Ah. So this is it. The Next Big Thing. Who knew it would come so soon?
Gosh, it’s interesting how quickly this all happened. Shucks. When I started Digital Get Down a few months back, my belief was that the classic “boy band” model was an artifact, a moldy old concept that became forever outdated by the turn of the millennium and the ascendance of Timberlake. I could write my dumb little Backstreet Boys epitaphs with the comfort of knowing that boy bands would never, ever come back. Never ever!!
Because why would they ever come back. Why. Come on now. A silly trifling pop music fad, they were! Remember all that painfully choreographed dancing? The bleach-blonde hair? The corny string-laden ballads?The goatees? The horribly green-screened music videos featuring ugly men fox-trotting in suspicious clear liquid? Blah, yeesh. Right? We wouldn’t stand for this garbage in 2012, right? Not a chance. Not with Mr. Obama in the White House. Times have changed, man. We’ve grown.
But no. Nope. Almost exactly a decade after the Sword of Damocles fell on the last boy band in 2002, the concept of a four-or-five-dude group of mostly non-musician vocalists has once again become a popular thing in the United States, with brand-new Hunky Dude Troupes scoring top-ten Billboard hits and raking up millions of YouTube views all over the place. And, really – I don’t want to overemphasize, but this a thing that practically just cropped up over the past few months, and I feel like a genuine dope for not even noticing that it was happening when I stared this blog. I mean, even my greatest rival the AV Club are talking about it! How could they have beaten me to the boy band chase! Foiled again!!
Now, if I’m being honest, I never had any intention to write about any of these new acts in DGD. Believe it or not, the idea of a “boy band revival” was never something I cared about or actually wanted to happen, and I feel uncomfortable speculating on what’s going on in the here and now. I always wanted this blog to focus more on pop history, on artists with a clear-cut beginning and end to their careers. With these new groups, I honestly have no idea how long they’re going to be sticking around, or how much real staying power they’re going to have. Jesus, how the fuck would I know? Talking about the past is safe and easy for someone like me, but when it comes to predicting the future I’m like a deer in the headlights. Terrifying.
Also? And forgive me if this is a little petty? I think a lot of these new dudes kind of stink. Or, to be a little less harsh, none of them fit my idea of what a boy band should be in 2012. They all reek of instantly dated fashion and a sincere lack of, uh, fun. In the modern boy band spectrum, here’s what we’ve been handed so far: The Wanted, a bunch of boring clubby creeps; Big Time Rush, a Monkees-wannabe TV band with the worst choreography known to man; and Mindless Behavior, an admittedly sweet-hearted cross between Bieber and New Edition that is nevertheless a little trifling. As successful as all these groups are, none of them elicit any real feelings from me, and I am perfectly willing to stand aside and let them spin their pop history wheels.
But there is one exception here. One shining beacon of light in this boy band morass. One dream come true. One hope.
Darn heck and butts, I love One Direction. I love them to death and want to wrap them in every hug I have. I mean, it’s not hard to dismiss them just as nonchalantly as I dismissed the Wanted; they’re essentially a gaggle of X Factor rejects stapled together, pushed into stardom via a mix of Simon Cowell’s mojo and sheer force of music industry will. None of them are really remarkable or distinctive singers on their own, and Up All Night is an obvious piece of pop machinery.
But all things considered, I love One Direction because they are THE perfectly crafted boy band for 2012. I can’t help but stand back and stare in awe of their existence. After a decade of Disneyed Hanson clones floppy-haired Usher proteges, someone finally figured out how to make boy bands work again, and their success is borne in One Direction and Up All Night. This is a group of five cute, fun British boys singing songs for girls, jumping around on beaches, dancing on top of double-decker buses, and embracing the Power of Youth. Stylish hair and overcoats and charming smiles for the teenage girls of 2012 to enjoy. How could America resist??
I’m still a little iffy talking about a new boy band, but I am going to put my reservations aside here. Because I need to. One Direction are steadily rising in popularity, and within months will certainly become the butt of every obnoxious tween pop joke, not unlike Bieber or the Jonas Brothers before them. So I have a unique opportunity, here, and one that I never had with the rest of my favorite teen pop acts – a chance to defend One Direction before the “remember when music used to be GOOD??” Led Zeppelin YouTube comment vultures swarm. I might have been too late so save Bieber, but damnit, I won’t let the same thing happen to 1D! Don’t worry boys – help is on the way!!
