next JT, Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani—you name it.
After One Direction announced their hiatus in January 2016, taking a well-deserved break from the last five hectic years of their lives, there was the unspoken question of who was going to come out with solo music first. (The assumption seemed to be Harry Styles, the enigmatic, elusive and, without a doubt, most popular member of the band.) Many things were happening all at once; Harry was becoming an actor, Louis and Liam joined the dad club and Niall was just, well, being Niall.
While each member of One Direction has released music since the hiatus—Tomlinson went for a more EDM vibe in collaboration with Steve Aoki; Horan for a more understated, Ed Sheeran-like acoustic guitar track about happier, innocent days; and Payne for a pure club R&B track featuring Quavo from Migos—only Styles has released a full album with all the bells and whistles one would expect from a boybander breaking out on his own (and enjoying quite a bit of success).
Unlike Malik, however, Harry Styles’ self-titled album is an ode to the classic rock stars of a previous generation. Styles’ debut single, “Sign of the Times,” burst onto the scene as a nearly six-minute power ballad, drawing immediate comparisons to the Prince album of the same name. The album itself is a nostalgic love letter to artists like The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Elton John. It’s quite a turn from songs like “Best Song Ever” and “What Makes You Beautiful.”
At this moment, it’s unclear as to whether One Direction will ever return from their hiatus. Despite constant reassurances from the members, a complete reunion seems unlikely. Without a doubt, each member’s respective ventures into pursuing a solo career will be interesting, paving a path for the world’s next big boyband.