“This is a blog dedicated to the five boys who ruined my life,” is a Tumblr tagline I read in the spring of 2013. If it weren’t already taken, I would’ve used it for the title of this essay. The tone and inflection of the 22-year-old wordsmith behind the turn of phrase was so clear as to deliver that sense that someone you’re seeing on the internet sees you back. She hasn’t updated the account in more than two years, so there’s hope she’s no longer under the ruinous spell of those five teen boys who ruined her life — Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, and Zayn Malik — the five original members of One Direction.
I cannot say the same for myself.
It’s been nearly five years since I first fell down a One Direction VEVO rabbit hole, and I still haven’t found my way out. It’s been more than two years since Zayn Malik quit the group, and well over a year since the remaining members went on what many believe will be a permanent hiatus, a belief underscored last week by the unanimously positive reaction to the solo debut of the most beloved 20 percent of One Direction, Harry Styles. And it’s been roughly 16 years since I was the age where it was considered acceptable to enjoy a boy band. Yet here I am, grasping tightly to the ruinous euphoria induced by those five men who were so recently boys together.
My obsession with One Direction has to do with the fact that they are a once-in-a-generation social phenomenon, an optimistic counter-narrative to our popular perception about the nature of teen boys, and a cultural moment that represented a hope that bordered on the holy. “What happens when you put very young groups of men together?” has long been an inquiry made by social scientists, novelists, journalists and others attempting to witness and articulate human behavior.
Their replies? South Park. Gamergate. American Pie. Steubenville. Lord of the Flies.
Our culture has unanimously agreed that putting boys together transforms them into buffoons or barbarians—usually some grisly pairing of the two. They worship chaos and torment; they diminish girls. The best we can hope for is to quarantine them from each other until they become men who can be civilized by women and work.
But somewhere in the cosmos, among the infinite possibilities of outcomes in the universe, some gambling god or star wondered, “But what if maybe we put them together, and they were good? Not just good, but better under each other’s influence?”
What if young masculinity didn’t multiply its toxicity when it gathered, but acted as its neutralizer, or even an amplifier of the best that boys have to offer? One Direction had fans who adored them, not just for the love they professed for girls in their pop songs, but for how deeply they appeared to love each other. They worshipped fun rather than chaos; they elevated and adored girls and women, and were at their best when they were in each others’ company.
There are many theories as to how this miracle happened. One is that they’re so respectful of women because between the five of them they have an inordinate number of sisters. Harry has one; Liam has two; Zayn has three; and Louis has six. There’s also the experience particular to performers whose primary audience is female, and who consequently derive their validation primarily from women. In a rock band that both men and women like, it’s easier to slide into the thinking that posits men are the real fans and women are just there because they want to fuck the members of the band (most likely the drummer). But when all your fans are girls, you might be more inclined to respect their tastes.
Then there’s their origin story, which is really a succession of second chances. It goes like this: In 2010, four English boys (and one Irish one) between the ages of 16 and 19 all showed up with various family members in tow as both cheerleaders and chaperones to audition for The X Factor, a British reality TV competition much like American Idol. Though contestants could compete as either solo acts or in singing groups, the boys were all there to audition for the solo category.
The auditions themselves add even more to critical fan lore. We all know that the boy named Liam Payne was already a veteran of X Factor judge and creator Simon Cowell’s dismissal two seasons earlier. But Payne returned, armed with shaggier hair, a few inches of height and a more confident command of his own octave range.
We also know that Louis Tomlinson’s tie was too short, but he dressed the sharpest of them by far. Same for that 16-year-old Harry Styles declared plans to study law, sociology and business the fall after the show. We know that the Irish ball of nervous energy Niall Horan made the sign of the cross when he passed the first round. We know that, regardless of who our favorite is, Zayn Malik gave the best vocal performance of all the auditions when he sang Mario’s “Let Me Love You” and that even at his most awkward, he was clearly the most beautiful boy in the world. And though they ultimately took third place in the overall competition, the show was the catalyst for building a fanbase of mostly young girls cheerfully volunteering their lives to be ruined by these five boys.
