When One Direction formed in 2010 under the careful eye of reality singing competition genius Simon Cowell on the X Factor UK, they did the unthinkable: They lost. The band of boys, teenaged and doe-eyed, came in third, shedding a few gif-able tears, endearing them to millions watching. It was genius—they’d stick together after the program to pursue pop music as a real, underdog group nearly a decade after the boy band bubble burst. (When Justin Timberlake left *NSYNC and pop music turned to solo stars.)
When One Direction hit the scene, they did so at the exact moment the world was ready to embrace boy bands again, but it would be different this time: each member, sweet as sugar, would be able to grow into a superficially dangerous character. Choreography was out, tattoos were in—so long as long as each member’s role was well-defined. There would be a bad boy, a big brother, the cute, approachable one, the shy, mysterious guy, and most importantly, the heartthrob.
These roles, crucial to the boy band schema, were not so obvious with One Direction. Zayn Malik had the most dynamic range of the bunch, with a distinctive and tremble-free tone. He was also the most conventionally handsome (dude looks like a prince.) He should’ve been the heartthrob, the dude with the greatest potential of landing the Justin Timberlake/Nick Carter role. Except Malik was shy, deathly shy. Harry Styles, on the other hand, possessed a special charisma from the very beginning. (I like to think it stems from his days working in a bakery with elderly women in his native Holmes Chapel, Cheshire. Old women know everything.) So Styles, all charm and delicious brown locks, got the role, one he filled immediately and graciously.
Of course, there’s another reality here: Malik was the only person of color in One Direction, meaning there was a racial undercurrent to the decision. But in the earliest of early days of 1D it was apparent that Styles loved the limelight and Malik loved to sing.
The arrangement worked for five years. Until March 25, 2015, when Malik announced his departure from the group. Initially claiming that he wanted to pursue life as a normal 22-year-old—a luxury he quite obviously would never get to enjoy as one of the world’s most famous 22-year-olds—he soon revealed solo aspirations and on a year to the date, dropped his debut LP, Mind of Mine, under the mononym Zayn. His departure was a shot heard ‘round the world, met with confusion, lament, and support. For fans, it was quite obvious that Malik had been unhappy for a while and when his lead single “Pillowtalk” dropped in 2016, it became clear that his frustrations extended beyond One Direction’s exhaustive tour-press-record-repeat schedule. Kept from the music he wanted to make by the 1D playbook, Malik shed his group to make R&B-lite, Weeknd-indebted pop as Zayn. In other words, Malik has had sex, and is a sexual person, and we needed to understand that.
The liberated, sex-having Malik got off to a strong start. His album debuted at No. 1, “Pillowtalk” went No. 1, he toured successfully, he scored a slew of late-night spots. Everything seemed to be turning up Malik until…it slowed. Malik departed One Direction at a time when the group’s future was uncertain (indefinite hiatus is the business-speak), so even with all of his success, Directioners couldn’t give Zayn their undivided attention. After all, what were the other guys doing? What about Harry?
In the wake of Zayn’s solo songwriting work, cutie-patootie Niall Horan has released a soft acoustic ballad, “Our Town,” a la Ed Sheeran. Bad boy Louis Tomlinson hit pop radio with the optimistic anthem “Just Hold On,” alongside EDM mastermind and heir to the Benihana throne Steve Aoki. Liam Payne had a baby, teamed up for a song with Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J, and announced that he had signed to Capitol Records.
It was Harry Styles, the heartthrob, who took his sweet time to swagger back into the musical spotlight. (Of course, he hasn’t been idle; he's been away at war. That is, he spent the last year and some change filming Christopher Nolan's upcoming World War II epic, Dunkirk.) So when Harry Styles released his debut solo single, “Sign of the Times,” on April 7 of this year, the world was ready—because he made us wait.
Styles has long been adept at creating mythos and atmosphere, while offering just enough transparency. It’s not deceptive; we feel close to him though we only know Styles the performer, the boy band hottie, not Styles the person—a fact confirmed in his recent Rolling Stone cover story. (It’s worth noting that Malik was not given this honor, and neither was One Direction, even in the group’s prime.) Where Malik’s departure from One Direction felt rushed and necessary, Styles’ transition to solo star has had considerably more time to incubate.
So who is the Justin Timberlake of One Direction? The short answer is, Harry Styles. The long answer is, neither. While J.T. essentially broke up *NSYNC when he left, One Direction continued on without Zayn. The music Malik makes feels more in line with the popular music of today, whereas Styles feels vintage in a classic-rock, dorm-room kind of way, which should resonate with Directioners and their Fleetwood Mac-loving parents alike. From where we’re standing, it looks like both boys are on their way to long and successful solo careers, should they stay the path. Styles’ looks bigger, at least for now, because nothing beats the mysterious heartthrob.