One Direction's Big Bang
Ten years ago today, July 23, One Direction created the universe. Read an excerpt from Maria Sherman's new book, Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS, about 1D's formation and meteoric rise.
Once, there was nothing. Then there was something. There was everything. The big bang created the universe. The spectacular explosion, the smallest singularity, inflated for nearly 14 billion years. That time might as well have been filled with darkness, because it wasn't until 2010 that one Irish lad and four young Brits from working-class families — Mullingar, Ireland's Niall Horan, the cute one; Wolverhampton's Liam Payne, the responsible one; Bradford's Zayn Malik, the shy one; Doncaster's Louis Tomlinson, the class clown/bad boy; and Redditch's Harry Styles, the heartthrob — auditioned as soloists on the seventh season of The X Factor. Who could have known that the cosmic microwave called existence would zap up a reality singing competition show, leading to the most glorious time in the universe, the creation of One Direction?
Separately, X Factor judges Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, and Louis Walsh couldn't continue to advance the teenage boys in good faith. They were all talented, but not yet great, and they obviously couldn't dance. Malik especially. Then, an epiphany: Simon Cowell (or Simon Cowell and guest judge/Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, if you take her account as the truth) had the idea to group Niall, Liam, Zayn, Louis, and Harry together to form a harmonic quintet, the youngest boy band the show had ever seen. That decision, rumored to have taken Cowell ten minutes to come up with, would prove to be one of the most rewarding, simple experiments in modern pop music history. After two weeks in the show's "boot camp" program after auditions — an accelerated timeline for burgeoning friendships, let alone collaborative careers — something clicked. A cover of Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" later, and One Direction ("1D" if you're nasty) was official. They came in third place on the show, but that didn't matter.* They had something much more gargantuan in store.
Losing the X Factor in December 2010 was a pivotal moment for 1D. At the time, there weren't many popular male vocal groups in the U.K., save for an embryonic version of the Wanted and JLS. Short for Jack the Lad Swing, the R&B-pop group of adult men couldn't really be deemed a boy band, so the need was there. Cowell, an industry Svengali in his own right, instantly saw One Direction's potential. (Not to knock his know-how, but with hundreds of girls lining up for them outside of the X Factor studio during the competition, it would've been hard to miss.) He signed the boy band to his Sony Music record label imprint, Syco Records, in January 2011 in the U.K. Turns out, it was great timing for Cowell as well: another Syco boy band, Westlife, recently announced their retirement. He needed a new group just as much as One Direction needed to capitalize on their nascent popularity. A few months later, One Direction was signed to Columbia Records stateside. With the exception of the Jonas Brothers, American audiences really hadn't seen a monolithic boy band since *NSYNC. They needed them, too.
And so, at the beginning of 2011, One Direction got to work. Cowell put them in touch with hit American songwriter Savan Kotecha, a Max Martin protege, who, with a small team, produced their debut single, "What Makes You Beautiful." The song, released on September 11, was exactly what the young group required to not only sustain their hype post–X Factor but deliver on it: an affirming, high-energy, no-nonsense, perfect piece of pop that made them appear sweet, sensitive, and attainable, the kind of boys who put women on a pedestal. If there is a better way of encapsulating exactly what a girl needs to hear while coming to terms with the absolute horror show that is heterosexuality during puberty, when the world begins to instruct her to hate herself, I have yet to hear it. The video, too, was playful with modest touches of sensuality (it doesn't hurt that it was filmed on the same stretch of beach as Blink-182's parodic "All the Small Things," an Easter egg for boy band fans if there ever was one). Kotecha told Billboard that the secret to "What Makes You Beautiful" and boy band music in general is doing "the exact opposite of what's going on... teenage girls need to feel it's their own thing." Radio was dominated by Rihanna, Adele, and LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," so he certainly accomplished that.
A combination of marketing, momentum, and music so joyful it should come with a warning for serotonin secretions, One Direction released their debut LP, Up All Night, with "What Makes You Beautiful" and the lovelorn, rock-tinged "One Thing." The album shot up the charts in the U.K. in 2011 and in 2012, debuted at number 1 in the U.S., making them the first English group to ever debut atop the charts with their first album. Really think about that for a moment. The Beatles never even did this s***.
When One Direction voyaged to North America later that year, they inspired their own sort of Beatlemania. Actually, it might've been even grander because of the advent of social media and their brilliant utilization of it. One Direction's unedited Justin Bieber–esque Twitter sharing led fans to believe they were close to the boys, an illusion of access more palpable than even what watching their X Factor auditions provided. Fans felt more like friends, a priceless connection in the boy band universe. As a result, every arena tour One Direction booked sold out in a split second. Women would camp outside their hotels waiting for a glimpse of the group, fully enamored with the chaotic boy band that couldn't even dance. There was no stopping them because their meteoric rise was completely unprecedented and unchallenged, minus a minor trademark infringement lawsuit from an American band also called One Direction. They settled, those nerds disappeared, and in May 2012, One Direction began recording their second album, setting the pace for what would become their normal: an exhaustive, accelerated album-tour-album-tour schedule that might even impress the boy bands who laid the framework a decade prior. Take Me Home was released in November. It, too, debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200.
