Monday marked the release of Four, the fourth studio album from One Direction since the group formed on The X Factor in 2010. Promotions for the new album have been promising a new, more mature sound and many members have expressed hopes that their latest effort will attract a bigger adult audience. Did they succeed? To find out, we gathered a group of fans and music critics (all about the same age as the young men of 1D) for a Very Serious Conversation ™ about One Direction, Four and the boy band's future.
Truth be told, we were not expecting a Very Serious Conversation ™ when this discussion began. Instead, we were expecting to goof off, casually talk about some tunes and maybe list the order in which we'd do the members of One Direction (1. Harry Styles, 2. Zayn Malik, 3. Pass, 4. Pass, 5. Pass), but our panel of experts—Brodie Lancaster, Maria Sherman, and Brittany Spanos—made us come correct. These women take One Direction seriously, have serious (and insightful) thoughts about the new album and are not willing to fuck around.
So here it is: A Very Serious Conversation ™ About One Direction's Four.
So One Direction just released their fourth album (naturally titled Four) and while this should be a big moment for them, the promotion has been pretty scattered and all over the place. Is that frustrating to you as fans?
Brittany Spanos: What made me love One Direction in the first place was their personalities. I used to watch a bunch of their interview clips and X-Factor video diaries at the beginning of my entry into this fandom, and in the past year, it feels like their personalities have been sucked out of their promotion, with their team keeping them in tween purgatory. Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with trying to appeal to the sensibilities of super young fans! It's just hard to evoke any semblance of authenticity and enthusiasm when the band has so clearly moved on and are trying to reach more mature audiences.
So it's definitely frustrating to get this stock version of these pop stars who have become boy band archetypes (Zayn as the "mysterious one"; Harry as the player) when they have been so much more dynamic and accessible to the fans in the past, building an audience off of social media. A lot of protective walls have gone up, and I think their team genuinely feels this is for the best.
Brodie Lancaster: The clumsy album promotion is sadly what we've come to expect. I think with their latest two albums (Four and Midnight Memories, which came out last year), they've really had the potential to shed that "boy band from The X Factor" image and get more critical respect, but they rarely seem to take those chances when they come up.
Last year they appeared on SNL and didn't perform "Best Song Ever" (the lead single) or the really run-of-the-mill pop songs from that record. Instead, they did the more moody ballads "Story Of My Life" and "Through the Dark," and they sounded great! They had everything set up to start altering their public perception.
But then their team released the most flavorless, safe pop tracks and expected their fans to go apeshit over dull videos of the band members begging people to pre-order their album. I feel like a lot of the energy in those early years–and in the videos Brittany talked about, which were also my gateway drug into this hellhole called Being an Adult Directioner–has totally evaporated.
Maria Sherman: At this point, being frustrated is to be expected (maybe I'm cynical). When you're the biggest band in the world (and it would be silly to consider them otherwise), promo isn't seen as a necessity. Written interviews are out, unless it's international and (usually) tied to corporate radio.
I guess they do make something of an effort on YouTube, but I agree with Brittany, it feels a lot less hands-on. I think it might be because they're exhausted! Their schedules are ridiculously hectic. I couldn't imagine the pressure of endless touring or five records in five years.
In the beginning, when Harry stepped into the heartthrob role initially reserved for Zayn, I believe it was his enthusiasm that made him irresistible. If you watch the "Steal My Girl" video instead of, well, almost every other upbeat tune the band has to offer, it feels like he's just not in it anymore.
That's my fan reading of it. From a more critical perspective, I'm with Brodie: a lot of their moves seem to be reflexive of this move to "maturity," I supposed to make them, as artists, have longevity. I remember in a Capital FM interview from earlier this year, Liam said they were going to make music that would appeal to more men. Seems like something of a cop-out.
It seems like an odd choice to coast on bland singles when—as Maria points out—the band could get away with anything right now. Why not use that opportunity to release something more adventurous? Do you have any theories on the record label's motivation?
