There’s a scene in Almost Famous – many, in fact – in which Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane expresses extreme distaste for the women who follow bands just for their chance to fuck a rock star. “We are not groupies,” she says, “we are here because of the music, we inspire the music. We are band aids.” Of course, the whole movie follows the twin disillusionments of the film’s main character (a young rock journalist) and of Penny Lane. She eventually realizes that her decision to fuck a rock star, even one she loves, makes her less of a muse and more of a plaything.
Of course, most of One Direction’s fans aren’t even of age to be interested in sex with a rock star, but their status as “band-aids” is compromised in another way – the icky, blurry line between muse and patron. Girls are One Direction’s indisputable muse. Almost everything One Direction has ever generated has been inspired by the desires and needs of the millions of young women who make up their fan base. Their catalogue is also a four-part ode to girlhood, to what is amazing about girls, to what is worth protecting in girls.
But because teenage girls built One Direction, tweet by tweet, GIF by GIF, dollar by dollar, there is a complicated relationship between this band and their fans that is unmatched in its codependency. Fans expect the band members’ attention constantly – a logical extension of their highly profitable business relationship. They expect it in the form of an eight-hour Google hangout which was so demanding and chaotic as to break Louis Tomlinson on camera. They expect it in the form of a new album every year and new high-resolution poster collections every Christmas. They expect it in the form of access to the boys’ physical bodies, wherever they may be – whether at a concert, in a public street, or at the baptism of Niall Horan’s nephew.
In One Direction’s Christmas special last year, the group was filmed traveling through a city in the back of a bread truck to avoid the crush of fans waiting for them outside of whatever building they had been in. The boys huddle together, seated on flour bags while explaining almost cheerfully that they are exposed to daylight only under absolutely insane security restrictions. “I used to work in a bakery so I like being around flour, ” mutters Harry, while Zayn straightens and refolds his legs.
The measure might seem silly and almost certainly was staged for the camera’s benefit, but Liam Payne has tweeted on numerous occasions begging fans not to dip in and out of traffic at 70 miles per hour to get near the band’s cars. When they tweet asking for privacy, all of the boys have at once expressed the request with desperation. They refer to their safety, the safety of their friends and family, their human need for some peace and quiet, and their desire to see some of the world they’ve been touring for five years. But they almost always apologize immediately after making the request, explaining that they don’t mean to be whiny – that they love the fans and they owe them everything.
One Direction doesn’t get asked questions about feminism or what it’s like to exist solely in the world of women, which is bizarre to me because, as a journalist, that’d be the first thing I would want to know: Does it make you hyper-aware of what life is like for women in this world, trying to place yourself in their minds every time you write a song that is supposed to be from your heart?
If you say the right thing a million times in a row, is it because you mean it or because you’ve been studying? What, besides a business decision and the fact that they were aesthetically suited to it, made One Direction decide to devote their careers to us – the girls?
Are we groupies or band aids? Muses or patrons?
Unfortunately, the answer is that it doesn’t matter at all.
In their 15 music videos, One Direction has never once portrayed a love interest in the flesh. This, obviously, leaves open the possibility for a love interest of any race, shape, ability, religion, or even gender (though much of their music is, admittedly, expressly heterosexual). It is the faceless girl who is never described with concrete physical descriptions but always praised as the ideal intersection of reckless fun and island in the storm. She is needed and loved.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs tells the 15-year-old rock journalist in Almost Famous that “great art is about guilt and longing and, you know, love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love”. With this definition of great art placed into a vacuum, One Direction’s would fit the bill to a tee. The main tension across their discography is between the idea of love as a finite and singularly directed thing, which can make someone feel special and safe, and the idea of love as something so all-encompassing and freewheeling that it’s ultimately kind of septic and destructive.
Their mostly accepted “average guy” ethos and refusal to conform to boy band standards of heavy choreography, matching outfits, and pained, restrained sexuality, combined with the fact that they were brought together under the umbrella of a reality TV show and steered into stardom by the formidable capitalist Simon Cowell represents a similar tension. Every move they make, every song they write, is incredibly calculated and heartrendingly human at once.
At last count, they have 19 songs that are explicitly about seduction. There is nothing that One Direction does so well as the longing. Still, they also display the requisite guilt: promises of protection extended to any girl in need, exuberant odes to femininity with no obvious end goal, and uncondescending attempts to quiet a woman’s totally rational fears. They have no fewer than nine songs that explicitly regret and apologize for a breakup. They have ten songs that fall under the banners of “You and Me Against the World” or “Very Specific Reasons That I’m Super in Love with You”.
