Zayn Malik, One Direction, and the Post-Modern Boy-Band Blues

Is this the end of the group's big, meta experiment?

Andrew Burton/Reuters

“We keep hearing the One Direction bubble is going to burst,” said the Australian journalist Tracy Grimshaw, speaking with the hugely successful UK boy band on the program A Current Affair this past fall. “It’s not going to happen, is it?”

“The trick is,” Liam Payne shot back, “there is no bubble.”

The in-studio mass of adolescent girls let out an “oooooh,” and Grimshaw pressed on, nodding at the audience. “Conventional wisdom says that these teenagers are fickle, this crowd is fickle—they’re always looking for the next hot heat—and that boy bands technically don’t last forever. Do you have that in the back of your mind? Do you have a strategy for that?”

Harry Styles, the one with the long hair, stammered a bit in his reply. “We’re in an incredibly lucky position in that the way that everything happened to us … How crazily it happened on social media and stuff is unheard of.”

This was not the first time that One Direction was asked to consider their own mortality as a group. The only truly dominant millennial boy band, assembled on reality TV in 2010 and made successful with Twitter and Facebook's help, possesses the self-awareness that defines its generation, and carries on in full knowledge of its predecessors—the fashion catastrophes of *N Sync, the lip-sync scandals of New Kids on the Block, the rockist sneering against the Monkees. And so its members have strained to prove that this boy band would not be like all others, a strategy that worked more or less flawlessly until Wednesday's news that Zayn Malik had quit.

“People think that a boy band is air-grabs and [being] dressed in all one color,” member Niall Horan once told The National Post. “We’re boys in a band. We’re trying to do something different from what people would think is the typical kind of boy band. We’re trying to do different kinds of music and we’re just trying to be ourselves, not squeaky clean.”

That description rings pretty true. The band’s members are notorious for not really dancing on stage. They don’t dress alike. And in interviews, they make fun of one another constantly. Dive into the band’s music-video archive and you find a parade of parodies SNL would have made about One Direction had they not made them first: romantic serenades gone wrong, studio-exec meetings to focus-group their look, sendups of “Jailhouse Rock” and other male-performer touchstones, overblown stabs at arty cred. Other such acts have joked about their fame—remember "Pop"?—but not so insistently, and joyfully.

The music has aimed for a kind of cultural counter-programming as well, ignoring most chart trends except for the dictum to be catchy, and instead shamelessly pillaging classic-rock history for arrangements. “Best Song Ever” may be their masterpiece of meta-ness; it steals from The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” so blatantly that the band's lawyers probably quit after the recent “Blurred Lines” verdict, and its subject matter mythologizes the idea of the perfect, generic song: "I think it went ‘oh, oh, oh’/I think it went ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’”

The savviness also extended to matters of business. As Billboard's Jason Lipshultz has observed, “the One Direction enterprise has seemingly operated with the intention of ‘beating the clock’—as in, squeezing out every last bit of commercial content as quickly as possible before the pop culture bubble bursts and the young core of their audience moves on to other musical interests.” Which has meant four albums in five years, plus a slew of other multimedia releases and world tours.

But a self-aware boy band is still a boy band. And smarts, speed, and a sense of humor, of course, do not transcend the timeless forces of burnout. Which is why Malik today announced he was quitting the band, wanting to "have some private time out of the spotlight." As Lipshutz writes, his "abrupt absence from One Direction is not without precedent. Jonathan Knight departed New Kids on the Block after battling panic attacks; Backstreet Boys' A.J. McLean left the group multiple times to enter rehab for drug and alcohol addiction."

One Direction says it will continue as a four-piece, and it’s too soon to say that its end is near. Certainly, though, the dynamic will be a little different: Malik was "the quiet one," a good singer, and the band's only person of color. Sometimes, it seemed he was the only member keeping it real about the band’s shtick of keeping it real. During that aforementioned A Current Affair interview, Grimshaw asked whether the band members ever argue, and Liam started to talk about how lucky they were to all share the same vision.

Malik broke in with a different point of view: “The whole relationship between the band is a natural relationship. We try to keep it as normal as we can, and if we didn’t have arguments, that wouldn’t be that normal.” Now, he says he's leaving out of a desire to be a "normal 22-year-old," which says a lot about what "normal as we can" really meant.