One Direction‘s sophomore album Take Me Home was a quick follow-up to their 2011 debut album that cemented their status as a bona fide global pop act. It also signaled that to keep building their empire, the band would need to churn out content at the same pace that brought Take Me Home to the US market only eight months after Up All Night. Although spawned from the reality talent show The X-Factor, which often produces talent that burns out quickly due to its origin as a ratings magnet instead of artistry, One Direction achieved superstardom that transcended the show. However, they didn’t beat the odds by showing they had actual artistry. Instead, they doubled down on a reality-TV business model long after the release of their debut album, relying on their appeal and lineage in the established tradition of boy bands.
One Direction derived meaning from their capitalistic existence through their connection with their fans. Every artist in the current creator economy is inevitably capitalistic because the bloated media means a public presence sells music (or any product). Even authentic singer-songwriters of the modern era, such as Taylor Swift, are businesswomen with corporate partnerships. It’s just a necessary evil. Unlike Swift, however, One Direction wouldn’t exist in any form without the media-driven economy. Their tacit acknowledgment of this gives meaning to their existence in pop culture. In a musical climate where artistry and marketing are interchangeable, One Direction utilized its status as a product to shape the beginning of internet fandom. Their strategy of oversaturation, putting out an album and tour per year for five years, made up for the lack of substance in their music while also causing burn-out that ensured their existence never strayed too far from their reality-TV beginnings.
For the last few decades, artistic integrity has not been necessary to succeed as a musician. After the birth of the modern pop star in the 1950s, celebrities with a definitive talent or skill rose to fame, aside from manipulating the media. Celebrity grew up around them organically, causing stars like Joni Mitchell to veer suddenly from pop and retreat into the Canadian wilderness after the success of Blue and the speculation about her private life. “At that period of my life,” she said, “I had no personal defenses. I felt like I was a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” However, once achieved, this transparency with the media would become the vessel for a new generation of celebrities to achieve fame, leapfrogging over the artistry that initially created the celebrity itself. By the time of One Direction, a life lived publicly was enough to cement a brand. The music was secondary.
People crave idols. As much as celebrity culture is often rooted in canceling or tearing down public figures, that hate comes from the fact that consumers resent voluntarily putting them on a pedestal in the first place. When the hyper-capitalistic stars of the late 20th and early 21st century emerged, they took advantage of a market in which celebrities could exist for their own sake. Art has become so commodified in pop culture that musicians and their labels no longer make a product out of art but make art out of a commodity. One Direction, as reality stars, succeeded as musicians because they embraced the fact that they used the latter strategy, which allowed them to focus on all the other parts of their brand that don’t have anything to do with art.
In 2019, Taylor Swift declared that she “didn’t want her life to be a reality-TV show”. But during the years of her public romances, a crossover episode occurred with One Direction that strengthened both of their brands. Harry Styles‘ public relationship with Swift in 2013 raised the band’s profile while also giving Swift material that would crystalize her status as a pop star. Possibly firing back about the numerous songs written about Styles in Swift’s 1989, in “Perfect”, from One Direction’s final album Made in the A.M., Styles sings, “And if you’re lookin’ for someone to write your breakup songs about / Baby you’re perfect.”
That line was a layup for Styles, Louis Tomlinson, and the five other songwriters credited on the song. Whether or not Styles took a lead role in writing this song, its abundance of creators reveals that even at their most autobiographical, One Direction remains the product of a machine. The blatant connection to a real-life romance, the first in their discography, allows One Direction to recast their catalog as autobiography as if they had always been confessional. But reality stars aren’t always confessional. Instead, their preferred tactic is to mine pre-existing public information and market it as intimate shared details. The work of creating a mythology around Styles and Swift’s relationship had already been completed when Swift wrote “Style”. Styles himself just had to piggyback off that. Consequently, “Perfect” aspires to rise above One Direction’s filler pop through the context around it while failing to do so in isolation.
However, the members of One Direction didn’t always control the narrative concerning fantasies that the public constructed about their love lives. There’s a corner of the internet devoted to homoerotic One Direction fanfiction. Fans have analyzed interviews, onstage clips, and other interactions with certain band members looking for any sign of a romantic gesture. Spurred by the band members’ carefree attitudes, easy camaraderie with each other, and physicality, these fans helped create the online atmosphere that became a pillar of the band’s target audience. However, it might not just be the members of One Direction themselves that inspired this speculation. Boy bands, since their inception, have always been about presenting an alternative to traditional masculinity.
Endless speculation about the sexual orientations of the One Direction band members is a symptom of hyper-masculine expectations because it reveals that people explain non-traditional forms of masculinity with homosexuality as if queer people can never act traditionally masculine or vice versa. Although it spurred speculation that plagued the band members, their non-traditional masculinity was essential to their brand. As journalist Kaitlyn Tiffany said in her book, Everything I Need I Get from You: How FanGirls Created the Internet as We Know It, One Direction was “a group of boys whose commercial proposition is that they would never hurt you”.