So let’s start with a quick look back, shall we?
THE OLD: A GRAND, HUNKY TRADITION
I’ve been hearing a lot of people calling One Direction a “throwback” boy band, a carbon-copy modern version of the Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync Lou Pearlman era. While I think that’s kind of an over-generalization, Up All Night does borrow a good amount from the great boy bands of old.
You want examples?? Well, let’s start with…
Okay, this actually has nothing to do with the actual music on Up All Night but it’s worth mentioning. Let’s take a look at that cover photo again:
Gosh, look at that fun! Whoa, guys! Whoa!! Dial down the goofs there for a second, fellahs.
I am fascinated by this cover image because it feels deliberately designed as nostalgia-fuel for future generations, a picture the thirtysomethings of the 2030s can look back on and think “Man, what happened to the feel-good days of 2012? Remember Game of Thrones and vaguely racist Facebook images memes? TAKE ME BACK!!”
I mean, it’s almost outdated on purpose. There has to be a hint of self-awareness here, right? This isn’t an image of five clean-cut guys having a pretty OK time – this is an image of five guys having the greatest time of their lives, all at the exact same moment in time. It’s more like an intentional throwback to the giddy, frivolous kid boy bands of the 80s and early 90s than the lean funky adults of the late 90s and early 2000s – although even the New Kids On The Block never got quite THIS giddy. It’s the kind of happiness no human could feel outside of a pop album cover, and it’s a pretty good summary of what Up All Night is all about.
2) Songwriters and producers.
This is one you might not notice, but a quick crawl through of Up All Night‘s songwriting and producing credits reveals some familiar names. Actually, this might be One Direction’s most obvious debt to the past: their production team includes three seriously big names from the late 90s/early 2000s boy band golden years, and they’ve got their hands all over this thing.
Gimme a shout if these names ring a bell:
–Rami Yacoub. A veteran of Cheiron Studios and the former right-hand man to none other than the King of Teen Pop Himself, Max Martin. He and Max wrote some big ones back in the day, including some of the Backstreet Boys’ biggest and best hits (“Shape Of My Heart”, “Larger Than Life”) and almost all of Britney Spears’ big early hits (including “…Baby One More Time,” the first song they wrote together).
Rami’s got co-writing credits on the peppiest, most upbeat tracks on Up All Night, lacing the record with classic young boy charm. And his Max Martin connections are so strong that even the gloriously peppy “One Thing” borrows its verses from “I Want It That Way,” a song he didn’t even write with Max:
–Steve Mac and Wayne Hector, who I guess I have to talk about at the same time because they write together so much. They are bosom buddy songwriters, and at the turn of the millennium wrote a handful of the finest boy band ballads to hit the radio, including Westlife’s “Swear It Again” and O-Town’s “All Or Nothing.” Considering that they’ve been Westlife’s go-to songwriters for so many years, it makes sense for them to be all up the hot new UK boy band debut.
Weirdly enough, the two don’t actually collaborate on any single track here, for God knows what reason. But Steve Mac immediately lives up to his reputation with his sole co-writer’s credit on “Gotta Be You,” a gigantic punch-in-your-heart ballad that is easily the best track on the record:
Hector pops up on a few other random tracks, contributing his own solid heart-tugger with “Same Mistakes”:
(Worth nothing: while Mac and Hector didn’t collaborate on Up All Night, they have collaborated for other recent acts, having co-written “Glad You Came” for the Wanted. The gulf in quality between that and “Gotta Be You” is stunning, to say the least.)
3) Songs directed at teenage girls.
This one is obvious, but it needs to be highlighted solely for One Direction’s debut single, the spunky sing-along “What Makes You Beautiful”:
“What Makes You Beautiful” features the five hunky boys of One Direction singing a song directly towards each and every young lady listening to it, assuring them that they are 1) beautiful and 2) need to realize that they are beautiful, because the boys can see how beautiful they are and that’s all that matters. Heck, the very fact that they don’t realize how beautiful they are is what makes them beautiful in the first place. Blush blush, swoon swoon.
