Pop Goes the World in 'One Direction: This Is Us'

This may be nothing more than a smart, strategic piece of PR, but thanks to the individual capturing the commerce, we get more than mere hyperbole.

One Direction: This Is Us

Director: Morgan Spurlock
Cast: Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Simon Cowell
Rated: PG
Studio: Tristar Pictures
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-08-30 (General release)
UK date: 2013-08-30 (General release)

Argue all you want about their manufactured status, but three of the four Monkees were actual musicians. Mike Nesmith was a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter (The Stone Poneys' "Different Drum") while Peter Tork earned his chops playing in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village. Mickey Dolenz was almost exclusively an actor, having appeared on TV as a young child, but Davy Jones was a musical theater star, meriting great acclaim (and a Tony nomination) for his performance as the Artful Dodger in Roger Bart's Oliver! . So when they were thrown together by entertainment executives, given songs to sing by Don Kirschner, and tossed out to the masses like mimics of The Beatles, their eventual reputation as being prefabricated and fake was understandable, if not wholly true.

In the case of One Dimension, a similar argument can be made as well. All five members of the latest UK boy band - Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson - had dreams of being singers. All could carry a tune pretty well and each decided their destiny lied with an appearance on Britain's number one get famous quick expose, The X-Factor. All five auditioned. All five failed to make it through. But show stalwart Simon Cowell saw something in them and, on a lark, decided to put them together to see what would happen. A few international smash hits later and the guys have enough pre-teen clout to warrant their own Jonas/Miley/Bieber/Perry concert film experience, This Is Us. Unlike those previously mentioned tired teen idols, however, the One Direction camp hired an actual documentarian, Super Size Me's Morgan Spurlock, to make their marketing tool, and the end result is a telling peak into our modern cultural concerns.

The standard set-up applies. We learn of 1D's origins, the various personalities within the group, the unusual circumstances of their past and individual home fronts, and the current pandemonium they are causing all around the planet. Girls are in a wet panty panic over these blokes, turning their tour into a sold out money minting sensation, and for once, the gents at the center are in on it. You see, unlike all their high minded chart peers, the One Direction dudes don't fancy themselves real musicians. They're singers. They're product. They're grounded to the notion that they will do whatever it takes to be as popular as they can be before the bloom falls off this particular adolescent scream queen riot and they are back to working in a bakery (like Harry did before he hit it big). No delusions of grandeur. No high minded battles with handlers over artistic integrity or creative outlet.

No, One Direction may be the first manufactured musical group ever that's also in on the joke. They may be wide eyed innocents (the movie features them fawning over every new international city they visit like it's their first time ever stepping outside the confines of the UK...because it more or less is) but they are savvy from a business perspective. Everything they do, every pre-written song they sing or previous pop hit they cover brings them closer to the end game - the almighty British pound. They get that they are being used and will go along with the ruse because, in this case, the means justifies the bigger bank account. Now, Spurlock doesn't get the guys to sit down and dish on how they plan of profiting from their fad gadget appeal. Instead, he lets us into their world where there are no delusions about besting a certain group from Liverpool.

Some of this comes from their individual backgrounds. Both Zayn and Niall are from working class backgrounds and their respective parents are just pleased that their sons don't have to face the hardships they have. In one of the film's most touching moments, the former gives his mother the house he always promised, and their shared moment of recognition (over the phone, of course) is more telling than a dozen quizzical Q&As. Similarly, Niall enjoys some mid-tour R&R which allows his homesickness struggles to come to the fore. One of the most telling statements made in This Is Us comes from one of the adults when they say, "One day, we sent our kids off to audition for The X-Factor, and the next, we literally didn't see them again for two years."

Indeed, Spurlock highlights the hard work involved in being incredibly popular. The boys are woken from mere minutes of sleep to sing harmonies on an upcoming single, the half-drowsy performances perked up by a veritable supercomputer of technological aids. The whole hotel to arena to bus to airport to taxi to hotel to theater routine is harrowing, as are the number of day, nay WEEKS, between periods of (incredibly brief) downtime. As they drink in the adulation, as they harmonize and flash their tattoos at the crowd, you can tell they are having fun. They are also young enough, foolish enough, and in 2013, cynical enough to understand that this is their moment. To let it slip by without milking it for everything they can would be the ultimate failure.

It's also indicative of Spurlock's approach. He wants to dig behind the facade, to pull out the (partial) truths about life in a post-millennial boy band. There are no tired confessionals where someone - Liam, Louis - laments the fact that they can't participate in the songwriting or playing process, no grating grandstanding where they want to be taken seriously as artists. They know they are cute. They know they can sing. They know they can make money at both. That's all that matters. While it may sound materialistic, or part of a production hoping that everyone, including a cynical middle-aged film critic, will drink the 1D Kool-aid. the truth is that, by hiring Spurlock, the makers of This Is Us actually found a way to live up to that title. This may be nothing more than a smart, strategic piece of PR, but thanks to the individual capturing the commerce, we get more than mere hyperbole.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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