Belieber-Directioner Deathmatch: Who Will Win the Greatest Pop Music Battle of Our Generation?

Justin Bieber and One Direction released new albums on the same day. Who will come out on top?
13 November 2015, 5:46pm

Image by Dan Ozzi

Countless albums drop every week, but once in a great while, two major acts from the same genre camp out on the same release date, and neither blinks and pushes their record back to avoid direct competition. Today’s release of Justin Bieber’s Purpose and One Direction’s Made in the A.M. is perhaps the most high stakes sales showdown since 2007, when Kanye West’s sales triumph over 50 Cent became a powerful symbol of the direction hip-hop headed in afterward.

Justin Bieber has been through the wringer as one of the most popular and most embattled pop stars in recent memory, and finds himself staging his first “comeback” at the age of 21 with Purpose, his first full-scale album of original material in over three years. Made in the A.M. is UK boy band One Direction’s first album since the controversial departure of Zayn Malik earlier this year, and the remaining quartet has already announced that they will soon be taking an extended hiatus.

This sales war will be decided by #Beliebers and #Directioners, the armies of young fans that have given each act an impressive string of #1 albums. But this time, somebody’s going to have to settle for #2, and everyone has a different theory about who it’s going to be. Now, writer and proud One Direction fan Al Shipley will debate Noisey editor and unabashed Bieber booster Craig Jenkins about the numbers and the music.

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Al: So here’s why I like One Direction, and why I’m rooting for them in this matchup: For as long as I can remember, since the days of New Kids on the Block’s “Dirty Dawg,” boy bands and pop singers have been begging for street cred. No matter what clean cut sound and image they started out with, eventually all Top 40 acts reboot their sound with the hot dance or hip-hop sound of the moment. And for every Justin Timberlake that manages the transition well and wins older fans with the gambit, there are a dozen strained career-ending EDM fusions.

One Direction don’t care about street cred or seeming grown up. When they burst onto the scene in 2010, they were hyped as part of “a new boy band invasion” with another UK group, the Wanted (who are managed by Bieber svengali Scooter Braun, as it happens). But that rivalry was settled quickly and decisively, as pop fans on either side of the pond unanimously chose the boyish One Direction’s jangly pop anthems over the Wanted’s more mannish image and sleek, dance-y sound.

At a time when Top 40 acts are obsessed with cutting edge cool, and even Ed Sheeran is rapping, One Direction make unapologetic guitar-driven power pop. And while a Taylor Swift-led wave of pop nostalgia has zeroed in on a very specific John Hughes 80s vibe, One Direction draw from a much wider variety of 20th century pop/rock. When one of their singles reminded people of “Baba O’Riley,” it earned them a compliment from Pete Townshend instead of a lawsuit, while other songs have taken aesthetic cues from hits by Journey, Def Leppard, the Beatles, and Tears for Fears. But mostly One Direction’s songwriting braintrust (increasingly led by group members Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson) has excelled at massively catchy original songs like "Clouds" and "Little Black Dress" that alt-rock crossover groups like Coldplay or the Killers can’t be relied on to provide very consistently anymore.

Zayn Malik, the only member of One Direction who seemed to harbor ambitions of delving into R&B or EDM, dropped out, allowing the group to further refine an aesthetic that has served them well thus far. By comparison, I’ve never really known what Justin Bieber’s sound is. As an R&B singer he’s always seemed to me like a nasal Omarion-level talent, and no amount of guidance from Usher ever seemed to change that. And after his “urban” move didn’t quite pan out, this Skrillex-powered “tropical house” thing he’s doing now just seems like an arbitrary Plan B that happened to catch pop radio’s fancy. But I know you’re a fan, Craig, so what am I missing? Is he a better singer than I give him credit for? Is his new sound a bold choice, or merely a shrewd one?

Craig: In fairness, Bieber the vocalist is nobody's technician, but he can hit a limber little run or two when he wants, and he conveys puppy dog longing (and conversely, harrowing exhaustion) very well when he draws his voice up into a whisper. What's more, I don't really see anyone in 1D giving me too much in the way of vocals either, which is something to think about, since they came up in a singing contest. Their best hooks are meant to be belted out like soccer chants, which is no doubt very fun in a crowd, but distractingly anonymous on record.

I want to talk about what you've identified as Justin Bieber's struggle to find a sound that sticks, though, because it isn't a problem specific to him but rather a thread running through much of the mainstream R&B of the decade. The hairpin turn from the drop-friendly R&BDM of Believe thru Journals' sadboy soul on the way to the trop-house majesty—yeah, I'm saying "majesty"—of Purpose is a course a lot of shrewd R&B careerists took. Look at Usher. His 2012 album Looking 4 Myself is an excellent thermometer for where mainstream R&B was at the time: deathly afraid of being overtaken by dance music. Usher went straight to Max Martin, Shellback,, and Diplo to stay afloat, and the same year Chris Brown released "Don't Wake Me Up" and "Turn Up the Music," his most craven EDM cash grabs.