Few of us can pinpoint exactly when we learned these bits of information, probably through a mixture of consuming the original material from the show and seeing it referred to over and over again in fan discussions as if it were common knowledge. And so, like any great origin story, we believe — we feel — we must’ve known it forever.
I retell it here because it’s a fucking great story but also because it’s one of many elements of the One Direction phenomenon that I’ve breathed, typed and willed meaning into. After all five of the boys were eliminated in the second round, there was an unorthodox decision to bring them back and ask them if they’d be willing to compete as a group. Were it not for the judges’ inkling that the boys might work well as an ensemble, they would’ve returned home as they had left: alone and unknown. But together, they stood a chance.
E pluribis unum, out of the many: One Direction.
One Direction was already a major international phenomenon by the time I finally chose my best life by embracing them in 2012. The year ended with my first real heartbreak, the man I loved proving incapable and unwilling to withstand a mild to moderately difficult financial setback and leaving me and New York for the safer waters of his mother’s home in New Jersey. And so I gave One Direction a shot for the same reason that I suddenly got really into exercise and cooking: happy distractions that might make me feel good.
I looked forward to the annual Christmas party that my friends and I throw as a reprieve from this fresh wound, what I referred to at the time as my ex’s refusal “to show up for me and be a fucking man.” The host used a big-screen TV connected to VEVO to DJ; once we’d had our fill of Lana del Rey’s theatrics, she turned to One Direction’s channel. As a sentient being, I knew they were cute, famous boys who troublingly had a song about a girl who’s beautiful because she doesn’t know she’s beautiful, but not much else.
From the very first hook, however, it was clear that One Direction had a fucking sound, man. The seeds of distrust in boy-band talent run deep. so I’ll bring in a few good men who gave the boys a fair shake around the time I found them in 2012, not long after their second studio album Take Me Home was released. Jon Dolan at Rolling Stone largely dismissed it, but admitted to the presence of a few “power-pop sure shots” on the record, which is coincidentally what I call any orgasm achieved by imagining erotic dalliances with one or more members of One Direction. Alexis Petridis of The Guardian called it “a peppy, synth-bolstered take on early-1980s new-wave pop, heavy on clipped rhythms and chugging guitars”—so imagine that but also, like, just better in ways we don’t have words for yet.
The first video that I saw in full at that Christmas party was “Kiss You,” a tribute to Elvis movies complete with jailhouse dance sequences and low-budget surf scenes in which the hairless, undefined chests of the members made evident that they were still very much boys. In “One Thing,” they put on ties and skinny dress pants, and the flickers of what would become the legendary swagger and impossible charm of Harry Styles light up an already moderately rowdy scene. In “Live While We’re Young,” they go glamping!
And while I mentally noted my level of attraction to each member upon first really checking them out, I was mostly enamored of what I remain convinced was their exuberance—the amount of fun they seemed to be having together. They were a bit rambunctious and giddy, and they appeared unafraid in the rushes of verve that coursed through their every gesture to do what few men do publicly: touch each other.
Lyrically, each of their songs raises the stakes with a usually nameless girl to whom all the songs are addressed. The innocent request, “So tell me girl if everytime we touch/You get this kind of rush/Baby, say yeah, yeah, yeah,” giving way to accusations that she, “Shot me out of the sky/You’re my kryptonite/You keep making me weak/Yeah, frozen and can’t breathe” and finally, “Let’s go crazy, crazy, crazy till we see the sun/I know we only met but let’s pretend it’s love.” In “Steal My Girl,” they proclaim, “I don’t exist if I don’t have her/ The sun doesn’t shine, the world doesn’t turn.” There is also a song called “Girl Almighty” in which they allude to the girl as an actual deity.