They have, in the space of three albums (not counting Up All Night, which is not only bad but also produced before One Direction had any sort of identity), one song written about family (“Story of My Life”), one about friendship (“Act My Age”), and two about being homesick (“Right Now” and “Don’t Forget Where You Belong”). These are four songs not written expressly for the fans.
In this way, the girls who made One Direction also made sure that they would never be artists in their own right. They’re not really to blame for this – it sprung from their act of giving far too much for One Direction ever to feel justified in doing something that wasn’t direct recompense. Regardless, it happened.
At any One Direction concert, the crowd sings along so loudly that you have to strain to hear the boys actually sing. Every time one of them speaks, the crowd screams so wildly that you can’t understand their words. In this sense, there’s no such thing as a One Direction concert, and there won’t be for a very, very long time. In this sense, fans of One Direction also admit that the music itself is secondary to the whole package.
Paths of communication between the citizen and the celebrity are as varied in character as they are in success rate. One of my favorite poetry collections, Dear Lil Wayne, is a book of letters written by a poet named Lauren Ireland and sent to Lil Wayne during his incarceration. To my knowledge, she never receives a response. Any fan who reaches out earnestly enough can easily get a reblog and paragraph of encouraging words from Taylor Swift on the Tumblr that she personally operates. Rihanna will host a meet and greet in Brooklyn as part of the promotion of her new perfume. The whole idea is that the artists make themselves accessible by degrees, communicate on their terms, out of a sense of loyalty or maybe just charitability, but ultimately have the power to remove themselves to create.
But what about when celebrities write messages to their fans, expecting direct responses, even needing direct responses to maintain their careers? One Direction’s discography has become largely that because they write music that speaks directly to the girls on the other end of the internet and never much of anything that speaks about their own lived experiences or interests outside of these girls.
Jamieson Cox wrote for the Verge, just after One Direction announced their coming hiatus, that their origin story as the first social media boy band was likely to blame for their crippling workload:
Their success is unimaginable without platforms like Twitter and Instagram, but those same platforms drove an insatiable thirst for more content, more access, more One Direction that likely worked to drive the band apart. (To be more accurate, the open floodgates of the internet just made it easier for fans to dream their thirst could ever be sated — if you were getting all of your NSYNC information from monthly issues of Tiger Beat or the liner notes that came with one of their albums, there was no way you could keep that illusion alive.)
Yes, we’ve demanded a lot—five albums, four tours, three movies, a Christmas special, an eight-hour livestream, 15 music videos, and constant, stream of consciousness access to their lives via social media. We can see now that it’s a lot. But how is it that no one noticed in 2011 that a contract for five albums and five tours being presented to a group of teenage boys who had largely grown up with modest means, or even relatively poor, was extremely predatory? At the time, all anyone talked about was dreams coming true.
This is Us is a portrait of a group of boys who are almost unbelievably fun—who switch out words in a love ballad mid-concert to sing about KFC and pose as security guards in the crowd just to troll fans—and when I saw One Direction on the Where We Are tour last summer in Toronto that was largely the group of boys I saw.
This year, I went to the On the Road Again tour stop in Pittsburgh. Harry Styles was subdued, no longer bouncing around for attention, just pushing his mop of hair back from his face long enough to contribute his verse and then retreating from center stage. Niall Horan parked it with his guitar for most of the concert. Liam Payne played the Master of Ceremonies as if he had drawn the shortest straw that night. Louis Tomlinson was about to become a father. Zayn was not there.
There’s a line in “Better Than Words” in which Niall Horan is known to do a goofy, out-of-character, aggressively sexual hip thrust. When I saw him do it in Pittsburgh, it was so obviously not something he wanted to do that it broke my heart.
In Joan Didion’s faux-journalistic novel The Last Thing He Wanted, her narrator is writing up background on one of the book’s subjects and becomes frustrated with her own desire to look deeper into his past, specifically the emotional and material deprivation that he experienced as a child. Parenthetically, she scolds herself: “It has not been my actual experience that the child is father to the man.”
That has not been my actual experience either, particularly when talking about men and women who experienced their childhood as celebrities. The boys of One Direction were sweet, raucous, endlessly entertained by the surrealism of their own lives, but the men of One Direction are enigmas.
