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One Direction Should Not Be Ignored

On the boy band's surprising new album and the deterioration of genre

In 10 years, all pop music genre classifications will be obsolete.

I feel 100 percent confident in predicting this. The only reason I’m reluctant to state this belief publicly is that it almost seems self-evident. It’s like predicting that 2 Guns will be deprived of winning an appropriate number of Academy Awards.1 Let me be clear: I’m sure there will still be “rock” music and “country” music and “rap” music in 2023. I just don’t think there will be discernible musical differences between them (at least when it comes to the most commercial versions of those genres). The only way people will be able to distinguish between different kinds of artists is by the types of hats and pants they wear.

If any aspect of what I’ve theorized proves to be incorrect, I suspect it will be the part about the process taking 10 years. In fact, it’s possible that I haven’t really “predicted” anything — there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that what I’ve described has already happened. A cursory survey of contemporary hits supports the idea that all forms of pop music now sound like all forms of pop music — country singers are rapping, rappers are engaging with classic-rock tropes, and rock bands are trying to either sound like early Gordon Lightfoot or Destiny’s Child. I’m speaking generally, of course, which is dangerous with post-genre modern pop. But most notable new artists seem to have the musical fidelity of mid-’90s Ween.

I’ll give you an example: Earlier this month, a multi-platinum-selling singer-songwriter named Eric Church performed at the CMAs. Church is considered a country artist, even though his biggest hit is called “Springsteen,” which he performed for tens of thousands of drunken millennials wandering between sets by Local Natives and Kendrick Lamar at Lollapalooza last summer. Church was at the award show to debut his new single “The Outsiders” — which, again, is considered a country song, even if the actual music resembles a Cougar-era John Mellencamp track as reimagined by Iron Maiden. I suppose the line where Church sings (in a rap-like cadence) “the players gonna play and a hater’s gonna hate / and a regulator’s born to regulate” could be construed as classically country (as opposed to music that doesn’t fit comfortably in an outdated paradigm) if you contemplate it strictly through the lens of Young Guns. But I bet Warren G would beg to differ.

My point is that calling Church a “country” artist does little in the way of describing what he actually does or how his music is appreciated by the people who love it, and this is a problem for a growing number of artists. I’ll give you another example: This week, One Direction releases its third album, Midnight Memories. For those who don’t keep up with the world’s most insanely profitable pop groups, One Direction is a five-man collective that was conceived and assembled on the British version of The X Factor in 2010. Since then, 1D has displayed a virtuosic ability to sell music, moving 19 million singles and 10 million albums in just under two years. The group is also a social-media juggernaut, with nearly 16.5 million Twitter followers. If the stats don’t move you, here’s some anecdotal evidence: The other day I was at the mall and I saw a cardboard cutout of these guys advertising perfume outside of Macy’s. Big is one thing, but “cardboard cutout at a major retail outlet” big means you’re truly breathing rarefied air.

One Direction is commonly referred to as a “boy band,” a loaded term that is synonymous with an equally loaded genre tag, “dance pop.” But after spending several days with this album, it’s clear that while it might be convenient to call One Direction a boy band, Midnight Memories resists boy-band baggage. If I had to break down the record into tediously specific categorical components, I’d say Memories is actually about three-fourths decent British folk-pop in the mold of Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran,2 one-seventh pretty good classicist pop-rock, and one-fourteenth excellent power pop.

On one hand, this shouldn’t be a surprise — the group members stated ahead of the album’s release that Memories would be an “edgier” effort. And One Direction’s previous records, 2011’s Up All Night and 2012’s Take Me Home, dabbled in acoustic soft rock alongside the expected synth-driven, up-tempo chirp-zak. On the other hand, the suggestion that Memories might actually kind of sort of rock probably sounds strange or even objectionable. I promise I am not a “rockist” who’s inclined to project the values of a historically predominant genre onto other genres. I also am not a “contrarian” trolling middle-aged people who get weirdly enraged over the mere existence of music made for and marketed toward children. I’m not claiming that the dudes in One Direction are misunderstood geniuses or that Midnight Memories is destined to become Simon Cowell’s OK Computer. I’m only reporting the facts — when this album works, it is the opposite of what the rhetoric primes you to expect.

