One Direction: What makes them beautiful
They went from X Factor also-rans to the world’s biggest boyband in the space of three years, but how did they do it? We chart the rise of Liam, Louis, Harry, Zayn and Niall from giddy teenagers to chart-topping superstars ahead of their Croke Park gigs
You couldn’t possibly have called it. The biggest boyband in the world? If my notes – haphazardly jotted down immediately post-interview – were anything to go by, the pop world should have been bracing itself for an act that resembled Supernanny’s worst nightmare.
“Maybe give them Spice Girls-style nicknames?” the notes read. “Hyperactive Direction, Inconspicuous Direction, Brooding Direction, Coiffed Direction, Sensible Direction. Heartthrobs? If you’re young enough to appreciate that sort of thing. Diplomatic, media-trained answers. Impossible to corral attention. Silly voices. Interrupting each other constantly. One perched on chair like a monkey. Want to take them by the ear and put them on the naughty step more than once.”
It was December 2011. In a conference room in Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Hotel, I was sitting opposite a group of young lads who had been rounded up into a makeshift boyband on the previous year’s The X Factor, on which they placed third. They’d had a huge hit with their debut single, What Makes You Beautiful, had just released their debut album and were looking forward to touring the US – “a whole different country”, an awestruck Harry Styles pointed out – for the first time, supporting pop band Big Time Rush.
Yet there were no screaming girls outside. They were quite obviously giddy on the first sugar rush of fame; polite, uniformly proffering a kiss on each cheek upon greeting and leave-taking, but they were neither particularly effusive nor charismatic, apart from Harry (Coiffed) and Liam (Sensible), the only two who answered questions in full sentences. There were no garish tattoos on display yet, and the platitudes flowed freely: “If you’re not prepared to work hard, you won’t get anything from it,” suggested Liam, while Harry claimed that his “parents are just so supportive, they just love everything we do”. So far, so blah. The world’s biggest boyband? Nah.
Yet less than three years later, the same five highly strung young men regularly take to Twitter to bemoan the fact that they can’t get any sleep because of the screaming, chanting fans outside their international hotel rooms. Harry Styles – the caddish one who models himself on a young Mick Jagger – has 20 million Twitter followers, a good 19 million more than UK prime minister David Cameron (but only half of his former squeeze Taylor Swift’s total). Next weekend, they’ll play to more than 200,000 people across three sold-out gigs at Ireland’s biggest stadium, giving Garth Brooks a run for his money. There will be glowsticks. There will be fluffy cowboy hats. There most definitely will be screaming.
“These shows were in planning for more than 18 months,” reveals Rory Murphy of MCD, the promoter staging the gigs. “Site preparation and stage build takes five days. There’ll be 400 local crew, 1,200 stewards and security, 160 medical staff – including a paediatric consultant – and four paediatric nurses, as well as up to 1,000 stadium personnel involved in making this event happen.”
It may not quite be Shea Stadium in 1965, but Muphy says that there’s a similar buzz about the forthcoming gigs. “If you look back, the appeal of One Direction is no different to that of The Beatles, it’s just a different time. Mind you, what The Beatles didn’t have at the heart of their band was an Irishman from Mullingar . . .”.
Darren Reinhardt of their label, Sony Music Ireland, has been working on the group’s Irish media campaign since their debut single. He claims that it was clear from the beginning that they were going to be a big success after even low-key radio appearances saw hordes of fans follow them around the city.
“After talking to the boys on the bus back into town, I knew they had something different from many other acts; there was a buzz about them and they were genuinely having great fun doing it,” he says. “We arrived at Spin and 98FM, and could not get down the road with the screaming fans who had been there all morning waiting for them. It was bedlam, girls crying. And all of this happened before they had even released their first single.”
On later promotional trips to Ireland, Reinhardt says, things escalated quickly. “Hectic is putting it mildly,” he says, laughing. “I nearly had my jacket pulled off me just because I was getting on the same bus as them. But without doubt, the lads are one of the hardest working bands I have worked with.”