Brittany: It's annoying to see these really solid tracks get sidelined in favor of much weaker singles. The last two have hit on some folk and hair metal influences that really separate them from most pop acts today that are culling from hip-hop and R&B. Young, specifically white, artists especially take to the latter genres as a means of maturity (see: Nick Jonas, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, etc). One Direction is doing something totally unique to the current pop landscape, which as Maria said, they can do and get away with completely because the base is there and will continue to be there for some time.
I think the labels go with weak singles because those songs are the biggest and most arena pop takes on more rootsy, intimate albums. "Best Song Ever," off Midnight Memories, was catchy, blends really well in radio and sounds like it can fill a stadium, while "Through The Dark" was meant for a candlelit, lowkey small stage like SNL. Same goes for Four, which has these phenomenal moments of tenderness ("18") and indie rock appeal ("Stockholm Syndrome") that don't scream "BIGGEST POP BAND IN THE WORLD" quite like the meme-y title of lead single "Steal My Girl."
Brodie: I don't pretend to know the inner workings of Simon Cowell's mind, but the general sense I get from 1DHQ is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Why change the way you talk to your fans on social media if you know literally anything you post will get thousands of likes, shares and comments? Why re-think your album release schedule after it leaks prematurely when you've already got hundreds of thousands of pre-orders? Why broaden your scope and do press with new outlets that reach different audiences when you can do a live streamed interview on YouTube and a million fans will tune in to hear you answer the same questions in new ways?
Also Brittany, your mention of hair metal influences made me remember that this exists and for that I will never forgive you. Releasing Midnight Memories on vinyl for Record Store Day felt like a small step in the right direction for the band. Then it turned out to be a 7" single for one of my least-favorite tracks (not the whole album), featuring the band in "rock star" costumes.
Maria: At this point it almost feels like they have a history of selecting songs that really, truly, deeply should not be singles. Think back to Midnight Memories, think back to all of a year ago (ha!) The best songs were the B-sides. That could just be me, though...with the exception of "Best Song Ever," of course.
I agree with Brodie, but I'd extend the Cowellism of their marketing to their management team in general, who are often called out by Directioners—by name—because the kids are upset! Crazy! But if the safe singles sell, they'll continue to release safe singles.
I also think the guys probably want to experiment more, it's just in small doses and specific to member. I'm thinking of Niall here. "Act My Age" is on the deluxe edition of FOUR and it sounds like Flogging Molly or something. It would be cool if he played to his Irish identity a bit more, but that could be too jarring and One Direction's power is often found in their schmaltz.
All of you have mentioned the contentious relationship between the label/management and fans. Can you detail that a little bit more? Does it go beyond releasing the lamest tracks? Where does the disrespect come through?
Brittany: I think that heavy criticism of management/labels is embedded in any fervent fandom; you just have to dig deep. My perspective on the tension between 1D fans and their team comes from Tumblr, where the reactions play out in real time. They're frustrated and sick of being ignored. For example, the choice of Ben Winston as a consistent director of their music videos has been a source of rage since the quality of their clips has gone down since he came along.
I'm particularly rooted in the community of women of color who identify as 1D fans. Having someone who looks like Zayn in a pop sphere that has become primarily associated with whiteness is huge and that community gets super peeved at how situations, like the Zayn/Louis weed video, get handled by their team. Many felt that the blame was laid on Zayn (this was definitely encouraged by the media) when Louis very specifically said a racial slur in the clip.
Most importantly, the fans, across the board, just want more. They desire growth and engagement and to be heard. I don't think it's a unique phenomenon in pop music fandoms at all, but it's become a bigger issue for Directioners when you have all that access and then it gets taken away. The band was built on their Twitter followers during their reality show days.
