To those of us who have been on this earth for a while, and therefore have observed the slow disintegration of assorted girl- and boybands before, the grief all over the Internet pretty much equalled the writing on the wall when Zayn Malik left One Direction in March 2015. The remaining members insisted they’d go on, while I tried to remember the counterexamples: Take That quit almost immediately after Robbie Williams’s departure, and Spice Girls never really bounced back when Geri Halliwell left. My pessimism was vindicated when word came, not long after, that One Direction would go “on hiatus” after releasing their fifth studio album, but I took no satisfaction from my prediction.
The emptiness, nay, sadness, I felt when I learned about Zayn’s decision, triggered a familiar, nearly automatic internal response: Was I not too old to be having this reaction? It was, however, followed by a swift, confident rejection. Rather than too old, I finally felt old enough to embrace a band like One Direction without reservation or the need to instantly cloak my fandom in irony, years after I’d come out as a Backstreet Boys fan. I had no problem admitting that I, too, was cooing to the Story Of My Life video, or shedding tears to Directioners’ reaction vidoes on YouTube. Boyband had always been considered kind of a gay thing, and it should not be underestimated that when One Direction burst onto the scene, I was also, finally comfortable enough with myself to be, as they say, a fangirl.
Regardless of whether One Direction defy expectations and return in force when the unspecified hiatus is up, or if pop historians can start drafting the band’s chapter right away, it seems clear that its third album, Midnight Memories (2013), will be considered a career highlight. From the Mumford & Sons-y Happily and Through The Dark, to how Little Black Dress invokes Rick Springfield, while the Midnight Memories chorus is straight-up hair metal, and Best Song Ever cheekily riffs on The Who, the album bursts with energy and arena rock presence. One Direction successfully threw out the playbook for what it means to be a boyband in the 2010s.
The remaining four albums are more uneven offerings, but if you’re looking for a path into the 1D catalog that takes you beyond the, admittedly catchy, singles – What Makes You Beautiful, One Thing, Live While We’re Young, Steal My Girl, Drag Me Down, and the aforementioned Best Song Ever – I suggest you check out the bonus tracks. The deluxe editions often gold-tinted pop songs. On FOUR, it’s Illusion, maybe the closest One Direction has come to genres forefathers Take That (Could It Be Magic!), and extended Made In The AM includes my favorite track off the album, the heavily Paul Simon-infused Walking In The Wind. (I’m not the first to point this out.)
And then there’s the punchy Take Me Home (2012). Part of me understands why critics were disappointed in this sophomore effort, not least if they only listened to the regular edition. Again, the deluxe version raised the bar. Any of the four additions – She’s Not Afraid, Nobody Compares, Loved You First and Still The One – would have improved on the original tracklist.
In recent interviews, Zayn Malik has explained that he left One Direction because the band didn’t make the music he wanted to make. He felt he was rebuffed whenever he suggested they should step away from the pop/rock path and toward R&B. While I liked the Zayn-less Made In The AM just fine, it does sound like a One Direction that has traded attitude and energy for something safer,v even stodgy, and in that sense, I see his point. I wish Zayn gets everything he wants out of a solo album, Timberlake-style. But I also hope he’s keeping the door open to rejoining One Direction someday. Even if they couldn’t quite match the successes of their prime, both Take That and Spice Girls came back, after all.
The fans were still there, as they (we) will no doubt be for a reunited One Direction.