In a genre rife with conventions, One Direction plays the type--good hair, catchy tunes, abundant charisma--and gets away with more than you would expect.
On Thursday night, the female population of downtown New Orleans skyrocketed. One Direction's five memebers (Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, and Liam Payne) have become household names, known as much for their perfectly styled hair and goofy antics as they are for their music. They follow in the manicured image of boy bands before them, but the way they took the stage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome revealed that, unlike the predecessors, they're not just selling good looks, charisma, and their relationship to the audience; they're also selling their relationship to each other.
Let's get this out of the way now: One Direction is, objectively, an extremely attractive group of young men. They're also keenly aware that their international success hinges on that image and how it's projected by social media. Their image is one of nonchalance, of adolescent pranks and the vaguely anarchic attitude of teenage boys. Though there's a massive machine (largely adult-driven) behind them, they want their audience to think that they don't really give a shit about all that. Instead, they make poop jokes onstage. They insist they won't do choreographed dance moves, and spend most of the show just clutching a microphone (their vocals are surprisingly strong), running around, running into each other, scrambling on the barest of stage sets. Their stage mostly consisted of a long runway extended down the arena, and though it had a hydraulic lift on one end and some benches, it was basically just a bunch of flat surfaces. Not exactly the elaborate pyrotechnic production spectacle that one would expect of one of the world's top acts.
As massive the group is, their onstage presence is much more palatable than the gratingly outsized egos one would expect. I expected plenty of smoldering looks and poses (and they came aplenty) but One Direction's members understand how ridiculous those moves are for young men barely in their twenties to pull in front of a huge arena of pre-adolescent girls. What they're selling with this image is dangerous anticipation without any real danger, sex appeal to an audience for whom half probably haven't had the sex talk yet--none of which is anything new for a boy band. What's different is that, though they're consciously selling this latent message, they deconstruct it at every chance they get. They keep insisting that the group's "image" is the lack of an image.
Instead, when fan favorite Harry Styles finished a vocal solo, the image of conscious cool, he would often do a ridiculous hip wiggle that dispelled any macho confidence. When he sang songs about the girl of his dreams, he would overdramatize the performance and sing it to another band member, mischievously trying to elicit a reaction. Niall Horan, another One Direction member for whom many of the 10-year-old girls around me professed their love, would strike a chord and then waddle-run to the side of the stage, shaking his fist triumphantly as if he was cheering on a little league baseball game. The crowd roared with him, which amused him even more. With One Direction, it's all foreplay followed by a "GOTCHA!" sign. Boys will be boys.
The members of One Direction seem to know that it's a strange joke that they have this kind of power, and it's genuinely intoxicating to watch them goof around, huge smiles plastered on their faces. Though their music can tend towards the bland, their sheer, combined exuberance is likable and entertaining enough on its own. While other pop stars are proclaiming their flawless status, One Direction points a huge arrow at the same characteristics the public would probably censure their Disney peers for and insists that those "flaws" are an integral part of their image. It's interesting, because many of the ordinary young men their age are doing the opposite: goofing off in private, but striving for a cool, suave exterior. It's not typical for young men to consciously undermine their sex appeal, especially in a public forum, and show near-ambivalence about female adoration.
Though the group is selling nonchalance, there's no mistaking that what happens onstage is meant to be seen. Throughout the night, I was constantly being reminded that I was being sold something, whether it's by the movie trailers or music videos during intermission, the faces of the five boys on T-shirts all around me, or the Pepsi product placement. What's happening onstage counts - they know their audience is watching at all times - and so what is happening out of the spotlight is just as telling as what's happening center stage. Whenever one band member has a solo, the others kind of amble about, conferring with each other. When eyes aren't supposed to be on them, they're still messing around, sharing private jokes none of us can hear.
Compare this to the opening band, 5 Seconds of Summer and its members, who only ever interacted with each other through their microphones when they engaged in stage banter for everyone's benefit. When the spotlight isn't on a One Direction member, that person still makes an effort to be invested in the others without any obvious entertainment value. They chat with each other and act as they would offstage. That staged casualness is as important a part of their image as the way their clothes are stylized or how dreamy their hair is.
I was also struck by how similar these boys are to one another. Fans know Louis as the prankster, Harry as the "playboy," Zayn as the mysterious "bad boy," etc., but their personalities aren't different enough to pointedly draw a diverse fan base, the way groups like the Spice Girls were constructed to. Why are there five members in One Direction, aside from the fact that all were the same age and in the right place at the right time when Simon Cowell put them together? It's easy to suspect that the band is constructed on the logic that there's no reason to only have one charismatic, gorgeous singer when you can have five, but it's more likely that there are more members because relationships can't occur in a vacuum. One Direction's friendship is magnetic, and their accessibility online and in performance makes that friendship seem open to everyone.
This, ultimately, is why One Direction's flirtation works so well: they've got other things on their mind. Though they profess love for their fans, they clearly are doing fine with each other. Their relationships with each other are more tangible and developed than any they could ever have with their 20.7 million Twitter followers, and by refusing to commit everything to their audience, girls are challenged to raise the stakes for their attention. The boys project virtuous faithfulness (to each other and to the women in their lives. Most are in committed relationships, and one is engaged), but their scatterbrained antics onstage suggest to the audience that the boys can be distracted, if only for a moment. The girls in the arena are challenged to work doubly hard to earn their attention, and there's nothing more enticing than the things you can't have. It's the cat-and-mouse game everyone their age is playing romantically, only on a much larger scale with higher stakes and no realistic commitment. At this level, it seems that neither One Direction nor their fans can lose or be seriously disappointed.
Another difference between One Direction and the boy bands that have preceded them is that One Direction is keenly aware of the conventions that those groups established, and they know how to use them in their favor. They get to excuse themselves from the tortured artist/strangled soul trope. They don't have to be ashamed of their star power or the attention bestowed upon them. The public (especially the adult public) typically demeans boy bands by expecting them to be filled with dumb boys who care too much about their hair. By playing up that image as much as possible, One Direction has strategically positioned itself in the pop stratosphere: high enough to pack stadiums on sheer charisma alone, low enough that no one's holding them to any real expectations or is looking to seriously criticize their musical sensibilities. In a strange world that can be business-first, they're left alone to have fun.
One Direction also uses the boy band conventions to excuse themselves from machismo, from expectations of the hyper-masculine that can pervade top 40 music. They don't have to grow up yet, and they claim they don't want to. They thanked their fans over and over throughout the night (it started to get exhausting), and though they know they owe a lot to their fans, the real focus here is on the joy they find in each other's company. In a social media-dominated, ego-aggrandizing era of pop culture in which everyone's learning how to grow up in public and construct a personal identity, the One Direction boys seem able to put the attention on each other rather than themselves. They're just boys having a blast and getting away with quite a lot for international pop stars, and one can hardly fault them for having the guts to do it.
Of course, none of this can last, and the boys know that. Soon, falling out of chairs and giving each other wedgies won't be funny anymore. Their male counterparts will be graduating university and getting serious, and what is endearing about One Direction now will turn cloying, tiresome, and immature. Those steadfast friendships will probably drift apart--fans are growing up too, and so they're acutely aware of this trajectory, even as everyone tries hard to deny it. For now, they're all basking in the impossible power of their youth and the allure of something that's sure to fall apart, clutching the relationships that still remain. The present is comforting, and there's nothing wrong with that.