Brodie: "Management" as an amorphous entity is like a four-letter word for a lot of 1D fans, stretching all the way back to the band's inception. A large portion of the fans believe that Modest (1D's management) are keeping Louis and Harry closeted (Louis' tweets to Jenn Selby at The Independent last week seemed to be just further proof to the fans that the boys' Twitter accounts are controlled by management). They also think that Zayn and Louis leaked the video of them hot-boxing in Chile as a way to assert their control. When I went to see This Is Us in the cinemas last year, Modest's logo flashed up on the screen in the opening credits and girls in my cinema started booing. This shit runs deep.
For me, and a lot of my friends who are adult 1D fans, the frustration comes from the team behind the band ignoring the fact that they are no longer a teen pop band fresh from reality TV. They're in their 20s, like we are, and they're writing folk-rock/pirate jams now! As Brittany said, the fans want to be listened to rather than just sold to. And I think that feeling extends all the way up to the band; they want control over the direction (no pun intended) of their careers, rather than just being commodities whose teen photos are sold on backpacks.
Maria: Honestly, I believe it could be any management company on earth and they'd have an issue. Management means control, which means less accessibility to fans which, when you're One Direction is mostly a safety thing.
A quick peruse of Tumblr will show a slew of conspiracy theories: Modest Management are the reason 1D can't run around and be the crazy kids they once were, Modest Management is the reason some are dating and some are single, Modest Management is the reason, as Brittany said, they're being ignored. (I should also note that I've worked with Modest Management and have had only the most pleasant interactions.)
To be fair, I feel like the last thing Directioners want is a new perfume or poster design at Claire's. There are real demands they feel need to be addressed. Can't say fans are wrong!
This is slightly tangential but Brittany brings up an interesting point about Zayn—he often gets portrayed as the "mysterious" one, which I always saw as deep-seeded racial othering within a white pop world.
Brodie: READY TO TALK ABOUT INTROVERT, ARTISTIC, DISNEY PRINCE ZAYN WHENEVER Y'ALL ARE.
I'm glad Brittany brought up the leaked video of Zayn and Louis hot-boxing. Of course, part of the scandal was that they were smoking weed (I'd be disappointed if they weren't smoking weed), but the other, more serious issue was that Louis was recorded saying the n-word. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that and on the broader continued othering of their one non-white member.
Brittany: The minute I heard that there was a video of some members smoking weed in the back of a van I had to take a moment to say a quick "thank you" prayer because it was such an exciting turn of events in their controlled image. I could barely get through the video the first time I watched it because Louis is on some bratty rich boy shit the entire time. Once I heard the slur, a shortened version of the n-word, I was disappointed to say the least. I've never had particularly strong feelings one way or the other about Louis, but it cut deep to hear that.
This isn't even about having "young fans" anymore and having to be role models. A white person saying the n-word is an act of violence, though the manner he said it was that of a dumb kid trying to seem cool with his friends. The lack of action was completely unforgivable. Everyone on 1D's team completely ignored it, with just a few "thanks for sticking by!!" tweets sent out to show that they acknowledged that something happened.
Outlets focused almost entirely on the drugs and Zayn as some "thug" because he was the only person visible in the clip (Louis was holding the camera). This ignorance has come to be expected in pop culture, I guess, but that was a huge blow. The fans were especially over the situation, and a lot of Louis hate still remains for many (including myself).
Brodie: Honestly I'd thought the "Zayn = mysterious" shit was over, until I saw the "Steal My Girl" video and it's like, really? I mean, it was one thing to dress him and Louis in Sherwanis on 1D Day in front of a group of Bollywood dancers, but he is no more mysterious than Niall.
Zayn cops a lot of flack on social media—he's deleted and reinstated his accounts on Twitter a few times because of abuse—purely for existing, let alone when he shows one shred of social consciousness by posting about Palestine. Zayn represents diversity to the band and has been sold as the exotic one. In the documentary This Is Us, Harry goes home and makes sandwiches with his mum, Niall goes home and goes to the pub with his Dad, Louis goes home and picks his sisters up from school.
Zayn goes home and his mum lists every spice blend and curry she's making for his dinner.
