One Direction in action
HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 8: (L-R) Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan and Liam Payne of British singing group One Direction performs on FOX's "The X Factor" Season 2 Top 13 To 12 Live Elimination Show on November 8, 2012 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images) Photo: FOX
When a 30-year-old woman receives a text message from her 28-year-old friend that reads “Who is your favourite one?”, what do you expect they are discussing? Downton Abbey characters? Tina Fey and Amy Poehler? Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper??
WRONG! Naturally the answer is “members of One Direction” and I am the 30-year-old and my friend Kate the 28-year-old who sent me the text on the day that the ebullient video for Kiss You premiered (I think I was up to my seventh repeat viewing when she texted).
Yes, I’m one of those people who move quickly in the merch aisle at Target and get asked things like “Buying that for your little sister, are you?”: I’m a grown-up and I love One Direction. I know all the words to their songs and can tell who is singing at any given moment. So there.
My interest in One Direction (“1D”, thanks) is primarily musical - in my decade as a music critic I was mostly a scholar of pop, and even though it’s no longer my professional platform, I still tend towards that end of the musical spectrum; I’d rather drive stakes slowly into my eardrums than sit through the latest pile of beige earnestness from whichever indie band Mojo magazine says is hep.
You’d have to be deaf not to appreciate that 1D have some of the finest songwriters and producers on their speed-dial this side of the Britney Spears back catalogue, and yet, and yet, saying that is a bit like saying you read Playboy for the articles (which I used to do), because what business does a grown woman have liking a boy-band full of cherubic British lads whose target market is, unquestionably, young girls?
I asked some (capably employed, adult) friends who share my appreciation for the band for their input, so that you can see I’m not the odd one out. “I love that they appreciate what they do,” says Kelly, who is currently doing her Masters. “I don't think you can overestimate the power of seeing someone actually enjoying their lives.” Chrissy, a university employee, adds, “Now I am a grown up with bills and jobs and all that bullshit, I appreciate the healing powers of pop music and there is nothing more healing than seeing some seemingly nice and sweet people succeed and be happy.”
“Sometimes I just like to listen to killer pop sung by cute boys,” says Frances, a freelance writer, adding that “I think a good chunk of the flack 1D get is because we as a society don't take young women seriously.”
Jess, a sound artist, agrees: “I spent all of my teens focusing my music taste towards what was cool (i.e. what dude writers in NME suggested was cool). Pop wasn't cool to me and I missed out, as I realised later in life, on a lot of awesome stuff. Loving 1D unabashedly is reclaiming that part of me and defiantly consuming something that is made purely for girls.”
The broader response to 1D - i.e. from critics and cultural commentators - has, for the most part, completely missed the point, likely because “mainstream pop music has no value” is a popular position among music critics and always has been. Occasionally a piece will run in vague support of a mainstream pop artist, but almost always for “ironic” value, and inevitably featuring the sort of redundant “is it ok to like it??” tone that should have been buried back in the ABBA days.
The coverage has ranged from the lazy (The AV Club saying they sound like *Nsync; hot tip, guys, they don’t) to the truly bewildering (The New York Observer reckons their great failing is that they can’t dance?).
And, yes, there has been “feminist” commentary about the band, and particularly What Makes You Beautiful, such as this bilge from Feministing: “[T]he message of this song really rubs me the wrong way. Shouldn’t we be telling young women and girls that confidence, not low self-esteem, makes them attractive?”
Ah, the spurious fourth wave notion that every woman everywhere has to be “empowered” via the magic of self-esteem.
It’s frustrating because the wonderful thing about What Makes You Beautiful is that a lot of us don’t know or think we’re beautiful. Certainly from the age of about 13 to 27, despite looking like a perfectly reasonable young woman, far from knowing I was beautiful I was more or less convinced I looked like a goblin. Whatever confidence I now have in my ability not to physically sicken people just by standing in their line of vision has been hard won and remains fragile (perhaps I just need to use more Dove products?).
My friend Bee appreciates 1D for similar reasons: “Their songs cater to needy, insecure, girls (and people perceived to be girls) to break the hyper-obnoxious ‘confidence is sexy’ mantra women are forced to internalize and then externalize.”
There has been much scoffing, too, about 1D (and Justin Bieber before them) somehow emasculating all of mankind because they have nice haircuts, which is of course rubbish; surely you’d prefer a bunch of lads who like to hug and kiss each other and regularly wear makeup to serenade your daughter/sister/mother than some frat-bro bunch of neanderthals with the sexual politics of a Marlboro ad?
Apparently not, if the aforementioned Observer review is anything to go by: “There’s something disconcertingly sexless about the band. ‘The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed’ goes their hit What Makes You Beautiful, a sentiment more stylist-to-client than stud-to-lady.”
Indeed, the fact that 1D come off “a bit gay” seems to be chief among the reasons many see them as a pop cultural scourge, but for me and my fellow adult fans, that’s part of the appeal. “I like 1D because I like campy groups of young men,” says James, a script editor. “I think it adds a level of queerness that is necessary to make this band A+.” Brodie, an editor and writer, agrees: “They are so comfortable with their playful homoeroticism, something we've never seen from boy-bands in the past. Also they're all of legal age so I'm allowed to imagine it's me touching Harry's butt when Zayn does it.”
Which brings us to probably the main reason we 1D-loving capable adults get grief from our peers: “You like a bunch of 18-20-year-olds, what are you, a weirdo or something?”
Society has long struggled to accept the notion that older women might find younger men attractive; that makes you a “cougar” or a “sugar mummy” or even a “pedo” (thanks, internet).
I dated a couple of 18-year-olds (not simultaneously, I’m no Mae West) when I was 28 and was made acutely aware of the idea that it was somehow “gross”; nobody said the same of my 36-year-old boyfriend when he was dating 21-year-old me. Sure, the cultural unease is probably not helped by things like Germaine Greer’s The Boy and its regrettable tapwater analogies, nor Madonna’s storied “[young men] don’t know what they’re doing, but they can do it all night” line, but really, aren’t we all adults here?
As my friend Rikki sagely noted, with regards to (surprise!) One Direction, “If you are an adult calling these adults ‘children’ or ‘babies’ while discussing their sexuality, maybe you are the creepy one.”
So, are we cool here, fellow grownups? Can you return to your Mumford & Sons albums and me to my 1D charm bracelets, and can we call it a truce with no names called? Good then.
PS Harry’s my favourite.