It’s true that the majority of Midnight Memories sounds very much like another widget produced by a massive machine that’s been programmed to wring One Direction dry before the inevitable Jonas slide sets in. As a stock “maturity” stab — remember, these memories have been reserved strictly for after dark — it’s heavy with ballads in the mold of “Story of My Life,” a jaunty, finger-picked ditty with a blindingly shiny chorus. Then there are the two aforementioned pretty good classicist pop-rock tracks — “Best Song Ever” nicks its crashing electric guitar riff from the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,”3 and the title track gamely grafts the pretty-boy New Wave of Rick Springfield’s Working Class Dog onto an “I Love Rock-n-Roll” beat.

This leaves “Little Black Dress,” which basically justifies the whole enterprise. Look, I didn’t expect to find one of the year’s best rock songs on a One Direction album, but I guess it’s just been that kind of weird year. “Little Black Dress” is a perfect little two-and-a-half-minute power-pop tune. Again, let’s look at the facts: The guitars career loudly yet melodically, like they were sampled from a late ’90s Sloan record. The drums are as big and dumb as Peter Criss’s cranium. The phrase “it’s so right” appears as an infectious chant exactly 15 times, in the style of “She Loves You” or “Surrender,” and immediately rings inside your head another 257 times. “Little Black Dress” is a prime example of what used to be known as “bubblegum” music, which Lester Bangs defined as “the basic sound of rock and roll — minus the rage, fear, violence, and anomie.”4 That’s “Little Black Dress,” all right: It sounds like Big Star trying to re-create its own version of the Raspberries’ “Tonight” and getting reasonably close. I have no clue whether a song like this can be a hit in 2013, but I know a few forty-ish-year-old record collectors who would love it. One Direction Madame Tussauds wax figures For a long time there was a tradition in pop that we’ll call “Hail, Hail, [Your Genre Here]” songs. They essentially acted as commercials for new forms of music. Chuck Berry wrote a bunch about rock and roll in the ’50s. Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” was the anthem of ’60s R&B. Alicia Bridges’s “I Love the Nightlife” repped for disco, and Generation X’s “Your Generation” spoke for punk (or slagged boomer rock, anyway). In the video for “King of Rock,” Run-D.M.C. demanded that rap be included in a (theoretical) rock-and-roll museum. Metallica put “metal” right in its name, an idea that was subsequently ripped off by a million shitty ska bands. There are many more examples, but you get the idea. Today, you typically only see these songs appear in country music, where it’s still standard for up-and-comers to name-check Hank, Willie, Waylon, and Johnny. But this is really a defensive gesture, considering that country artists (more than rappers or rockers) are able to successfully shed their genre trappings in pursuit of mainstream success without fear of repercussions from authenticity hounds. If you’re Taylor Swift, they’ll even give you a quasi-lifetime achievement award for it.

There’s a reason why these songs are less common now, which I think is fairly obvious: There aren’t really any new genres. Whenever something that seems new and cool comes along (for the sake of discussion, let’s say dubstep), it’s eventually absorbed by the establishment, and all of a sudden what seemed like sovereign territory is just another annexed patch of dirt on pop’s bastardized landscape. (There’s a dubstep-ish song on Midnight Memories, for instance.) I suppose a lot of people see this as a negative — it’s taken as a sign that nothing is “original” anymore. But I don’t view it that way. I’d argue that the greatest byproduct of the new media age in regard to our collective understanding of music is how it has made everything seem more connected. Yes, the Internet has countless rabbit holes catering to narrow interests. But for those seeking a higher perch, the all-access era provides a fresh perspective on a much broader and grander narrative. Listening to songs from various genres, eras, and geographic locations reveals how different kinds of artists usually arrive at the same destination — ultimately, we’re all looking for a good beat, a catchy melody, a vocal that stirs the soul, and maybe an insightful lyric or two that illuminates the human experience. And that can’t help but make fussy categorical distinctions seem less relevant, if not downright silly. The more you hear, the less genres matter.

This is why, in 2013, seekers of great rock songs can’t automatically ignore a new One Direction record. As genres break down and artists feel freer to break out of their predetermined roles and pursue the only style of music that matters — the “whatever sounds awesome” style — it’s going to be harder to know where to look for what you want. It’s possible that a hilarious new trap rap track will end up on a Katy Perry record. That moving cover of an old folk standard could be recorded by Justin Timberlake. The year’s most emotional and technically proficient classic-rock LP might very well originate with two snarky French DJs. Does any of this make sense? No, it does not make sense at all. But like the kids say, it’s so right, it’s so right, it’s so right.

Filed Under: Music, One Direction

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden