A few days ago, I was in my friend’s car when One Direction’s song “History” came on the radio. “This is such a weird song,” I declared. “They’re a boyband, why are they releasing some this campfire singalong?” The song ended, I moved on with my day.
A few days later I came across a blog post lamenting One Direction’s breakup (didn’t this happen months ago?) with a look at their best songs over the years. I clicked on an old SNL performance and got this.
Granted, it’s possible I saw this when it first aired in 2013, since I do watch SNL a lot, but it’s also possible I had muted the musical performance since I do that when I watch SNL a lot. However, today in 2016, this performance blew me away. I didn’t know they sounded like this!
My idea of what a boyband sounds like comes from the fact that I was a pre-teen girl during the boyband renaissance. In my day, boyband’s sang love ballads, inoffensive dance-pop tunes and the occasional watered down r&b track. One Direction, I assumed, followed that mould.
“Through the Dark” is a folk song, no doubt. It could easily stand alongside the likes of Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, Vance Joy or whoever the new folk-pop darlings are. Diving into their discography, I discovered it’s not an anomaly.
While their first pair of albums (Up All Night and Take Me Home) easily sound like the typical boy band fare (catchy pop songs, dance beats, the occasional ballad) somewhere around 2013 they started to slip away. While their pop peers started leaning heavily on EDM and slick, produced beats, they strayed more towards stadium rock (especially on 2013’s Midnight Memories) and classic rock, with songs that evoked Fleetwood Mac and Paul Simon more than they did Justin Timberlake or Usher. But no one, save the hardcore fan, ever got to know.
They released singles like “Best Song Ever” off Midnight Memories, instead of the aforementioned “Through the Dark.” 2014’s Four gave us the single “Steal My Girl,” while hiding tracks like “Fireproof” and “Fool’s Gold.” Even their last album, the folkiest to date, promoted the bland, soulless soft pop single “Perfect” over the breezy, 70s tinged “What a Feeling” or “Walking in the Wind.”
I think we could have had something really interesting with this band, if only their management had been confident enough to lean into the unique sounds they offered, rather than the safe boyband picks. I’m sure a group of attractive 20-year-old boys playing Paul Simon covers might not have been many pre-teen girls cup of tea, but we could be looking back at their legacy much differently if they had been able to really showcase what they were doing.
Much was made of One Direction’s Made in the AM being released the same day as Justin Bieber’s Purpose back in November 2015, but to many it wasn’t a contest. Bieber had been dominating the charts with his dance-heavy, and dancehall inspired, hits, winning over a new audience on top of the fangirls, and One Direction was seemingly doing the same thing they’d ever done and only had the fangirls on their side. I think if the general public had been able to see what the band actually was, instead of what we thought they were, there would have been a different conversation about those two albums. It would be a conversation about pushing pop music into different directions, relying on different influences and the genuineness of their sound. Instead of “which teen girl pop idol wins?” it could have been “which teen girl pop idol has evolved more thoroughly, more interestingly, more uniquely?”
There’s still a chance we’ll have this conversation down the line, especially with the boys all likely to launch solo careers. While Zayn Malik’s already moved himself far away from what 1D were doing, odds are Harry Styles will lean into rock, and Niall Horan is likely to follow an Ed Sheeran, singer-songwriter career. (Liam Payne’s probably the most traditional pop star of the bunch, and Louis Tomlinson won’t have a solo record anytime soon). When a 1D solo record drops and we’re surprised at how easily this former boybander can fit onto your shelf with Laura Marling and Shakey Graves, just remember they’ve been playing in that sandbox for a while now.
Maybe “History” isn’t that weird of a song, after all.