It’s a little crass and manipulative, sure. But this kinda thing has been a staple of pop music directed at teenage girls for decades, at least as far back as the early Beatles. “What Makes You Beautiful” takes the idea one step further, becoming the ultimate teenage girl’s fantasy: five beach-dancing cute dudes assuring them that they are beautiful in their eyes. It’s such a perfect boy band debut single that it almost hurts. What teenage girl could resist this??
(One criticism: I honestly wish someone would write more boy band songs from the collective first-person. Like it’s coming from all of them at once. “If only you saw what WE could see! / You’d understand why WE want you so desperately!” Because what teenage girl wouldn’t want all five members of One Direction swooning over them simultaneously??)
I would only qualify one track on Up All Night as being truly schmaltzy. That would be “More Than This,” which shares more than a few qualities with the Backstreet Boys’ “More Than That”:
You’ll probably notice some similarities to “This I Promise You,” too. It’s not the best piece of work, and thankfully not representative of the rest of the record.
So One Direction’s adherence to the past is notable. But while they fit a pretty standard boy band mold, it’s their flashes of modernity that make them distinctive. Whoever corralled these tracks together (Cowell, probably) knew exactly what they had to do to make boy bands appealing again in 2012, and I feel like their work should be recognized.
THE NEW: HUNK POP FOR NOW PEOPLE
So how do you make boy bands work in a post-Bieber world? Well…
1) No dancing.
This is kind of a big one, and it’s not limited to One Direction: new boy bands don’t dance. No dancing. Just standing, and singing. Standing, and singing. Maybe occasionally some jovial hopping. Maybe. But otherwise, just fucking standing and singing.
This isn’t shocking to me, especially if you watch almost any pre-2002 boy band video and notice how strange and foreign those dance moves look now. Boy band choreography used to be a seriously important part of their image, to the point where constant dancing almost took precedence over the actual singing. In fact, I have a working theory that boy band choreography was actually designed to make it impossible to them sing well onstage as part of an insidious anti-hunk conspiracy, but that’s neither here nor there.
Bottom line is, this kind of weird extraneous funk-dancing would not fly today. For one, it’s tiring as hell and I think modern hunks would prefer to focus on the actual songs they’re there to sing, which is reasonable. Dancing also uncomfortably highlighted the inherent fakeness of the boy band structure, making the likes of ‘N Sync look like more of a bunch of backup dancers hired to look pretty than an actual vocal group. Modern audiences need a boy band with a little more reserve and class, one that looks like they’re actually singing the songs they are singing. Hence, no dancing.
It might not sound like a huge deal, but it kind of is! Without dancing, boy bands are free to move past the aerodynamic, sleeveless-tee funky-boy style of the past…
…and onto the well-dressed, dignified, full-suited droog look of the present:
And it affects the music, too. So many songs on No Strings Attached were basically just backing tracks for elaborate funky choreography, and not much more than that. Can’t do that now. While Up All Night does have plenty of modern clubby production values (including a collaboration with RedOne), they’re never designed for the boys to actually dance to, and almost all R&B influences have been scrubbed away. No middle-eight breakdowns or beatboxing or “man, I’m tired of singin’!”s to be found here. These boys are never tired of singing.
Heck, they don’t even have a self-mythologizing party song with their own name in the parenthetical title! Another artifact. No “Dang I’m Feelin’ Hearty (It’s A One Direction Party).” No “Get On The Floor ‘N Get Loose (One Direction’s Got The Juice).” No “One Direction’s Got The Heart (We’re Gonna Blow Your Soul Apart).” Instead, we get the Katy Perry-dropping title track, which is more of a jump-up-and-down house party song than a funky jam:
So if we don’t have funky b-boy jams, what do we have? Welp…
2) Rock ‘n ROLL!!
This feels like a Jonas Brothers thing more than anything. In place of down ‘n funky R&B, Up All Night revels in zippity pop rock, turning One Direction into the boy band equivalent of Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson. And while the former’s influence is felt all over the record, it’s the latter that actually ends up with a co-writing credit, contributing the decidedly un-boybandish “Tell Me A Lie”:
It’s like a milder “Since U Been Gone,” a little more mature and more adult than you would expect from a group like this. They don’t sound like kids, here.
