One Direction songs are meant to be experienced with the entire body. Simply swaying the hips releases insufficient energy for their upbeat anthems and merely raising the arms for one of their love ballads doesn’t reflect the gravity of the heartbreak to which one is bearing auditory witness. The audience was reliably dense with young girls, most traveling in packs of three to five and several accompanied by parent and grandparent chaperones. They danced without inhibitions in a way I suspect they might not if boys were present. These adults knew that their age did not exempt them from the rules and dutifully sang along with their whole bodies, often with more skill than their charges. At 30, I am closer in age to the 40-something mothers than to the teens for whom the spectacle was actually intended. I tweet a photo of myself and my friend Arabelle with the caption, “Bury me at this One Direction concert, living or dead,” and post it to Instagram for good measure. When my phone dies halfway through Icona Pop’s opening set, I briefly panic before taking comfort in the ready metaphor: for just a few hours, time will stop.
When the four members of One Direction emerge on the stage at MetLife Stadium on August 5, around 60,000 of us surrender the comfort of the seats we paid for. They kick off the night with the oddly fitting anthem “Clouds,” a song about a cycle of break-ups and reunions that could double as an ode to the monotony of touring. We stand and dance and scream for the band that makes us feel like they really traveled all that way to sing for us alone. Naturally, I start crying. The band half sings and half shouts, “Here… we… go again/Another go round for all of my friends/Another non stop, will it ever end?” I recover from my first bout of tears quickly and commit my entire weight to chanting and stomping along as they ask but don’t answer.
Though the mothers in the audience put on a good show, the real moves in the stadium belong to the young men on stage. They riff off each other seamlessly and share limited space in a way that demonstrates both innate talent and absolutely relentless practice. These young men have been on tour more or less nonstop for the last five years, promoting four different albums. As I watch them run around with manic energy for several hours, I recall how the boy bands of my youth had elaborate choreography that many disparage One Direction for not committing to. But I realize now that this was required of N*SYNC and Backstreet Boys not because they were such talented dancers but because improvising movement in concert is remarkably difficult. That is, of course, unless you’re Harry Styles.
Comments have been made for years about how Styles is the second coming of Mick Jagger and it seems that no one wanted this to be true more than Mr. Harry Styles himself.
Comments have been made for years about how Styles is the second coming of Mick Jagger and it seems that no one wanted this to be true more than Mr. Harry Styles himself. He even wore a ridiculous over-sized sun hat for the better part of 2014 to belabor that point. But at the show, it is undeniable that he has grown into his status as the Jagger heir apparent. He has the lankiness of his rock star fairy godfather but enough tone for a masculinity that doesn’t make him as much of a dandy or nearly as campy as Jagger was for so many of his best years. His is destined to be legendary swagger. Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone wrote of Styles’ performance, “Every limb of his body is an instrument he uses to express to girls how happy he is to bask in their presence.” I would amend that only to add that there were women basking, too. He had the entire audience raise our arms, tap our feet, and scream our loudest at one point. We were all too happy to obey his commands; he the giddy conductor and we the eager but out-of-practice orchestra.
Louis Tomlinson’s signature move is to put his hand over his heart, an oddly endearing gesture that he keeps throughout the show and somehow doesn’t engender a fear in me that perhaps he is actually unwell. The affable Niall Horan comes armed with a guitar, perhaps a sign of the acoustic direction he hopes to go in when and if One Direction ever calls curtain. The Irish blond who once took a backseat in terms of teen lustiness has become a fan favorite but he appears to have kept his relentlessly likable nature intact. Meanwhile, Liam Payne tries the hardest to banter with the crowd, appealing to Jersey and New York often, betraying his charmingly antiquated notion that young people are attached to their geographies more than the homesteads they’ve built in social media kingdoms. Payne is trying out an Elvis-inspired dance move for reasons that are not apparent. He doesn’t quite master it but it is a noble effort at an admittedly difficult pelvic isolation. As far as the 60,000 of us are concerned, these four are the only young men in the galaxy for the next three hours.
