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It's 2016. The surprise single continues to… not surprise, but it's a strategy employed by everyone, including Kanye, Rihanna, and, now, the sole Irish member of One Direction, Niall Horan. It's also the first year since 2010 that the world has experienced a One Direction black hole; a void where the rebellious tattoo-laden, greasy-haired boyband used to be. Yes, Zayn Malik came of age and undoubtedly soundtracked many virginities lost, but he was always the bad boy—the mysterious one in the group. The rest of One Direction were, for lack of a better British term, cheeky. Extra cheeky One Direction chap, Horan graced his leftover fans with a surprise acoustic song, "This Town" last Friday. It's nothing special, but its saccharine sweetness gives it all the makings of a decent hit. Niall claims that it was inspired by Bob Dylan and The Lumineers, so that should give you an idea of just how basic it is. In fact, it pretty much sounds like a reinterpretation of similarly twee One Direction deep cut "I Want to Write You a Song", which had the added corniness of a pencil scratching against paper. Though it's no "Pillowtalk", the track rushed to the top of Billboard's Trending 140 chart and has over 6 million views on YouTube in less than a week. This comes as no surprise as mediocre music has long coexisted with classics, but is "This Town" enough to secure Niall a spot in the cultural zeitgeist?
Without Zayn in One Direction, decent ad libs were forsaken and chorus singing duties were delegated to Harry Styles, but the songs still sounded like the band, perhaps even more so. These goofy white boys complemented each other in a cohesive decorum, but they had also redefined what it meant to be a boyband. There were no matching outfits and their over-processed vocals actually stood out from one another, even if the Melodyne was deafeningly obvious. If they rewrote the rules for the Boyband Kingdom, how does that affect them as solo artists?
Traditionally, after boy bands break up or go on a sabbatical, the other members will just continue to be that: othered. It's hard enough for the star of the show to make it on his own without having to live in the shadow of their previous group's success. Horan's shtick, however, revolves around his being an outlier within the realm of boy bands—he plays the damn guitar in a world where exports aren't supposed to possess actual musical talent. The one counterargument here is Justin Timberlake, but he stood front and centre in N*SYNC. Imagine if Lance Bass played guitar? Would he even be known as Reality TV Star, Lance Bass? Niall's fanbase is not only comprised of those who own his likeness in cardboard cutout form, but it's those who support his solo endeavours with a glimmer of hope in their eye. The momentum that keeps the phenomenon of One Direction afloat and its fans active is the arbitrary promise of a reunion—Niall even thanked the band's fans in a press release last week. Purchasing a copy of JC Chasez's 2004 indescribably awful single, "All Day Long I Dream About Sex", on the other hand, didn't translate to a disastrous N*SYNC reunion, so people were more willing to let other members besides Timberlake go.
That's not to say Niall is without merit and doesn't deserve a solo career, I say this as a One Direction enthusiast who has defended them from many pretentious peers who cape for Guided By Voices harder than Directioners do 1D. Horan's songwriting capabilities are incredible when he makes an effort; "Wolves" and "Never Enough" were standouts amongst Made In the A.M.'s farewell package, but you need more of a punch to ingrain yourself in the public's mindset. An over-reliance on fans who have always been there is not a sound business model—people grow up and tastes change. Zayn's solo career brought about new fans in the same way the Diplo and Skrillex-fuelled Bieberenaissance did, but his rapidly declining YouTube views is through no fault of his own. Anxiety issues made it difficult for Zayn to tour his record when it was fresh, but his selling point still relies on his being a beautiful man in a relationship with a beautiful woman. Not everyone designs a shoe collection with Giuseppe Zanotti.
The day "Pillowtalk" dropped, the Directioner community probably got pretty heated because they were made to feel like they had to pick sides, whereas each member of the band publicly congratulated Niall the day he dropped his single (even if Harry low-key listens to Zayn). Supporting Niall, Liam, Harry, and Louis still falls under the package of One Direction; none of them are trying to distance themselves from it. In a sense, One Direction still hasn't disappeared. It's the driving force behind these boy's personal endeavours. It gives these otherwise millionaire guys a sense of grounding and emphasises their so-called humble roots. In that case, the earth-shattering rupture One Direction caused just might have created a space for Niall to exist in a world that probably would have deemed him as forgettable as "This Town."
Sarah Sahim is a writer living in Birmingham, UK. Follow her on Twitter.