Maria: This could be naive, but Zayn was always the soft-spoken, shy one of the bunch, but the tag of "mystery" (so explicit in the "Steal My Girl," video, thanks for bringing that up, Brodie!) often connotes silence, the absence of familiarity and knowledge. That is so fucking dangerous.
Brodie: On the list of totally unacceptable things that happened in that video, Louis' saying the n-word was at the top. (Followed closely by his general demeanor while smoking... and Zayn's fascination with Kid Rock.)
I think Louis has always struggled to find his place in the group—there's a sweet quote about him always forgetting he's in the band, because he looks around on stage and sees four people, and doesn't count himself in that number—but now that he's writing more (and better) songs that suit his voice, he seems to be finding a more snug fit. I have some real sentimental feelings towards him but, man, the kid needs to learn to deal with his shit unless he wants to be remembered as the racist, homophobic one of the bunch.
His homophobic freakout when he thought that Independent writer was calling him gay recently was not flattering.
But let's talk about Four. What do you all think?
Brittany: I LOVE Four. Granted, I'm a huge classic rock fan so the tones of this album really speak to my guitar lovin' sensibilities. It's much more focused than Midnight Memories where they tried to balance their aforementioned folk and hair metal sides. Which worked sometimes, but a lot got lost.
So Four, to me, is fantastic! "Stockholm Syndrome," "18," "No Control" and the bonus track "Change Your Ticket" are romantic but affecting in both tender and fun ways. Their voices sound so fucking great too. IF GIVEN THE CHANCE, I think a lot of new fans could be brought to the table with the new sound. They're not doing boy band schmaltz as much (though that has its time and place for sure).
Of course, I have this dumb fantasy that 1D will soon discover T. Rex and Big Star so that they can truly live their '70s dreams and get some glam injected into their systems. It would be such a perfect balance between these opposing forces making up their sound right now. In spite of everything else, their music is still this great source of their personalities, where they can still exercise some control and be complex. It's a very simple, exciting album.
Brodie: I think Midnight Memories was SUCH a divergence from their previous records that it kind of blew my mind, something Four hasn't done for me (yet). I think, if I were trying to convert someone to 1D (my life's mission) I would want them to hear "Through the Dark" and "Strong" (from Midnight Memories) before, say, "Fireproof" or "Ready to Run" (off of Four).
But I am with Brittany of the total Dad-rock appeal of this album. I had a very real moment, while listening to " Clouds," of imagining myself dancing to it in 20 years at a One Direction reunion tour, singing along to the "here we go again!"s with so much middle-aged vigor.
I feel like we're getting a lot more insight into how they're feeling on this record. " Night Changes" and "Change Your Ticket" are like the dictionary definitions of Songs Written On Tour. "No Control" is a real highlight and I cannot wait to see it performed live.
I think one thing that a lot of people who don't follow 1D obsessively (what is that even like??) don't realize is that they are CONSTANTLY touring. They announce a new stadium tour during a worldwide arena tour, then add more dates and countries. It's bananas. Ninety percent of their lives for the past four years have been spent on the road.
Four feels, for the first time, like they're writing with those live performances in mind. In the early years, a lot of the pop stuff that was written for them was a) not suited to all of them, vocally and b) only designed to be performed in a studio or in an intimate, acoustic scenario. Here, they're really writing for their specific voices and for the live shows that make up their bread and butter.
Maria: I, too, mirror Brodie and Brittany's dad/classic rock readings. When "Fireproof" dropped, our first taste of Four, my coworkers arrived at a consensus: "We don't 'get' One Direction but this sounds like Fleetwood Mac, so I'm down." "Steal My Girl" did not invoke the same reaction.
I have to wonder how much of this is them attempting that move towards maturity and widen their fan base... or maybe they just really love guitar music. Either way, I'm not complaining!
I think it's important to note that this album, as dad and DDR centric as it reads, is also kind of '80s? I had a pal dismiss the fantastic "Stockholm Syndrome" because it reminded him of Tears for Fears.
