I’ve spent a lot of the last five years living with One Direction. For a while, most conversations with my daughter involved The Boys in some way and a life size Harry Styles greets you from the front window of my house.
The Boys have even joined us on a picket line. They opened up the chance for me to work academically with one of my favourite people in the world, documentary maker Daisy Asquith who made the Channel 4 documentary Crazy About One Direction. Between the two of them my daughter and Daisy have helped me connect my feminism with my love of fandoms.
I have a lot to thank The Boys for.
Watching a boy band member exit has a familiar feeling to it. Every boy band has one member who has had to leave the band first. It is as though being in a boy band is a game of chicken to see who will crack last.
If I had had to put my money on which member would leave 1D first, it would have long been on Zayn. As numerous lengthy conversations in the bar with my Sussex colleagues will attest; Zayn’s role in the band had been to be ‘the Hot One’, but he was also ‘the Shy One’, more vulnerable than the other members, and the most uncomfortable in the hysterical spot-light.
He had already been embroiled in tabloid kiss-n-tell stories that had put pressure on his long term relationship with fiancée Perrie Anderson from Little Mix. The press simultaneously loved and undermined their status as the ultimate X-Factor couple: he’d cheated, but had made amends with an engagement ring and a caricature of Perrie tattooed on his arm. She’d been loyal but had recently been seen without her engagement ring.
On top of ongoing stories of him cheating on Perrie, leaked footage apparently recorded on google glasses seemed to show Zayn with fellow band member Louis Tomlinson, smoking a joint, and talking about drugs in the back of a car during a tour of Latin America in 2014. In the run up to the announcement that he was leaving 1D, drug rumours fed into a highly reported £3000 good behaviour bond that had to be paid before Zayn and Louis could perform in the Philippines. The Boy Band story and the kiss-n-tell met in a perfect storm in the days running up to his departure when the press combined their coverage of the behaviour bond with pictures of him holding hands with a mystery ‘tattooed blonde’. All of this is pretty standard Boy Band fare, the set piece narratives in place when pop is sold and consumed through the image of individual band members. What is different about Zayn is that he is not really your bog standard boy band member. He may have been ‘the Hot One’, but he was also the British born Muslim one, born in Bradford of Pakistani descent. But the real Zayn is not really the point of the stories. Boy Band Zayn is much more interesting, occasionally a cypher for ideas of who the real Zayn might be, but much more than that, he is a commercially developed commodity and a product of the collective power of a fandom’s imagination.
If we look at a few historical examples of Boy Band exits we can see how Zayn fits in with the existing stories told by bands, promoters and fans. (This is also a bit of a reminder that the internet didn’t actually invent this stuff. Whatever the dominant form of mass communication technology; it has been associated with fan storytelling)
The Beatles – The Boy in Love
John Lennon privately announced to The Beatles that he was leaving the band in 1969. The news that The Beatles were splitting up was publically announced in 1970, ten years after they had first formed. In the version of story where Zayn left the band to save his relationship with Perrie, 1D are replaying The Beatles, with Perrie as Yoko and Zayn as John Lennon.
Bay City Rollers – The Past It One
In 1978 Bay City Rollers lost/pushed out their lead singer Les McKeown in order for him to ‘pursue a solo career’, and with that they sacked their manager Tom Pattern. Renamed The Rollers, the remaining band members attempted to move closer to the New Wave scene. In this version of the story, 1D have been have been struggling against their X Factor manufactured pop roots since their first album Up All Night roots and have been trying to move into more ‘authentic’ rock.
Culture Club – The Self-Destructive One and The Gay One
In 1986 Culture Club’s lead singer Boy George was at the centre of a number of exposes surrounding his ‘descent’ into drug use. The hedonistic self-destruction of the pop icon is a well developed narrative. David Essex’s role in the film Stardust (1974) exemplified the image of the isolated star whose drug use destroyed his creative possibilities as an artist, and destroyed the man behind the image. Boy George, reportedly addicted to cocaine and then heroin became a tabloid whipping boy; embodying the comeuppance of a working class gay man who dared to blur the gender boundaries and still gain mainstream commercial success. Behind the scenes the doomed love affair with fellow band member Jon Moss, added the ‘gay one’ to George’s role as the drug addled self destructive one in the band. The story of Culture Club, is the story of a doomed love affair.
Zayn’s recent press coverage, although mild by comparison to the feeding frenzy on Boy George’s drug use, has been setting him up as the self-destructive drug addled tragic one. There has been speculation about his apparent weight loss, the film of him smoking something that looked like a spliff, and Matt Lauer was booed by his audience when he questioned the rest of the band about whether Zayn’s absence from a trip to America was down to his drug use. Regardless of what Zayn actually does or doesn’t do recreationally, Boy Band Zayn’s drug connection, may have been strong enough for the press to squeeze him into the self-destructive story, but it is certainly a watered down version of drug descent compared to Boy George, or even Brian Harvey from East 17 .
