When it comes to male-led pop acts, they are usually accompanied with a wink and a nod. The goal of instantly famous boy bands and the band's members is to appeal primarily to young women, sending hearts fluttering with their chiseled features and lyrics about how special the characteristics of their fanbase are. Almost always, there is an element to these performers that communicate they are more fantasy than reality.
Take Justin Bieber, for instance, whose teen persona was kitschy to the point of exaggeration — how else can it be explained that Ludacris raps about PG-rated preteen "love" on the most famous Bieber track, "Baby." The day he could legally be considered an adult, he became the guy who urinated into a mop bucket while throwing shade at President Bill Clinton.
One Direction, however, has no ambiguity about who or what they are. They are five young men who, in tandem, check off every box along the spectrum of male attractiveness — paired together on the British version of "The X Factor" to become the prototypical boy band.
Making their big American splash with the hilarious "What Makes You Beautiful," one of the more shameless manipulations of young women with low self-esteem ever to dominate Top 40 radio, One Direction has gone on to sell out football stadiums (with ample promotional consideration by Nabisco, a junk food conglomerate) and recreate iconic Beatles photographs. It is fair to say that they are among the biggest bands in the world, despite not yet contributing anything likely to stand the test of time.
That is not to say One Direction is resting on laurels, squeezing the marrow from tabloid success until each member can be replaced by younger clones of themselves. One Direction's fourth studio album, titled "Four" — because of course it is — presents a band willing to take a crack at any genre it wants to explore, not unlike The Beatles before them.
One Direction, knowing it can do a little bit of everything without receiving backlash from fans, does not seem to have a musical identity at all. "Four" hops all over the musical map, from being a Coldplay knockoff to a Duran Duran knockoff to a spackle of celebratory youth and puppy love anthems with no discernible influence in particular. It is worth mentioning that several of these tracks genuinely work; "Clouds" plays like the good version of an Imagine Dragons song and "Steal My Girl" is just the kind of dopey teen pop song that will continue to be recycled for decades. If it's not broke, no need to fix it.
It is refreshing that the state of the modern boy band does not require One Direction to drench themselves in kitsch. These guys are not wearing matching yellow tracksuits or autotuning themselves into being indistinguishable on the tracks themselves. Harry Styles may still be the band's Justin Timberlake, but this remains a musical ensemble that allows every member to have his own spotlight and his own devoted fans.
However, the boy bands of old had an angle. Behind all the theatrical nonsense, there was something to latch onto musically. Even though the members of One Direction are all obviously gifted, nothing is being done with that gift. Say what you will about the Jive Records robots of the '90s, but at least that overproduced camp wasn't boring.
Listen to "Four" by One Direction on Spotify here.
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