No one could see Bey and Justin Timberlake coming, but Beyoncé and 20/20 Experience wrested back a great deal of industry faith in more traditional R&B by stiff-arming EDM straight to the bank. This is how a Justin Bieber could find the juice to make all the murky, emotional music that came through on the Journals project (although I never saw that record as urban radio pandering so much as a passion project the outside climate briefly rendered a feasible business maneuver). Hip-hop has since figured out a communal language with EDM that's a little more hybridized and less openly pandering, thanks in large part to DJ Mustard, and smart artists like the Weeknd and Bieber have charged right on.

Purpose doesn't feel like the disingenuous retreat you've described, though. It's like Justin's stumbled on the sound he's been playing at all along. I feel the cutting edge dance music and the soulful reflection in it at the same time. It’s naked, honest, personal. You don't get Purpose without the awful year and a half that led up to it. It's a kid piecing himself back together after losing it. The joy in it feels hard-won. The hurt feels all-encompassing. These are not feelings that One Direction's music gives me. They feel clinically market tested. Squeaky clean, good looking guys interpreting pathologically universal lyric sheets. It doesn't grab me. Am I off?

Al: One Direction definitely aren't about blowing you away with virtuosic singing, even by boy band standards. And as with any vocal group, the need to write songs for alternating lead singers that all come from one perspective can sometimes result in a lot of vague mushy sentiment. But they've gotten great at playing up the contrast between their voices, letting Niall Horan's cutesy high voice in a verse lead into Harry Styles crooning through a chorus in his huskier tone.

After One Direction's first four albums each represented a major step up in the quality of songwriting and performances, Made in ihe A.M. is merely a plateau. If I was selling someone on the group, I'd start with Four or Midnight Memories. But for a group who's released all of their albums in November, Made is the first One Direction album that could be described as autumnal. Songs like "Love You Goodbye," "Infinity," and "End of the Day" don't explicitly refer to Zayn's departure or the upcoming hiatus, but are designed to fit the heavy-hearted mood of the band's tumultuous year. The songs still often sound like soccer chants, but they have a stiff upper lip pathos that I find more affecting than Bieber's overwrought award show tears.

Here’s why I think Made in the A.M. will sell more than Purpose the first week: One Direction fans always show up. There are artists who sell more when they drop an album, but not since late 90s and early 00s ascendance of DMX and Jay Z has anybody been able to drop albums every year and consistently put up such big numbers. Bieber has five #1 albums and 10 million in total U.S. album sales to One Direction’s four #1’s and 6 million total. But Bieber’s biggest opening week has been 374k for 2012’s Believe, and One Direction’s last three albums sold more than that the first week, two of them by a wide margin. 25% of One Direction's U.S. album sales were racked up in first week of release vs. 14% of Bieber’s total.

Bieber might sell more over time, while One Direction's sales tend to drop off sharply after release. But we’re talking about the first week, and that’s where Harry Styles is king. Now that Directioners have something to prove, both about their loyalty to the group post-Zayn and about beating Bieber, they’re going to show up in droves. Craig, do you think Bieber’s bigger current singles, and longer time away, could still give him the advantage?

Craig: This is where street cred comes into play. Bieber's year off was spent actively shaking his teen pop reputation both through all of the trouble he got himself into and also a couple of well-curated collaborations. He proved he could hang with the Migos and Travis Scott and came maddeningly close to snagging the year's best DJ Mustard beat. He made it cool to like him. One Direction hasn't done enough of that yet. Those sales figures die after a week one spike because Directioners are legion, and loyal, but people aren't that keen on the group outside the fandom.

Bieber, on the other hand, has methodically collected the respect of people who didn't like him this time three years ago, and he's coming off “What Do You Mean?” and “Where Are Ü Now,” two consecutive platinum singles, with a third hit, “Sorry,” presently sitting pretty at #4 nationwide. And the album is one of the year's best. And the promo has been airtight. I don't think past sales are a safe measure of what's happening with him this fall. The movement was mostly screaming teens when Believe dropped. I'm a grown ass man considering grabbing a physical copy of Purpose on its release date. Things have changed.

Ultimately, there's no telling where this goes. History and Twitter chatter seem to support One Direction, but to my eyes and ears, the demo planning on buying Made in the A.M. seems confined somewhat to the Directioner fandom, large as it may be. On the flip side, I know dozens of people vibing to Purpose this week, but I'm not certain they're dedicated enough to put money down on it. It would be nice for Beliebers to see their fave take the top chart spot on his comeback album and also a good haul for Directioners to claim it for what could end up being the last time. Either way, everyone wins when the year's marquee pop records are actually good, and I'll be watching just as closely as you, Al, to see who takes the lead. But remember, victory will be brief: Adele is coming, and she's playing for keeps.

Nobody can drag Al Shipley down. Follow him on Twitter.

Craig Jenkins needs you the most. Follow him on Twitter.