Earlier this year, the world's press got their collective knickers in a twist about a leaked video that shows Zayn Malik and Louis Tomlinson of One Direction smoking a joint together as they’re driven through Peru on tour. Beyond the obvious takeaway, if you were listening closely to the conversation being had in the video, there’s something way more revealing to be gleaned than the fact that some dudes in their 20s like a smoke.
Zayn lights up as he talks about a Kid Rock book that someone showed him, and the whole exchange shows a rare glimmer of dissatisfaction from within the globally successful boyband. “He showed me Kid Rock’s last book,” said Zayn, “and it’s about twice the size, hardback, simple writing, the whole thing just filled with sick pictures, and just captions from each place. No bullshit, no ‘my favourite colour’s blue, my favourite colour’s red’, none of that, literally just all sick pictures, and it looks bad. Every time you look in it you’re like, fuck I hadn’t even seen that picture, that’s a bad photo. I’m sure they’re bored of seeing the same old crap.”
“Yeah,” says Louis. “The same old shit that I’m sure the fans are bored of reading.”
“They wanna know what we’re up to now, man,” Zayn continues. “We’re not into pink books, man. Kid Rock is sticking his middle finger up with a J in his mouth, and that’s one of the pictures in the book.”
“Sick!” says Louis.
It’s not totally clear what Zayn’s comparing the Kid Rock book to, or what he’s saying is the “same old shit,” but it doesn’t seem like too much of a death-defying leap of logic to assume that he might be casting judgment on One Direction’s own merch.
You know what the most interesting thing about One Direction is? Nothing. That is, there’s a big old abyss of nothingness right at the heart of their brand, which invites millions of girls to feel like they know the five boys intimately by revealing as little about them as possible. It’s been this way with manufactured boybands for a long time - case in point, see Take That struggling to answer questions about what they’ve learnt from their success and Sean from 5ive examining his fingernails during televised interviews back in the 90s. Appealing to millions at once has always been about erasure; it’s about keeping back so much of your real selves that you’re idealised by teenagers and praised by their parents purely by virtue of not doing or saying anything that could be construed as an opinion.
Mostly, One Direction’s social media presence are little more than an extension of this - the illusion of connection dangled tantalisingly in front of girls who tweet the boys so many times that they have their accounts suspended on the regular. Every tweet promises insight and connection, but few ever really say anything. At the time of writing, Liam Payne’s last tweet was “Woop wooo [shower emoji] time.” It had 79,000 favourites. With things like the spliff video leak, though, or the clip that emerged in 2012 of a stoned Zayn thrusting his hips to Usher, comes a rare insight into five lads in their 20s whose IRL existences are becoming further and further removed from the image they spend their lives creating.
One Direction are a mirror, and as they get older, the mirror is starting to crack. Intrigued by Zayn and Louis’s impassioned conversation about the “same old shit” being peddled to their fans, I picked up a copy of that “same old shit” in the form of their official 2015 annual. Underneath all the pink bubble writing, you can see the trace fractures starting to form within the brand itself, and selected quotes help form the picture of a band who are not long for this world.
“While their fame seems to have come so quickly, they’ve put an incredible amount of work into their success.” This is a party line that’s trotted out again and again in the 2015 1D annual: they deserve their position because they work like crazy for it. In the 2015 annual, fans are told: “During tours, the boys have been known to max two hours’ sleep a night.” It’s the hypercapitalist dream of a talent-show obsessed society: go to the right audition, learn enough dance routines, sign enough photos of yourself and you can have whatever you want. Hard work is everything.
In an excellent interview-meets-op-ed on the band for the Guardian recently, journalist Tom Lamont probed the group by reading them a passage from Robbie Williams’ autobiography that culminated: “Home life was weird, and you [got] a weird perception of the world. And then there’s a hundred fucking girls outside your house…And all of that stuff mixed with the insane promotion that we did…We were tired and scared.” All five members denied that they identified with it. “It’s not a question of burnout,” Liam Payne insisted defensively. (Just a few days later, this Vine of him working grimly through selfies with fans went viral, undermining his statement just the tiniest bit.)