Their work ethic may be impeccable, but even their biggest fans wouldn’t dispute the fact that One Direction’s rise is a direct consequence of being in the right place at the right time. Still, while it’s clear that their formation for The X Factor primed the quintet for dominance in the UK market, traditionally that platform has meant diddly-squat in terms of longevity. Remember One True Voice, the male boyband from Popstars: The Rivals? (No? Lucky you). JLS fared somewhat better a couple of years before 1D, but their attempts to crack the US market as a modern-day Boyz II Men ultimately proved futile. The track record for solo The X Factor alumni has not exactly been inspiring, and boybands have usually fared even worse; even a quick gander on YouTube of 1D’s performances on the show reveals them as an indiscriminately thrown-together bunch with a few distracting dimples and cheeky smiles.
More significant than primetime TV exposure, however, was the fact that they were five young men with decent singing voices that could be moulded into a band to plug a gap in the market that had grown over the course of several years. After all, there hadn’t been a boyband with a worldwide fanbase since N Sync and the scene was perfectly primed for a newone to break through – all it took was a few insta-catchy songs from some top-notch pop producers, a swift dickying-up of their style and a carefully orchestrated press campaign spread across both the UK and the US on the back of their debut single.
Crucially, their rise also coincided with an explosive rise in the popularity of Twitter, the best marketing tool a pop act can have, which helped fans to spread the word
and form a worldwide community, as well as presenting them with a direct connection to their idols in a way that globe-dominating pop acts hadn’t previously proffered.
The power of social media continues to keep the 1D machine well-oiled, even on smaller, local scales. Brian Maher, the music director of Dublin-based radio station Spin 1038, says that requests for One Direction songs come mainly through Twitter these days.
“That kind of age group is quite interactive with social media,” he explains. “When you play one of the band’s songs, you can see straight away that fans are tweeting stuff like ‘@spin1038 are playing One Direction #whateverthenameofthesongis’ and there’s a better response in that way. Our nightly request show, TRL, also does a thing called ‘The Tweet Chart’, where people can tweet to vote for their favourite songs, and One Direction would definitely be one of the most popular bands because their fans’ age group is slightly more in tune with that newer technology.”
Yet Maher thinks that the group’s music has become less significant in recent years as their individual personas have come to the fore. Playlisting the latest 1D song may have been imperative a couple of years ago, but these days it’s dependent on the specific song.
“They still have a big fanbase, but music- wise, I think they’ve kind of tapered off,” he says. “At Spin, we would always get their single and listen to it, but their current single [slushy ballad You and I] is only played on [Spin 1038 shows] The Zoo Crew and TRL as requested – it’s not on our general playlist. It’s for a younger audience; we know that our older audience wouldn’t necessarily want to hear the brand new One Direction song. The ones that do well are the ones that are slightly more established, like Live While You’re Young or Little Things.”
So, what direction can the ’Direction take next? They have already had their own movie (another one has recently been announced), multiple books, dolls, cardboard cut-outs and every item of merchandise you can imagine branded with their logo – but given that their fanbase is growing up and moving on, is their star already on the descent?
Reviews of their most recent album, Midnight Memories, have been mixed, with many deeming it too “mature” for its own good. Darren Reinhardt of Sony understandably puts an optimistic spin on their newfound “maturity”, citing the recent global hit Story Of My Life, as a song that “has opened more doors for them across wider age demographics”.
Still, suggestions abound that the group’s current stadium world tour may well be the apex of their careers; topics such as ‘When Do You Think Harry Will Leave One Direction?’ have already started to crop up on pop message boards, while the writing credits of their last album are telling, in that Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne have been significantly more active in co-writes than their bandmates.
In short, it’s unlikely that One Direction will become The Rolling Stones of the pop world. There’ll be another band along to take their place eventually. They are there to plug a gap in the market, to sate the craving of confused, hormonally disordered adolescents on a mass scale in the same way as The Beatles did in the 1960s, The Osmonds did in the 1970s, New Kids on the Block did in the 1980s and Backstreet Boys did in the 1990s.
So if you’re at Croke Park next weekend either as a chaperone or as a willing attendee and you find yourself inadvertently humming along to Best Song Ever or holding a glowstick aloft for Story of My Life, as the teenybopper beside you freaks out, remember this: all things must pass. Give ’em two more years. Oh, and bring earplugs.
One Direction play Croke Park Friday, Saturday and Sunday, May 23rd-25th