“Steal My Girl” is the first song where I actually notice the absence of One Direction deserted, Zayn Malik because Liam sings the opening lines that Malik had so perfectly handled. And though I once spent an entire essay declaring the necessary end of One Direction because of Malik’s departure, this concert proved me wrong. The idea of One Direction is stronger than the sum of its original parts and the foursome moved in a harmony that looked as if it was by design. “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” asks the title question over and over again and never answers it, breaking my heart as reliably as always. On “Ready to Run,” they sing, “This time I'm ready to run/Wherever you are is the place I belong/Cuz I wanna be free and I wanna be young/I'll never look back now/I'm ready to run,” they sing. I’m fond of lyrics that suggest that the place itself is immaterial so long as the right people occupy it but I’m perplexed at the idea that they want to be young, as if they are doing anything but epitomizing youth in their current enterprise. They draw an entire city’s worth of young women to them every night to mostly bear witness to their bodies from several hundred feet or more. That is not something many old people can do. I cry again—tears that mix gratitude for the experience with my totally unnecessary mortal anguish.
“Don’t Forget Where You Belong” comes as a relief because more people are finally crying. It is a bittersweet ode to remembering home and finding one’s way back there from time to time. Because One Direction’s members are all from relatively remote British and Irish towns, they are known for often expressing their profound gratitude for the opportunities they’ve had to travel the world as few from their homes have done. A gentle piano introduction ushers in the lyrics, “Been a lot of places/I've been all around the world/Seen a lot of faces/Never knowing where.” And in this moment of lyrical displacement, the audience lights up their cell phones, turning the MetLife Stadium into a starry night for the band to gaze out at. “Don't forget where you belong…home/Don't forget where you belong…home/If you ever feel alone, don't/You were never on your own/And the proof is in this song,” they sing in unison, betraying none of the resilience of body and mind it surely takes to get through such enormous moments night after night.
They exchange knowing grins with each other before the first few chords that seem to say, “And now is the time in the evening where the girls lose their shit.”
The night gets a burst of energy with "What Makes You Beautiful,” the first single released in 2011 when they were fresh off the TV singing competition, X Factor, that brought them together. They exchange knowing grins with each other before the first few chords that seem to say, “And now is the time in the evening where the girls lose their shit.” And though they’ve likely performed the song thousands of times, they deliver it now with the giddy energy of teenagers. There is no mortal anguish and no homesickness here. They perform a four-song encore and close with “Best Song Ever.” It is a pop anthem about meeting a girl and dancing with her all night because they’re young and they can and they plan to remember it forever. It is true that when you’re young you don’t realize how much storage capacity there really is in your memory so you overestimate which girls and which nights you’ll remember and which songs are the best songs ever, but as the small temporary city dissolved into the parking lot, I knew this was one I would not forget.
I fell asleep before my phone turned back on and I woke to a stream of notifications too deep to consider that early. Instead, I log into Twitter to see my friend’s reactions. My friend Katie tweeted, “One Direction was incredible tonight!!!!! I clutched my chest for two hours straight. Niall grabbed his crotch and many girls died,” to which my friend Lyz replied “is that why @alanamassey is not tweeting anymore RIP Alana.” I laughed audibly at the idea of actually being mortally wounded by the perfection of One Direction and consider what a great death that would really be. The fans would erect monuments in my honor and the band would probably dedicate a show to me. They might even meet my parents. But despite my best efforts to cry myself to the point of dehydration and death, I was very much alive the day after the show. But I returned to being a 30-year-old woman without the subtle dread that so often plagues me when I’m reminded of getting older. I put in my headphones, scrolled to One Direction, and shuffled their life-giving pop songs into the ordinary business of the daily grind. I am not quite as young and or as free as the band longs to be in the song, but I’m not running away from as much anymore either.
Alana Massey is a writer covering culture, technology, relationships, and identity. Her book of essays about celebrities and the myths of female inadequacy, All the Lives I Want, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with one cat and a lot of feelings. Follow @AlanaMassey.