“You know One Direction better than they know themselves.”
1D inspire fan fiction that draws views in the hundreds of thousands, and that idea that you can use your extensive knowledge of the group to create your own narratives is reinforced throughout their annual. There are quizzes designed to test how well you “know” the group. There are pages designed to determine what kind of One Direction fan you are, and pages full of facts about the fandom. Meanwhile, the amount that’s actually revealed about the boys pales in comparison, revolving around quotes like:
“DID YOU KNOW? Niall never went to his school prom.”
There are plenty of these bland insights into what it means to be incredibly famous, presented as a tantalising tidbit of knowledge for fans. Know what’s interesting about Niall? He can’t go to a restaurant without being mobbed, LOL!
“DID YOU KNOW? One of Louis’s favourite mottos is, ‘Live life for the moment because everything else is uncertain.’”
Woah, Louis, you okay b?
“They still get starstruck like everyone else.”
While intended as a cute indicator of their humble attitude, the way One Direction frequently talk about being “starstruck” around other celebrities - particularly musicians - seems like it’s also due to the fact that they’re not totally comfortable with sharing a platform with artists they respect. On Jimmy Kimmel a few weeks ago, when asked how they felt when they attended big awards shows alongside super-famous American stars, Louis said, “We feel like we don’t really fit in, in a way.”
Louis got even deeper into this feeling of discomfort in the boys’ memoir, One Direction: Where We Are. Talking about their record-breaking Number 1 in the US, he “writes”: “All those silly comparisons to [The Beatles] still annoy me because they were far too good and far too cool compared to One Direction. I was like, ‘Come on, let’s get realistic!’ Hearing people talk about The Beatles is ridiculous. Of course you can’t compare us to them. It’s a weird one, ‘cos you feel dead proud - so we should, to be fair - but there’s a feeling of…I won’t say guilt, because we’d worked very hard. But it was an odd feeling.”
“'Songwriting is a really cool thing, you know,' says Zayn.”
Zayn’s bang on there, I think we can all agree. And maybe that’s why the boys feel some level of embarrassment around their fame - because the music they’ve made it on doesn’t really represent them. In the annual, Louis, Liam and Zayn all reveal they’ve been bumping rap and R&B albums this year (Zayn, clearly the coolest, has been loving Jhene Aiko). Harry’s into Simon & Garfunkel, while Niall digs The Eagles. Despite the fact that the boys - Liam and Louis in particular - are gradually taking on more of the songwriting duties on the boys’ slowly maturing pop albums, the group’s disparate tastes are still totally unrepresented in their output. No wonder Harry Styles has reportedly been writing solo with pop behemoth Ryan Tedder; it wouldn’t come as a huge shock to learn that he wasn’t the only one in the band penning his own tracks on the DL.
“I will never understand, and you will never understand what this does to somebody…why? No one could deserve this.”
This is a tweet of Liam’s that’s reproduced in the One Direction annual as an example of him being enthused about his privileged celebrity life, despite reading more like a line that was rejected from Drake’s Take Care for being too glum. You could say the same for much of Liam’s occasionally existential, always aloof Twitter feed.
In the 1D annual, there’s five pages containing exclusive Q&As with the boys. In between the usual crap-shooting about music and travels, there’s one question that apparently has everyone stumped. “What does the future hold for One Direction?” is posed to four out of the five, and all four respond with the phrase: “Who knows?”
They should know, shouldn’t they?
“We believe if we work hard we’ll continue to be successful,” says Liam. “As long as our fans want us to be.”
That’s it right there - none of them know what the future holds, because their future is entirely dependent on how long their fanbase want to buy into their “same old shit.” One Direction can work as hard as they like, but they can’t reverse the ageing process. As usual, it’s Liam serving that realness, taking a sharp turn toward the ominous at the end of a typically bland press quote. With that Vine on a loop in the background, I’m imagining Liam in front of his mirror at 3am, surrounded by recording equipment and staring into his own burnt-out face in an empty penthouse suite, whispering, “As long as our fans want us.”
Follow Aimee on Twitter: @aimeecliff