It’s notable that while two of their earliest videos feature an actress as a love interest, the rest of the video catalogue is primarily focused on the boys: They get rowdy at a movie studio; they do funny dances together; at one point, they steal a boat and somehow end up atop Tower Bridge in London. The 2014 video for “Night Changes” features five vignettes of the boys on adorable dates that turn into disasters and is shot from the point of view of the woman on the date. It’s an artistic move, sure, but also a marketing one: The person on the date is the viewer. One Direction members are boyfriends for the whole world.
Between 2012’s Take Me Home and 2013’s Midnight Memories, three important milestones took place: 1) Niall Horan had his braces removed; 2) Harry Styles was briefly romantically entangled with the incomparable and serpentine Taylor Swift; and 3) Zayn Malik had his most serious sex scandal up to that point by banging a waitress. All these things being the case — and like the mythical popular clique in high school who synced their periods — the boys of One Direction emerged in unison as men in their 2013 video for “Best Song Ever,” with all five coming into their own at once in what was arguably the apex of their happiness.
It was during this same period that I was getting in and out of yet another ill-advised relationship with a lost man whose immaturity, infidelity and inclination toward anger made me grow even more attached to his antithesis in the boys of One Direction.
During the same week as the first of our many breakups, a documentary feature about One Direction called This Is Us arrived in theaters, landing at number one at the U.S. box office in its first week and going on to gross $68 million. I went to see it with the intention of burrowing into a seat alone and crying in the general direction of the boys. But the universe had other plans. From gaggles of preteen girls fighting over who will be Liam’s bride to a family of two parents and one girl all equally gushing over Zayn, the theater was alight with chatter that sparked instant camaraderie among those of us in attendance. When you’re part of a fandom, you’re never really alone if you don’t want to be.
After the movie, I delved even deeper into the giant archive of media available online about One Direction. Most of it made me laugh — the rare sight of boys having fun that doesn’t happen at the expense of someone else. For instance: When asked on a radio show if the boys had a “dibs” system in place for when they saw a cute girl, Harry replied, “We feel like that objectifies women, and that’s not really what we’re about.”
The male co-host of the show just laughed and responded by saying that they have great media training, once again undermining the idea that boys might be inclined to respect girls of their own accord.
I also found a good deal of cringe-worthy and anatomically baffling erotica about sleeping with the various boys — from which comes the most enduring myth of the fandom: Larry.
Larry is the supercouple name given to members Harry and Louis, who even to this day a substantial number of die-hard fans believe to be madly in love with one another, even married—but whose passion is kept secret by sinister corporate management forces. I’ve never been convinced of the Larry conspiracy myself, but I do think it signals something important about the fans: Their satisfaction isn’t contingent on sustaining their belief that the boys would love them back. Instead, it’s about sustaining their belief that the boys are happy.
To this end, there’s a scene toward the end of This Is Us that I return to often: The boys are on a camping trip that starts with their comical attempts by daylight to pitch tents, and ends with their nighttime reflections on fate and legacy while they are gathered around a campfire.
Less than two years after the film’s release, Zayn will have left the band, and any amount of drama will follow. But the film betrays no evidence of the coming bitterness—only the awestruck gratitude of five working-class boys living out their own wildest dreams. Though the scene is clearly staged, there’s a striking sincerity in their contemplation of the future. They consider the implications of having the best time of their lives so young and how they hope to be remembered in some distant and impossible moment when the band no longer exists.
The ever-reserved Zayn is quietly attentive during this talk, but he breaks his silence to uneasily ask, “Do you think we’ll like, still be mates?” He is swiftly reassured that of course they will. They’ve been through too much to not be.
I convert the YouTube video clip into an MP4. Next, I open it with the program GIFBrewery and scroll to this exact moment, carefully snipping around the three seconds it takes for him to give voice to this doubt in the hope of it disappearing along with the breath it escapes alongside. Within those three seconds are several frames to scroll through and investigate, still images that might reveal uncertainty across his face in ways that can’t be detected at normal speeds. But I don’t sit with these frames and investigate them. I am swift to make the caption of his question and press, “Create GIF.”