How involved are Harry, Zayn, Louis, Liam and Niall in the songwriting process? I know they have writing credits on a lot of songs, but do you know how in control they are of their future direction and general sound?
Brittany: I believe they're involved! Liam and Harry seem more musically inclined than the others. Liam has been testing out his producer chops and remixing songs by both them and other artists, like Cheryl Cole. Harry wrote a song for Ariana Grande's last album that I really enjoy. I don't doubt that when they attach their names, it's not just for the royalties and authenticity.
Brodie: It's so hard to know how in control the band are in the direction of their sound, but I feel comforted knowing they have some say in the music they're making at this point. I feel like Louis and Liam have really steered the ship, songwriting-wise, on the last two records, and Harry's contributed more this time around, as well. What I find most interesting is the stuff we're NOT hearing; Harry's written for Ariana Grande and with Kodaline; Louis and Liam wrote with Good Charlotte and The 1975; and Zayn apparently has something in the works with Naughty Boy. WHERE ARE THESE SONGS? I won't sleep until I know.
Maria: I've always wondered about this. It seems like they often get to contribute stems, perhaps lay down a foundation of a melody or something. In their latest YouTube Four hangout, they discuss the process of recording the album. It sounds like Niall contributed more than I'd usually anticipate.
Going back, I think you're all really spot on on the dad-rock angle. Listening through Four a few times, I picked up on a lot of Bon Jovi, Journey and Paul Simon, but I also heard some modern pop/rock/folk influences like Vampire Weekend ("Girl Almighty"), fun. ("Ready to Run") and Mumford & Sons. It felt like a little too much to me—like throwing a handful of genres at the wall and hoping that one sticks.
Do you see them going in a particular musical direction in the future? What, in your minds, happens next for One Direction? (Brittany, I LOVE your glam rock aspirations and hope they come true. Harry Styles as Marc Bolan is A+++)
Brittany: I think it's safe to say that One Direction has two years at most left in them as a group. It's the natural progression of a boy band. They'll go solo. Their name will become a dirty word in pop music for the few years following until they become a nostalgia item. Unless one of them really blows up to Justin Timberlake levels of fame, they'll reunite in about 10 years and maybe host a cruise. I really like this passage from their (phenomenal) interview with The Guardian that spells out that cycle pretty accurately as well as the clues to a future split:
Harry, we learned this summer, has been writing on the sly with Ryan Tedder, the songcrafter-supreme behind some major Beyoncé. Niall is a lifelong fan of Daltrey and the Who. Zayn's meant to be deep into his hip hop. There's only one direction this points. But until the boy band actually gather for that somber press conference (as boy bands do), discussion of their split must remain misty and speculative.
I think every member is extremely talented. They've been involved in writing songs for the past couple years and have produced some hearty material. They're all very capable vocalists. I'm not sure if all of them can play instruments, but most can. They each have very solid personalities. With some effort, each member of 1D could thrive individually. I'm recklessly hopeful in believing that the glam dream could come true, but I think that if One Direction wanted to thrive as a band-band,they should do so after some time off.
Brodie: I just watched their interview with The Sun, where they address their conscious step away from heavily produced, dance tracks to lean towards more simple, honest rock songs—similar to what Brittany was saying earlier. And I think they're now really thinking of the sing-along factor of their music: it has a huge life in music videos, on radio and in people's headphones, sure, but it really exists for those massive stadium shows they do every year.
I definitely see some of what you're saying about throwing genres at a wall to see what sticks, Madeleine, but I think they've done a lot less of that in the latter half of their discography than they did early on. (Remember "Stole My Heart"?) Or, at least, when they're doing it now they're not trying to pair a heavy synth beat with an acoustic, Ed Sheehan-Penned ballad.
