Catching Feelings: On Zayn Malik, One Direction, and the Value of Fandom

There are lessons to learn from One Direction and their fans.

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Complex Original

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Regardless of your capacity to relate to One Direction’s fans or music, you’d have to be a troll to argue that the group’s ascent has been unremarkable.

Since 2011, the five-member boy band has released five massively successful albums in five consecutive years. They’ve made Billboard chart history (repeatedly), shattered sales records, beat out the Beatles, and generally dominated the planet. The epidemic nature of their rise was congruent to that of *NSYNC or Backstreet Boys at their respective peaks, but truthfully it was more akin to Beatlemania, in that there was no precedent for a non-American group achieving such widespread astronomical success.

Now, the twilight of their career is upon us: Their new album, Made in the A.M., dropped Nov. 13, officially fulfilling the five-album obligation of their contract, and there are currently no plans for them to tour the album in the coming year. Meanwhile, after months of silence following his departure from the band last March, former member Zayn Malik has finally spoken out about plans to launch his solo career in early 2016, the prospect of which has piqued the interest of audiences spanning well beyond the usual 1D fans.

I essentially convinced myself I was too woke for Top 40; as if music made by angsty white men with guitars whining about their ex-girlfriends was inherently more authentic than a troupe of apple-cheeked boys harmonizing about a pretty girl’s hair.

I was introduced to One Direction by two of my best friends, and initially I responded with the same cynicism and discomfort that I’d later meet myself. Why would a pair of grown ass adults be obsessed with a band of teenage boys singing songs for/about teenage girls? It was obvious why tweens would be on board: sweet-looking boys plus equally saccharine songs satisfied a tried-and-true formula designed for young girls to devour. It was simple science, I thought. But I couldn’t rationalize what it would mean for someone like me or my friends to buy into it. I had ditched my *NSYNC and Britney Spears CDs early on in life once I learned they weren’t cool and moved on to edgier pastures. I essentially convinced myself I was too woke for Top 40; as if music made by angsty white men with guitars whining about their ex-girlfriends was inherently more authentic than a troupe of apple-cheeked boys harmonizing about a pretty girl’s hair.

My friends convinced me to watch 1D perform on Saturday Night Live in April 2012, one month after the U.S. release of their debut album and the beginning of their stateside takeover. Curious to understand their obsession and also wondering whether or not they were just fucking with me, I obliged. As we watched the band, my friends' excitement was so unabashed, I realized there was nothing ironic about it. And in a matter of minutes, I was converted, too. The songs were plain and perfect. The boys were visibly petrified, especially the puppy-faced Harry Styles as he assumed center stage to sing his solo in “What Makes You Beautiful.” The fear on their cherubic faces felt more authentic than any of the edgy indie bullshit I had been about. In spite of how manufactured I believed they were, there was something earnest and imperfect about their delivery that intrigued me.

From there, the obsession took hold. I watched every video, every interview, learned all their songs, names, origin stories. Suddenly I got it. My mind had opened up and made space for me to be less judgmental of myself and others. I couldn’t be so cynical anymore. I realized maybe the world didn’t actually need to be that miserable.

The true, enduring value of One Direction dawned on me once I realized the emotional refuge and antidote to toxic masculinity they provide for the young girls (and guys) that populate their fanbase. In a music industry that simultaneously treats teen girls as the most lucrative consumers but the least respected audience, One Direction speaks directly to them and says something that their demographic doesn’t get to hear as much as it should: You are important.

While there is no shortage of artists who sing songs for and about women, the way 1D speaks to their audience is different than say, Justin Bieber or Drake. Drake writes plenty about women and often sings directly to them, but the inconsistency of his approach makes his lyrics feel pandering at best (“You’re a good girl and you know it”) and spiteful/controlling at worst (“Hotline Bling” and “How Bout Now.”) Part of why people identify with Drake’s songs is his personal storytelling. He paints relationships, dilemmas, and conflicts in a way that people relate to. But what makes One Direction songs resonate is the opposite: There is no narrative. The concepts are elementary and deliberately abstract; the feeling is the story. And the theme is always the same: love. Like Drake, 1D too was once guilty of disingenuously harping about a girl’s ability to look pretty without makeup, but ultimately 1D’s catalog all boils down to the same emotion: unqualified, unconditional, timeless love. Drake will love you when he feels like you’ve earned it, but One Direction will love you no matter what. 

Drake will love you when he feels like you’ve earned it, but One Direction will love you no matter what. 

The most sublime happiness I’ve encountered in my 24 years on Earth has been in a stadium of 50,000 One Direction fans. They clutch each other and dance when they hear their favorite song (which is all of them). They scream “WHAT ARE THOSE?!” in blood-curdling unison when the Jumbotron camera zooms in on Harry’s glitter-encrusted Chelsea boots. I’m surrounded by 50,000 young fans who aren’t holding back anything, even and especially in the face of ridicule. This is a safe space for them, and that’s why One Direction matters, whether or not critics and adults recognize it.