In 2013, when I took my younger sisters to see One Direction’s This Is Us tour documentary at the nearest IMAX, I fell in love with an image of boyish perfection and unadulterated joy. I fell in love with the idea of young men who were articulate, funny, caring — anything but cruel.
I had spent the year being roughed up by a narcissist who would admit to gaslighting me and then do it again, an older guy who promised to send me advanced copies of Lorrie Moore books and pivoted when I didn’t offer up virginity, and Cornell University, which is, if you didn’t know, a haunted hellscape of white and dynastic privilege defined by a host of intersections of beauty and class and social protocol that I could not begin to wrap my head around or work my way through.
I was in need of One Direction, and they existed.
“I speak a different language, but I still hear your call,” they said.
Towards the end of the movie, sitting around a campfire, Tomlinson tells the others, “It’d be great to be remembered even as a mum telling her daughter ‘The boy band at my time, One Direction, they just had fun’.”
The girls who loved One Direction will become 23-year-olds who will lazily pull up a 2012 music video when drunk with their friends and “awww” over the perfect faces and cheesy choreography. They will become wives and mothers. What will One Direction become? Probably a lot of things, but all of them will be under the height of scrutiny. They’ll be watched and compared to each other, and there will be “where are they now?” pieces and reunions as the punchline of a Seth Rogen movie. These things I know to be true.
Will the women who loved One Direction at a time when they really, really needed to love someone who wasn’t going to exploit that affection remember the simple, timeless sweetness of opening a song with the line “Oh, I just want to take you anywhere that you would like.”
Even in 2013 Harry Styles talks about weighing the pros and cons of the whole thing; Liam Payne talks about his worry that he’ll never find anyone that loves him for who he is; Louis Tomlinson’s mother buys a cardboard cutout out of him to replace her son in her home. Even in 2013, a sleepy Zayn Malik is pulled from a tour bus bunk to record a verse at 3 am. He’s a child! He’s a sleeping child being asked to get up and work at three o’clock in the morning.
The girls in the This Is Us documentary tear up and hold onto each other as they explain, “They say what we want to hear and no one, no boy says to us,” and “They love me, even though they don’t know me.”
It’s striking how much truth is hit at here: so little of what One Direction can offer these girls has even the smallest shred of credible sincerity, but because they themselves were so undeniably human, this was easier to forget.
Though occasionally, spontaneously, they would do something amazing. “Story of My Life”, I will defend until my dying breath as the only sincere song ever recorded by a group of musicians whose career was primarily someone else’s grand experiment. It’s the only song in One Direction’s oeuvre that acknowledges love as something more complicated than romance. While the lyrics seem directed to a love interest, the video is about family, and heavily weighted to be primarily about mothers and sisters.
After pledging to “drive all night to keep her warm”, each voice takes a turn saying he will then “spend her love until she’s broke inside”. That’s the story of his life in a chorus of a pop song that got insane radio play. How did we miss it when they explained this so god damn clearly? Love is their only resource, and we’re all leeches – how did we not hear this coming out of the mouths of the happiest boys in the world?
The fact that One Direction learned about women from these women that they grew up with is an obvious logical conclusion but not one you’re called upon to acknowledge particularly often when listening to their music. But it’s maybe the biggest and most personal admission they make—they needed these women, and they took all the love and help they could get from them, the same as they know we’re now doing to them. In “Story of My Life”, love is portrayed not as a fairy tale but as a feeding frenzy, almost unbearable in its similarity to reality. It is the exact thing that One Direction exists to prevent us from having to deal with.
One Direction is atrophying now, at the close of the frenzy. Zayn is gone, Louis is going to be a dad, and Liam would rather be a songwriter. Harry and Niall have been bouncing up and down for us for so long, their ankles are about to shatter. This hiatus comes about four months after album number five is released (after promotional performances and press), as well as around the time Louis’ child will be born, making it a calculated and extremely human move.
There will be more. More boy bands that drop the choreography and the matching outfits and embrace the reckless ethos of sex, parties, jumping, dancing, spinning, and burning out. Being too wanted. Will they have a “Story of My Life” — a moment of raw, unpolished sincerity that they can never top and never should have revealed? Who knows?
The truth is, boy bands die in one of only two ways: we lose interest, or we run them into the ground. One Direction has become a caged bird, and that’s on all of us _ the girls who loved One Direction and then destroyed them.