The music video for One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” was published to YouTube on August 19, 2011, and has since amassed well over 670 million views.1 Even if for all American intents and purposes they were born four summers ago in that YouTube window, their story really began on X-Factor UK in 2010, when Simon Cowell first assembled the five-piece. Since then, all four of their studio albums have reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200, but none of their singles ever reached the top spot on the Top 100.2 But has their meteoric journey to superstardom come to a premature end? 1D will be disbanding in March, or, in more diplomatic terms, “mutually agreed to an extended hiatus of at least a year to pursue solo projects,” according to The Sun. Notably, they have one more album coming out, but they have decided against going on tour to support it. The four remaining members really want out! But once they are set free, what will they leave us with? They didn’t dance, they didn’t match, and they didn’t dominate the radio the way that Taylor Swift or Rihanna or even Justin Timberlake has. How will we remember these guys? Will we remember them at all?
Somehow, that’s not good enough to crack the top 30 all time on YouTube, but whatever.
That’s OK, though: The Backstreet Boys never had a no. 1 single either, but they made up for it with “I Want It That Way” and entertaining choreography while draped in oversize, absurd, coordinated ensembles.
Niall (blond, Irish), Louis (dad-to-be), Liam (the one who gets angry on Twitter), Zayn (the one who quit but who I am including here because he’s been gone for less than six months), and, of course, Harry have faced the same issues that challenge all boy band members. They enter their groups as blank canvases awaiting manipulations from record companies and projections from young girls. They stay this way for only so long, and an expiration date on their popularity is as certain as on a carton of milk. One Direction probably outlived their life expectancy. The fandom that propelled them forward all over the world coalesced on Tumblr, which was a testament to that platform’s community. But what happens when Tumblr celebrities have to compete with Vine and Instagram stars? The attention of 1D’s fans was inevitably divided by all these options. YouTube commenter “lilred panda” said it best on the “What Makes You Beautiful” video:
Unfortunately for the five lads, it’s hard to see any of them actually succeeding with a solo career. Harry Styles has the most charisma and the most hair, and he can also boast a short-lived but well-documented relationship with Taylor Swift. But it’s hard to imagine him, or any of his bandmates, commanding attention in any Timberlakian fashion. Apparently Lance Bass is a close friend of Harry Styles, and he tells The Sun that Harry plans to pursue acting instead of music. Niall is the only one who purports to play an instrument. He is often ornamented with a guitar, though the sonic contribution of that bling is still up for debate. (Perhaps he could ride his proximity to musical instruments to grabbing a few songwriting credits on tracks for himself or some vulnerable up-and-comer.) Liam has always been the most underrated. He was originally known as “the responsible one,” but he used Twitter to occasionally complain about all the attention they received, which is tantamount to lashing out in this boy-band world. He seems destined for a judging panel on the next iteration of Britain’s Got Talent. Louis will, hopefully, be preoccupied with fatherhood. Why not become a stay-at-home dad? Zayn was cast out in March, so he is probably a lost cause. Since then, he has broken up with his fiancée, publicly feuded on Twitter via proxy, and subsequently had a falling-out with said proxy, the DJ/producer known as Naughty Boy. I just hope he has a good financial planner who stashed away some cash for him. Still, there is one obvious career option for 1D. Given the group’s collective predilection for ill-advised tattoos, why not open a tattoo parlor together either in London or Los Angeles? That would be reality TV gold, so it’d actually be two careers in one.
Whatever they choose, there is a harsh reality awaiting them: The current musical landscape is not particularly hospitable toward the pop-rock that One Direction peddles. Their music lacks the qualities that has defined this summer’s top hits: dance beats, high-profile collaborations, and the magic of Max Martin. Had the boys stuck to the Ed Sheeranesque fare of their earlier records (the inexplicably popular Sheeran wrote a few songs for them), they might not have watched their latest single, “Drag Me Down,” drop from 3 to 26 in its second week on the Top 100. For any of them to remain musically relevant, they’ll have to return to the undeniably catchy tunes of their debut or somehow convince a Diplo or a Rock City or maybe even a Ryan Tedder to throw them a song. The strength of their names alone are not enough to conquer the chart.
Still, there’s hope for these kids. Take That and Westlife both enjoyed fleeting worldwide success, and then returned to their isles to settle into a nationally bounded career. Even though 1D might not ever sell out an American arena again, there’s hope for middling success in the U.K. and Ireland. If Gary Barlow’s name can still carry some weight somewhere — and it does — 20 years after Take That emerged, there’s reason to believe we’ll still see Harry and Niall & Co. stumbling out of various clubs for years to come. This is not “goodbye.” It’s just, “see you at less regularly scheduled intervals.” All Directioners should be able to live with that.