And as for being ‘the gay’ one? 1D’s homo-eroticism is more usually associated with the particular subculture within 1D’s fandom who are collectively called ‘Larry Shippers’. Larry Shippers identify with the idea of a relationSHIP between band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. Larry Stylinson , is the name-merge used to describe Harry and Louis as a couple (in the same way that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are described as Brangelina). Whether Larry is a fan fantasy or a ‘truth’ uncovered by diligent fans is up for grabs. When Daisy broke the secret fan code, and included the erotic fan fiction produced by Larry Shippers on Tumblr in her documentary Crazy About One Direction (Channel 4), she felt the Twitter wrath of the whole of the fandom.
More recently there have been stories about Zayn kissing various band members. Harry kissed him during the filming of an advert for their One Moment. Zayn kissed Liam during a televised interview. In 2013 rumours circulated about Harry and Zayn dating. Although to be honest at some point there have been rumours about pretty much every possible couple combination amongst the band members. The homo-eroticism of the band is played out differently at different times, sometimes explicitly and sometimes with greater resistance from the band members themselves. Shortly before Zayn announced he was leaving the band Liam Payne talked about kissing Zayn in an interview for We Love Pop magazine.
One of the reasons that Larry Shipping and fan rumours about which band member Zayn has kissed shouldn’t be written off as fag hag fantasies is our historical memory of previous gay Boy Band members and relationships within boy bands. Alongside the example of George and Jon in Culture Club, there is ‘always a gay one’ in a boy band the common narrative is of years of secrecy, struggle before eventual disclosure at the height or demise of a career: N’Sync, Culture Club, New Kids on the Block, Boyzone, Westlife.
Although increasingly set up as a Bad Boy, including allusions to soft drug use, and reports emerging that he has already been seen entering a recording studio to ‘go solo’, Zayn’s departure has largely been played out through his own personal development rather than ‘musical differences’.
Bros – The Reluctant One
In 1989 bassist, Craig Logan left Bros whilst the band was at the top of its success, leaving behind the twin brothers who fronted the band, Luke and Matt Goss, to carry on as a duo. The story goes, an old school friend of Matt Goss, Logan had been swept along with the Goss brothers’ ambition, but the pressure of stardom was too much and damaged his health. Bros’s story is rooted in their authenticity as childhood friends when compared to a fabricated band put together my music executives. Clearly 1D, put together from a selection of young male singers who had entered X Factor as hopeful solo artists, can’t rely on the stories of childhood friendships. But ultimately it doesn’t matter how a band got together, what matters is what happens to the individual stories within the Band as a whole. Both Logan and Zayn have been set up as particularly vulnerable. 1D have always made a lot out of the ways in which they grew into being ‘like a family’ (albeit one shot through with homorerotic nods), and like Logan, Zayn was clearly uncomfortable with the extremes of fan and press intrusion. In the Boy(Girl) Band story, depression and anxiety are used to show just how big a price the reluctant band member has paid for being in the public eye. Spice Girls’ Geri Halliwell, and New Kids on the Block’s Jonathon Knight all explained their early exit from their bands as the result of emotional pressure on their mental health
Take That – The Ultimate Boy Band story
Robbie Williams left Take That 5 years into the band’s career, the same length of time that Zayn spent in 1D. Robbie’s exit brought together elements of all the different exit stories: in the build up to his exit, he’d been partying with the Gallagher brothers at Glastonbury, wanted a solo career, and had turned to drugs to cope with the pressures of stardom blaming an addictive personality for his self-destructive cocaine use.
Robbie William’s story has a bit of every Boy Band story woven through it, including the possibility of reunion and redemption further down the road. Like Robbie Williams, Zayn Malik’s story so far touches on each story’s element, but in a watered down version that feels a bit like a re-enactment. He doesn’t quite pull off playing out any of them. He is, as we see him, like the band, ultimately a manufactured facsimile of a story. This isn’t a criticism, in fact it is something of a celebration of the power of the stories told by and about Boy Bands.
Like Pinocchio’s father Geppetto wishing for a real boy, real life was willed into the 1D Boys through the sheer strength of the fandom. So while Boy Band Zayn may be a set piece rerunning of Boy Band stories, and the personal price paid for the commercial success of being a ‘brand’, the real story here is the fans. They made the band, they voted and tweeted them into existence beyond X Factor. The fans applied the Boy Band stories according to the rules of the game. The fans bless some relationships (and withdrew their support for others). The fans intervene if they think that The Boys are being overly exploited or misrepresentated. The fans responses have made Zayn leaving the band a global news story and it is them, who will decide what happens next. Zayn is just their story, made up and vocalised by the fans. It turns out that the fans are better at doing 1D than The Boys are.