One Direction embodies a magic that only boy bands seem capable of. One of the inherent qualities of magic, of course, is that it can only exist for a brief time. As we’ve learned from boy bands of yore, the lifespan of these groups is characteristically short, and the end typically comes exactly when it’s supposed to, though that predictability doesn’t diminish the disappointment for some fans.

It’s incredible that One Direction represents so much to so many, but understandably, it’s also an enormous responsibility to shoulder. Millions of people look to the boys as a source of emotional support, and much of their brand hinges on the illusion that they are perpetually happy and enthusiastic, which means they are under a great deal of pressure on a daily basis to suppress their feelings for the sake of their image. Being committed to nurturing someone else’s well-being can make it easy to lose track of your own. This is something that Zayn Malik made evident last March when, after dropping out of One Direction’s world tour allegedly due to stress, he soon announced in a statement from 1D HQ that he left the band.

Last November, One Direction released their fourth studio album, appropriately titled FOUR. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 but saw their lowest first-week sales since their debut. As Billboard points out, the 347,000 units moved was “a notable 29 percent drop from the first-week sales for their previous album.” This would also be their last album to feature Zayn Malik.

One year later to the day,FADERpublished the first major interview with Zayn Malik since his departure from the band nine months prior, in which he discusses his imminent career as a solo artist and gives the first official preview of his new music: a snippet of a track called “Befour.”

For fans, this story has been highly anticipated. Zayn’s decision to leave the band was the most jarring thing to happen in their 5-year career and remains a polarizing subject for many. With virtually no word from Zayn and 1D in the months since the split up until now, fans have been left to cope with and make sense of the situation on their own. Much of the larger public, on the other hand, is just now learning who Zayn Malik is and seems eager to judge his chops as an artist. But the 1D fanbase has been conscious and supportive of Zayn’s talent for a long time. It was widely agreed upon if not unanimous that he was always the most vocally gifted member of the group.

It’s confusing, surprising, and somewhat incredulous to see the number of heads currently turning to look at Zayn that would have likely turned their noses up at One Direction. The sudden surge of interest in Zayn only now that he’s separated from the group is symptomatic of a culture and industry that is uncaring and unwilling to dignify—much less engage with—art heralded by the teen girl demographic.

Is the public ready to take Zayn seriously now just because he’s geared up to make songs that sound like the Weeknd? Just as Justin Bieber wasn’t taken seriously until he linked up with Diplo and Skrillex, and critics weren’t paying attention to Carly Rae Jepsen until she started working with Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid, it seems no teen idol stands a chance at “legitimacy” unless they substantially divorce themselves from the demographic that established them. For a boybander, we’ve learned time and time again that that means going solo. It’s more than a matter of sound; One Direction’s musical style has changed so dramatically since their bubblegum debut that their most recent albums sound more like Fleetwood Mac, Cheap Trick, and Bon Jovi than anything on Radio Disney. To write them off on the basis that their music isn’t “mature” is a flimsy cop-out. They’ve basically been playing dad-rock ever since they ripped off the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” for their 2013 single “Best Song Ever.” Apparently it doesn’t matter whether a boy band diversifies their sound to appeal to a broader audience; people simply aren’t eager to pick up anything that comes in their type of packaging. 

The sudden surge of interest in Zayn only now that he’s separated from the group is symptomatic of a culture and industry that is uncaring and unwilling to dignify—much less engage with—art heralded by the teen girl demographic.

It’s worth noting that when Zayn discusses his motivations for leaving One Direction, he explains his inability to identify with the music they were making, but he doesn’t invalidate the fans who connected with it. He remains respectful and empathetic, acknowledging the legitimacy of their taste. When I discussed the FADER article with a friend, one of the same who introduced me to 1D, she pointed out that Zayn describes his thought process when quitting as “I need to go home. I just need to be me now,” rather than, "Im sick of being a sellout, I need to make real art." Zayn seems to understand, as does the author Duncan Cooper, that “loving One Direction is a perfectly rational thing to do,” even if Zayn was no longer loving it himself.

“It’s only sensible for fans to recognize what brings them joy and grab onto it tight,” Cooper writes, a sentiment that also applies to Zayn deciding to assume control over his life and pursue his own definition of success. His narrative is an affirmation—for everyone, not just for 1D fans—of what growing up looks like. The themes that permeate Zayn’s story fittingly feel like more grown-up applications of lessons I’ve learned from loving One Direction. Figuring out who you are is a process that hinges on destruction just as much as creation. The beginning of a new chapter necessitates the end of an old one, but it doesn’t mean the preceding chapters cease to matter. Who you are is cumulative and ongoing. There is always more to come

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