Boy bands aren’t supposed to last forever. We all know that. At a certain point in their unrelenting reigns over pop music, the hysteria dies down, the boys become men, the fans’ interest wanes, their sound evolves and, eventually, a band member decides that they’re over it. Justin Timberlake broke off from *NSYNC to go solo. A.J. McLean went to rehab and Kevin Richardson temporarily left the Backstreet Boys soon thereafter. The Jonas Brothers broke up when Nick wanted to venture out on his own. And, of course, Zayn Malik left One Direction last week because he wanted to have a “normal” life and record solo material.
Yet, despite how predictable the life cycle of a boy band may be, the news of a member leaving will always be met with shock and passionate disappointment. In the case of One Direction — the first of their kind to rise to stardom in the age of social media — that intense reaction was even stronger than it would have been, say, 10 years ago. When the news of Zayn’s departure broke last Wednesday, it was absolutely unavoidable. The reactions from fans and non-fans alike made headlines themselves as everyone tried to make sense of an announcement that, really, wasn’t that difficult to understand.
When Simon Cowell brought the boys back from the brink of elimination on “The X Factor UK” to form a five-piece boy band, it was, in the world of singing competition series on television, a relatively revolutionary decision. And it paid off in a bigger way than anyone could have imagined. From the moment they started singing Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” the first time they performed together, it was clear that Simon was onto something. You could see the money signs reflecting off of his jet black aviators as the group of teenage boys confidently crooned in front of him. Week after week, the One Direction hysteria grew — both online and offline. As is customary to competitions like “The X Factor UK,” though One Direction didn’t technically “win,” they were the de facto champions that year. They had cultivated a massive fanbase and became a household name, but were free from the contractual stipulations that came with coming in first place. Until their debut single, the still-catchy “What Makes You Beautiful,” was released almost a year after their formation, support for the boys online spread like wildfire around the world. Led mostly, but not exclusively, by teenage girls, the Directioners used social media to back their boys and spread the word about the world’s most exciting boy band since the early ’00s.
There were — and still are — a lot of things to like about One Direction that set them apart from the boy bands of yesteryear. They didn’t dance or wear matching outfits. They each had an individual style that at once set them apart from one another and helped them to remain a compatible, multi-dimensional unit. Their boyish camaraderie, though definitely played up, was genuine and not manufactured. They pantsed and poked each other’s butts on stage. In interviews, they made fun of each other and displayed their cheeky British humor that was borderline inappropriate for their young fans, but appealed to their mothers enough to make them the “ok” kind of bad boys.
But, perhaps most importantly, every member of One Direction has his own discernible singing voice and personality that individual fans can latch onto. Harry, Liam, Niall, Louis and Zayn are different, unique young men and they aren’t trying to hide that. Despite their love for One Direction as a whole, every Directioner has a favorite. There aren’t just one or two standouts because they’re all standouts in different ways. And this wasn’t the case for the boy bands of years past. Find me one person who claims their favorite member of *NSYNC was Chris Kirkpatrick or anyone who liked Kevin Jonas better than Nick or Joe. Seriously. Part of One Direction’s mass appeal is that their members and fans celebrate their collective individuality and, in an age when social media allows for more niche fan bases to flourish, that is a very powerful quality to have when put all together.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop One Direction from following the same path that every boy band seems destined to follow. Because boy bands have such short life spans, the rate of their music production and touring and appearances has been increasingly accelerated. One Direction has been touring seemingly non-stop for three years, and they’ve released four albums in four years. As a group of men that are growing up themselves and trying to find their own identities in this world, it’s no surprise that it eventually became too much for one of them to handle. Performing bubblegum pop — presumably not the type of music that Zayn Malik would prefer to be singing — for sold out arenas of screaming, hysterical young girls must have been exhausting. That’s a lot of pressure.
For a little over half a year now, One Direction’s goofy lads-will-be-lads dynamic has been fading. When I saw them perform last summer, it was clear that something was off, specifically with Zayn. Whether he was bored or blazed (he was probably a little bit of both), there was rarely a smile on his bangs-covered face and he dragged his feet on stage while the other four acted the way they always have. The energy was unbalanced.
So, the signs have been there. From a personal perspective, Zayn’s decision to leave One Direction makes sense. But that doesn’t make it any easier to come to terms with. What will One Direction be without him? They’re going to continue as a foursome, but it’s hard to imagine that some, or a lot, of their magic will disappear. I’d imagine that they’ll fare a bit better than the post-Geri Halliwell Spice Girls did, but who really knows? Zayn will try his hand at a solo career and he’ll probably find success (he’s the best singer of the group), but I don’t think he has the personality of someone destined for prolonged success as a solo artist. That seems to be more part of the increasingly Mick Jagger-esque Harry Styles’s trajectory.
They’re still the guys we have always loved, but One Direction will never be the same without Zayn. It’s sad just how fast the night changes.