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‘Ringo’ Should Be a Compliment, Not an Insult

But when Harry Styles called his former bandmate Zayn Malik ‘Ringo’ on ‘SNL,’ all hell broke loose in One Direction fandom

When I was a teenager, I played bass guitar in an extremely short-lived emo band. By short-lived, I mean that we played exactly one show in a dingy pub before an audience of fewer than five. None of the girls I’d invited showed up, and those who did only showed because we’d promised to buy them booze afterward with our fake IDs. Humiliated, and realizing I’d never be the Pete Wentz of my small town, I announced via text message that I’d be putting down the bass for good, leaving the band to pursue “other projects” (read: debate club).

“Ringo!!!” my bandmate texted back. He then promptly removed me from his Myspace Top 8.

I was reminded of this anecdote a couple of weeks ago, when Harry Styles — former member of One Direction, now Mick Jagger-esque solo artist — hosted Saturday Night Live. Styles recited his monologue while sitting at a piano, offering one-liners like “I’m not in a boy band anymore; I’m in a man band.” But it was when Styles reflected on his friendships with his former band members that all hell broke loose among One Direction fans. “They’re my brothers: Niall [Horan], Liam [Payne], Louis [Tomlinson]…” Styles said. Then, staring into the camera, with a cheeky grin, he added, “And… uh… Ringo! Yeah, that’s it!”

What Styles meant exactly is still being debated. His stans argue that he wasn’t trying to be malicious, and that it was simply a joke about Zayn Malik being the first to leave the group. But Zayn stans argue that it was far from an innocent jibe — rather, it not only attributed the demise of One Direction to Zayn, but also signaled that he was both overrated and the resident joke of the band. Such, I guess, is the Ringo subtext.

But why? Isn’t Ringo, after all, a member of the most famous band of all time, and seemingly the happiest, most well-adjusted of the bunch without any of that interpersonal John and Paul drama?

Nope! “It’s always been accepted in pop culture to make Ringo into the insignificant one,” music journalist Thomas Hobbs explains. “He wasn’t perceived as a martyr like John or George, or a legend like Paul. In the public eye, Ringo was just Ringo.” 

Personally, though, Hobbs thinks Ringo has gotten an unfair rap. “He’s a legend in his own right, and he put out some incredible solo work. The drum patterns on “She Said, She Said” were unworldly,” he says. More importantly, he adds, “Ringo kept the Beatles centered and stopped them from going too far off the track as their music got more and more experimental. It’s really pop culture that’s made him seem like a ‘lesser’ member compared with the others.”

In terms of One Direction, Hobbs explains that it’s the position the Beatles occupy, not just as one of the original “boy bands” but as the quintessential boy band, that means today’s boy bands (or man-bands) will always be judged in relation to the Fab Four. “There’s always going to be people who say that one member is the ‘John’ or the ‘Paul’ of the group, even if the music sounds nothing like the Beatles,” Hobbs tells me.

There are, however, generational divides to contend with. Or as Alyssa, a pseudonymous 16-year-old who describes herself as a “Zarry” (i.e., a stan of both Zayn and Harry), bluntly puts it, “I’ve never listened to the Beatles in my life.” As such, in the One Direction stan community, most people were originally confused by the Ringo reference, she says. They could, though, read between the lines and at least sense that there was a less-than-harmonious relationship between the band members post-break-up — something the Zarries have tried to alleviate on social media and the hundreds of private messaging groups for One Direction stans. 

“Zarries work hard to remind [the fandom] that Zayn and Harry are still friends, and that they respect each other,” Alyssa explains. “So we don’t have to take sides or choose one over the other.”

But eventually, of course, there must be a loser. And that’s where Malik’s or Styles’ loss could be Ringo’s gain. “Maybe one day,” Hobbs reasons, “someone will be getting mad because they’ve just been called a ‘Zayn.’”