Post-modern Pop: What Zayn’s departure from 1D tells us about modern music


Anyone reading the hundreds of thousands of tweets about Zayn Malik’s announcement that he was leaving One Direction may have a noticed the frequent comparisons to teen-band stars quitting in the past – Ginger leaving the Spice Girls in ’98, Brian McFadden’s splitting from Westlife in 2004, or Robbie’s exit from Take That in 1996. Every generation has one, it seems: perhaps somewhere, someone saw echoes of Paul leaving the Beatles in 1970.

Being old enough to remember all these precedents bar Paul, I noticed a key difference between the reaction to them and to Zayn, however. When it happened before, people did not draw the parallels. Ginger and Robbie’s departures felt cataclysmic because they felt unprecedented. New episodes in unique stories – even though they weren’t.

This is not to say, in the way that older pop fans tend to, that nothing is new, and One Direction mean nothing  because they’ re just re-treads. Quite the opposite, in fact.

What the contextualisation and comparisons signify is One Direction’s utter newness, their total uniqueness and their unrivalled currency. Because what they signify is that One Direction were the first truly post-modern boy band.

From their inception on the X Factor, 1D enjoyed a level of interest from older fans (by older, I mean 18+) that marked them out from predecessors. It was a very reality TV-era fascination, reminiscent of the Truman Show, driven in large part because we were privy to their invention. Parents chuckled knowingly over their kids fanaticism and subtly participation as they sang along with the songs on Singstar. Chin stroking must dads said, “It’s interesting how it all works now, isn’t it?” Mums said of course they didn’t fancy Harry Styles, but he just had that perfect pop star’s face, didn’t he?

Their story was… the story. In the broadsheet features, the coverage was less about their personalities than about how they were experiencing Pop Stardom. It was never about them; it was about how famous they were, how much money they had made, where they had played. I was talking to someone about them last night, and when I questioned how important they really were, the person said “They’ve been to 140 cities in a year, that’s more than any other boy band in history.” I don’t know if that’s true, but then it doesn’t really matter, does it?

Little wonder that when they split, the event can only be understood in terms comparison. No wonder their logo featured an arrow; everything they did pointed to something else. They were a semiotician’s dream.

All this would just be intellectual speculation if it wasn’t for the fact that someone in the set up seemed well aware of the idea. It was there right in the songs, one of the most extraordinary, self-aware bodies of work in the history of pop. Their biggest hit, What Makes You Beautiful,was not just a love song; anyone who has ever idolised a pop act will know that it was a love song about what the fan secretly believes/hopes the member she/he likes would say to her: they would notice. Remember how you convinced yourself yu had caught their eye at the gig? “Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe/You don’t know/Oh, oh/You don’t know you’re beautiful.” Imagine that being sung live! Someone obviously did.

There were multiple suggestions of a self-consciousness about their role as teen idols: not for nothing did they  cover Teenage Kicks, or title track Best Song Ever and Live While We’re Young. If these were not exactly songs about being in a teen band, they certainly hinted at elements of it. Remember how the girl in Best Song Ever walks past the guards?

Maybe it’s the way she walked (wow)
Straight into my heart and stole it
Through the doors and passed the guards (wow)
Just like she already owned it

I said can you give it back to me
She said never in your wildest dreams

And we danced all night to the best song ever
We knew every line

This is subtly meta-song, without the cheesiness of actually singing about being up on stage tonight, which is what bands tend to do when they have run out of ideas. One Direction never lacked ideas. They were referential, but that was the point; it provided narrative and broadened their fanbase immeasurably.

Does it matter? Oh yes. Because this will hardly have gone unnoticed. And it means “manufactured” has become a far less dirty word in pop music terms, because of an old, old business lesson – if something that seems to be a problem, trying playing it up, and make it an interesting attribute. Zayn might not realise that yet, but he will.

And as for the distraught fans, they needn’t worry. The reunion gig is almost certain to be along somewhere round 2017.