Straight up power pop also a creeping undercurrent in Up All Night. “What Makes You Beautiful” and “One Thing” are driven by punchy guitar riffs, and “I Want” borders on Queen-esque piano rock complete with Brian May-aping guitar solo:
…and this makes sense, considering that “I Want” was written by Tom Fletcher, the main dude behind UK Beatles-pop sensation McFly.
This also affects live performance. No more backing tracks – One Direction (along with the Wanted) always perform live with a full backing band, albeit one that is often shoved out of the limelight:
Again, this is a sign of the times. In the ten years between ‘N Sync’s disintegration and One Direction’s ascendance, Take That stormed the charts with a Coldplay-meets-Beatles cocktail and the Jonas Brothers made young girls fall in love with flashy guitars again. Adopting a rock-ish vibe is an easy swipe at legitimacy and a necessary move for the modern boy band. Sure, there are other swipes from modern pop music to be found on Up All Night – “I Wish” is essentially a boy band adaptation of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” and “Same Mistakes” is practically Adele – but peppy, adult rock music is the key new influence here.
Let me put it this way: if Up All Night is influenced by any one Backstreet Boys album, it’s Never Gone. Think about THAT.
3) Personality, or lack thereof.
Okay, I’m not saying these guys have no personality. That’s not true at all! They seem like a bunch of charming British kids and they’re a heck of a lot of fun, which is a big part of their appeal.
I’m talking more about vocal personality, or on-record personality. To put it bluntly, I can’t tell any of their fucking voices apart, and I have no idea who the hell is singing at any given moment. In fact, if it weren’t for these handy-dandy lyric music videos that show which boy is singing each line, I would probably never figure it out:
Maybe it’s just too early yet. Lots of boy band vocalists are hard to tell apart in their early years. But with One Direction, it’s almost as if their voices are being altered and blended in post-production to sound robotically near-identical, and it’s bothersome. They’re all so similar in personality that nobody really stands out. As far as I can tell, One Direction doesn’t have their own ratty-voiced Justin Timberlake or bad boy A.J. McLean. They all fit into the same general “nice young kid” type, and it shows in their voices.
Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m underselling them. They’re a bunch of nice fun kids and that’s why we all love them. But a little spike in personality would do them good. Maybe Zayn should shave his head, grow a goatee, and take up smoking to make his voice a little huskier. Think about it, guys! You’re all at least 18, now!!
4) Niall, the blonde one, plays guitar.
Niall, the blonde one, plays guitar.
So. You might be wondering. Beyond my dull clinical analysis of One Direction’s marketing machine, how do I really feel about Up All Night. Well.
It’s a good, good record. In fact, Up All Night is easily one of the best boy band debuts I’ve heard, which is weird to admit considering that I stumbled across it for the first time just a couple of weeks ago. But it is. It’s not a garbage patchwork of international B-sides or a sleepy ballad collection for moms and dads. There are no inexplicable soft-rock covers or jock jams or creepy stabs at overt sexuality. It’s a straight-up solid 45 minutes of joyful boy band pop hooks, and it single-handedly makes the idea of a boy band in 2012 an exciting prospect for me. Gosh, does it make me happy.
Guys, please do me a favor and buy Up All Night instead of any Wanted album. The Wanted stink. Let’s place our bets on the right horse, here. One Direction are colorful fun pop kids and the Wanted are a bunch of bummy skeevy earth-toned losers who sing songs that are bad. Okay? Let’s agree on this right here and now, before their rivalry heats up and we lose sight of what’s really important. One Direction yay, boring fat ugly dumb idiot creepers the Wanted nay. Thanks and good night.
Who knows what the heck is going to happen to One Direction? I don’t know. I can’t predict these things. But there’s one thing I am 100% certain of: if these boys want to conquer the world the same way the Backstreet Boys did in their prime, they desperately need the help of one man. One man who can turn boys into kings. A true crafter of Pop Gods.
If you want my real opinion, Up All Night is like a boy band Batman Begins: a solid introduction, sure, but still just a lead-in to something bigger. Rami Yacoub is like the Scarecrow. We’re all just waiting for the Joker to show up.
And who is the Joker, in this scenario??
Mr. Martin, I am petitioning you, here and now, to write the next big One Direction single. These boys need you. They need your soul-crushing power hooks and your epic heavenly choruses. I know you’re busy conquering the world with Katy Perry and everything, but you need to return to the boy band fold. It is your destiny.
Until next time, true Directioners…