At the age of nine or ten, young boys adopt behaviors that involve hiding their emotions and using physical displays of superiority to earn status in society. Conversely, the patriarchy teaches young girls to accommodate men in the hope of being rewarded with emotional validation. One Direction are the temporary solution to this unequal system through their willingness to give validation to those who desire them without asking for anything in return. The much-derided mania that teenage girls express for young male idols doesn’t stem from a misogynistic notion of a hormonal craze. Instead, it stems from a desire to express a desire for romance outside the confines of the patriarchy. Although boy bands are a temporary solution to the crisis of validation, they inevitably prolong it, making their many admirers unwitting supporters of a system that oppresses them. Boy bands are exactly what they sound like, a group of boys, and boys always become men.
Men uphold the patriarchy so that boys can benefit from it. One Direction’s sensitive form of masculinity isn’t a rebellion against the patriarchy; it’s a Trojan Horse that keeps those who desire them hooked on validation from the members of society with the most status. One Direction maintain the relevancy of male idols, even if they don’t appear as tough as traditional male figures. This strategy backfired when the plethora of homoerotic fanfiction emerged, plaguing the band members with a version of themselves they weren’t ready to confront.
Ten years later, it has become clear that the solution to the problem of traditional masculinity is not to revise masculinity but to teach those that revere it to move on from men entirely. One Direction proved that masculinity is not just based on toughness, stoicism, or any of the qualities traditionally associated with it. They demonstrate that masculinity, at its core, relies on being an object of affection while also controlling the narrative of receiving it. Throughout history, women have not always controlled the portrayal of their physicality. The homoerotic mythology surrounding One Direction shows men how that feels. Essentially, One Direction marked the end of a man’s ability to control how people desire him.
In his solo career, Styles continues to pander to his fanbase. On track “Boyfriends”, from his 2022 album Harry’s House, he laments the emotional unavailability of male partners, conveniently highlighting stereotypical male shortcomings: “Boyfriends, they take you for granted / They don’t know, they’re just misunderstanding.” In this song, he eviscerates the type of guy that One Direction, and now Styles himself, attempts to foil. Not only has Styles tried to maintain this posturing through an awareness of male insensitivity, but he has broken other gender boundaries through his androgynous fashion sense. When asked about his sexuality, he said to Rolling Stone, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a relationship publicly” because he doesn’t consider being photographed by paparazzi against his will as publicly declaring a relationship. This opens the door for the possibility of a queer relationship, but it also calls attention to the fact that Styles has only publicly been seen with women.
Styles’ hesitance at disclosing his personal life hints at possibilities that don’t exist. The possible but highly improbable-existence of these possibilities capitalizes on his central appeal as a guy who’s not like other guys. But one can’t help but wonder if his deconstruction of a problematic boyfriend in “Boyfriends” is actually a deconstruction of himself. He told Apple Music, “It’s both acknowledging my own behavior. It’s looking at behavior that I’ve witnessed.” A song that much more effectively accomplishes the mission of “Boyfriends”, which is to bait fans into adopting Styles as their sensitive internet boyfriend, is “Maltida”, where Styles sings about a friend her family has emotionally abused. “I know they won’t hurt you anymore as long as you can let them go,” he confides at the climax of the song, projecting the private wish for a friend as the hook of a pop song, which makes it all the more courageous. However, it’s not brave in the sense that Styles confesses anything about himself. The track reveals a lot about Matilda’s life, placing Styles in the role of caretaker, where he can be the boyfriend and friend he has always wanted listeners to believe that he is.
One Direction’s members can afford to withhold details about their personal lives because so much of their lives already occur in public. Because they became famous on TV, their music could exist for its own sake. People were already hooked on their personalities. This presence justified their existence in the public eye, not the music. The music merely kept the spotlight on them. Take Me Home indicates this more than any of their other work. Its lead single, “Live While We’re Young”, is an amalgam of pop cliches with thumping bass and synth beats that make it the perfect tune for a car ride or a night out, allowing the band to cater to both high school and college-aged fans. “Tonight let’s get some and live while we’re young,” they shout in unison, with their promiscuity hidden beneath their boyish looks. “Kiss You” is another feel-good anthem that revels in how simple it is. The chorus, which drags out the words “touch” and “rush” crashes in over a slow synth beat, intoxicating the listener as the boys rally into fast-paced “Yeah, yeah, yeah’s”. The song is bubblegum, although some of the album’s tracks are aspirational.
“Little Things”, written by Ed Sheeran, can’t get out of its own way. In the verse, Zayne sings, “You still have to squeeze into your jeans / But you’re perfect to me.” This veiled insult encapsulates One Direction’s subtle role as an agent of the patriarchy: unless a listener takes male judgment for granted, this line comes across as demeaning. However, One Direction protect themselves from the fallout from moments like these by embracing its status as a group of reality stars who churn out corporate pop. Fans fight wars on social media defending the band: in the end, the public decided what the band stood for. Maybe that’s why Zayn left in the middle of a tour; he felt controlled not only by a record label but by the public. However, this flexibility ultimately cements One Direction’s purpose: they did what good boyfriends should do: listen. The real question is whether or not people will be listening to them after another ten years.