I'm glad Brittany brought up that Guardian article (but I'm ignoring her prediction of them performing on a cruise, because, NO! PLEASE NO! THAT'S SUCH A SAD THOUGHT! ALSO I GET SO SEASICK AND COULDN'T GO!), because not only is it one of the first pieces of journalism that doesn't look down on the band purely for existing as a manufactured pop group, it also deals with their inevitable reality in what I felt was a very tender and generous way.
If one of them were to leave to go solo (everyone says it'll be Harry, but, goddamn, can you imagine a ZAYN SOLO RECORD?), I don't think they could ever do a Take That/Spice Girls and try to keep going without that missing limb. No matter when the split happens, they gave us fair warning with " Spaces." That's an all-this-will-be-over-soon track if there ever was one.
Maria: The idea of Harry Styles Justin Timberlaking himself is pretty interesting. While I do think he has the potential to have a successful solo career, it doesn't really feel like that's the goal. Considering the song he wrote for Ariana Grande (that both Brittany and Brodie mentioned), I'd assume he'd pursue songwriting before going solo. It seems to be a safe bet—reinvention when your talent is so tied to your youth can't be easy. It's interesting to see Nick Jonas attempt it right now, but the Jonas Brothers were so marginal compared to 1D. I don't see Styles getting ripped and banking on sexuality for success. "Cute" and "hot" are two very different things.
Brittany: I know a lot of people are probably so thrown by how serious we're taking this boy band, but loving them is no different than obsessing over any other act we value for some arbitrary ideal of authenticity. There's nothing more fun than loving something, and boy bands are one of the the only sets of artists that require you to love the whole package: from music to personalities to all the baggage they can muster.
Maybe it's why a boy band's separation is so inevitable: that level of investment is probably best kept as fleeting as possible. Like Brodie, my realism about the inevitable break-up is definitely fighting against my desire to see them grow as a group and become something more sustainable. Like I said earlier, I think they are really talented, individually and together. The fact that they've grown into making albums so outside what Top 40 is right at this moments speaks volumes to their capabilities.
Brodie: There's been lots of chat about this album possibly being One Direction's last, which is understandably upsetting for us and our fellow fans. I think I'd be most upset if that came true because 1D are just finding their feet as songwriters and musicians and I want to see them develop those skills more.
I'd love for them to take a year off from touring and promoting and just learn how to be in a band. It's something they haven't been able to do since the moment they were first formed, four years ago, and since that time they've been a product to be sold. The music has always come second, but we're seeing so much musical/emotional growth in Four and I want MORE!
Maria: Contractually, 1D has one more record left. Simon Cowell has tweeted about this, but, like Brodie mentioned, there's still the feeling within the fandom that Four could be their last. I truly don't believe it. Feels like it would be too soon, you know?
I watched this awful sitcom called Undateable on a recent flight and in one episode, a few of the characters are seen at a Detroit bar, making a slew of 1D jokes. One guy even sang "What Makes You Beautiful." It wasn't dismissive of the band, either. They all joke when they realize they're all adults and One Direction fans. If 1D's desire to widen their audience is so prevalent that they're mentioned on programming outside their current demographic, they must be doing something right.
I'd agree with Brittany's comment that admiration for One Direction (or any boy band!) is no different from enjoying and obsessing another artist. If anything, it might be more exciting: There's a certain level of inaccessibly about the boys that makes them feel like untouchable god forces. At the end of the day, this is good pop music and all good pop music warrants discussion.
Brodie Lancaster is editor-in-chief of Filmme Fatales, a zine about women in cinema. She is an editor at The Good Copy and a staff writer for Rookie. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, and would do anything to spend a day with Kanye West and a night with Harry Styles.
Maria Sherman is a music and culture writer based in New York. She currently works as a staff writer at Fuse Television, hosts a column at Wondering Sound and contributes to the Village Voice, Billboard, Rolling Stone and others.
Brittany Spanos is a music and culture writer who is part of the Rookie staff and contributes to Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Vulture, Revolt TV and other corners of the web. She has been trying to make "boy band archivist" her official title with moderate success.
Image via Getty.