One Direction fever was unstoppable. "Live While We're Young" was a brilliant follow-up smash single to "What Makes You Beautiful." Lyrically, it was a brief detour from telling a girl she's great to having a wonderful time with her, free of the responsibilities of adulthood. Here, the One Direction boys' personalities really began to shine through. They were a bit anarchic. You could really get into trouble with them, with no bigger consequences than lunch detention. They even tamed the ever elusive rock ballad in "Little Things," which, in November 2012, they sang for the queen of England.
A year, a 3-D concert documentary so huge it was released in theaters, and a few massive arena tours later, One Direction released their third LP, Midnight Memories, in November 2013. Once again, as you most certainly guessed, it debuted at number 1, making One Direction the first group in history to debut atop the charts with their first three records. At this stage, 1D had graduated to stadiums, with tens of thousands of seats. A remarkable feat off the support of a few unrivaled singles, including their best-known track, the appropriately named "Best Song Ever." (It really was the best song ever.)
In 2014, keeping with their strategy, the band released their fourth album and once again, it debuted at number 1. The release, Four, is most noteworthy for the fan frenzy that turned the up-tempo, Louis Tomlinson–led song "No Control" into a single when it wasn't originally marketed to be one. (I'm no tinhatter, but perhaps it had something to do with the song's lyric of "Waking up / Beside you I'm a loaded gun," which is less like the Boyzone song "Loaded Gun" and definitely a metaphor for...One Erection.) Directioners demanded the track get a full release, and it did. That's paramount, and so is this: if you're into numerology-based foreshadowing, the album title suggested the heartbreak that was yet to come. In March 2015, after months of embarking on one of the largest, most successful tours of all time, attended by 3.4 million ticket buyers, a hubristic Zayn Malik announced he was leaving the group because he wanted to be "a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight," or so it was written in his official statement. Now there were only four.
Saddened by the loss of their bandmate and, well, best mate, Louis, Liam, Harry, and Niall went back into the studio and released One Direction's fifth and final album in 2015, without Zayn. Made in the A.M. (After Malik?) is a hybrid folk-rock-pop self-homage to the group's legacy and a gorgeous farewell to the fans responsible for their fame. The video for the single "History" made it clear that this was the end. Imagine an intimate slideshow, a collection of images of the boy band throughout their career, beginning with their X Factor auditions, and ending with the image of them hugging, the final four members walking away in separate directions and amicably waving goodbye to one another. Lyrically, "History" doubles as a grateful breakup anthem (clever boys, these) and possesses a chorus that reminds me of Randy Newman's Toy Story tune, "You've Got a Friend in Me." For 1D fans, thinking about it is enough to evoke tears. Not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything.
One Direction announced they'd embark on a hiatus beginning in March 2016, exactly one year after Zayn left the group. In the time since, each boy has tried his hand at the solo music thing with varying degrees of success: Zayn pursued the R&B-affected pop that he always loved and 1D never attempted; Harry went full Bowie, desiring vintage rock-and-roll mystique that, as the most public face of 1D, he was never granted; Louis and Niall stuck to pop-rock; and Liam flirted with EDM and hip-hop. Styles is the closest to anything like a Timberlake, but they're much too different to really compare. The similarities start and stop at their like-minded star power and how, after leaving a boy band, they were able to transgress a fickle pop music space and become critically acclaimed without abandoning the fans that brought them to the top.
In their five short years as a band, One Direction became one of the biggest boy bands the world had ever seen, a big bang in their own right. But would anyone be able to do it like them again?
Maria Sherman is a senior staff writer at Jezebel and regular contributor to NPR Music. Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS is her first book.
* As Georgina Gregory notes, reality TV singing competitions allow fans to feel like they had some say in the formation of boy bands, that they were there from the very start. In the case of One Direction, fans got to see them learn to dance and sing together, the kind of insider-y rehearsals and early day footage previously unprocurable, let alone witnessed in real time. (Not to mention, they have bragging rights to lord over Directioners who got to the fandom late in the group's career.) Losing has a positive effect, too: who doesn't love to support an underdog? In fact, it's generally unremarked upon in their history, but the Backstreet Boys were rejected from 1993's version of The X Factor, Star Search. Clearly, there's a history of boy bands going and failing — on these shows.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.