I put my creation on Twitter to little fanfare at 2 a.m., where it will have its own URL, a precise set of digital coordinates to call home. And so, Zayn will be out there in the ether, in an alternative reality where the band is young and happy and together forever. Sometimes, I see this small digital gesture as an act of heroism: Liberating the boys from the despair of a future where they discover that friendships dissolve, that everyone must grow up and that living your wildest dreams can sometimes just be a nice way to describe never having peace. Other times, I see it as an act of cowardice: holding Zayn hostage forever in a moment of uncertainty because I cannot bear the sadness of the answer to his question, even though I’ve likely always known it.
On the day that Zayn left One Direction, in March of 2015, there was universal bereavement among fans — and the boys themselves. In fact, video surfaced of what appears to be Harry crying on stage in Jakarta the day after the announcement. The band continued its tour and released an album as a quartet before eventually going on hiatus, but it all felt like more of a winding-down than a moving-on.
Sensing the end was near, I frantically accumulated One Direction merchandise. I have a Baroque painting of women dancing with their lyrics (“Let’s have another toast for the girl almighty”) framed in my dining room. I have a Harry Styles decal in my TV room. I got a One Direction tattoo at the age of 31, the only ink I have. I send out greeting cards regularly bearing the lyrics, “You’ll find me in the region of the summer stars,” from their last album. (The full lyric: “If you’re lost just look for me, you’ll find me in the region of the summer stars.”)
I don’t know what the region of the summer stars is, but it’s always reminded me of the directions to Neverland in Peter Pan: second star to the right and straight on till morning. I hope it is not there, because Neverland is where boys never grow up and are perpetually lost. I might hold the five boys of One Direction hostage metaphorically in the form of animated gifs, but I don’t actually wish the captivity of youth on them forever.
I’ve been cautiously heartened to watch them emerge as the men they were meant to become. Niall has been dragging a guitar around with the band for years, so when he released a guitar-centric single, “This Town,” in 2016, I was happy for him. Last month, Liam welcomed a son, which isn’t all that surprising, since if you watch enough footage of One Direction, you realize he makes a lot of references to some eventual future where he’s a parent, and the band always joked that he was already the dad of the band.
I hope that Louis gets to skateboard for as many fucking hours a day as he damn well pleases because that kid loves to skate. Similarly, I want Zayn to figure out what he’s looking for, because he’s seemed a bit on edge for a few years now. And I don’t have to wish that Harry becomes the A-list movie and rock star he was born to be, because I’ve already watched it start to happen on Saturday Night Live and on the cover of Rolling Stone.
That said, watching the Rolling Stone story make the rounds troubled me for its erasure of the band Harry was a part of and the boy who Harry was when he was in it. One quote in particular was sent to me over and over again:
“Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music — short for popular, right? — have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goalposts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans — they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is SICK.”
People reacted to it as though Harry Styles had been some slobbering, buffoonish child who went into a cocoon at the end of 2015 and emerged as an enlightened feminist when he was at last unshackled from the idiocy of his pop band origins. I’m sorry, but fuck those people. Fuck those people who didn’t listen to the girls literally screaming that these boys were something important, making them feel central to the universe. Fuck those people who decided this could be true only when Cameron Crowe was the conduit for this message.
Because here’s what they missed: One Direction is proof positive that we’ve got it entirely backward when it comes to boys and men. It’s not boys who can learn from men; it’s men who can learn from boys. For instance, men could stand to learn from boys who realize that fun and attraction don’t have to hurt people. Men could stand to learn from boys who realize that they want to hurt people less when they have friends they feel warmth toward. Men could stand to learn from boys that it’s okay to feel sometimes.
Though One Direction had ended, the lingering influence and the example they had set helped me find the beginning of something new. The month after they went on hiatus, I met the man who would become my boyfriend. I liked from the beginning how highly he spoke of his friends. I liked how he told me I was beautiful early on, earnestly and without having to be drunk like so many before him. One night when we were in his room, he asked me what my favorite band was, and I told him One Direction. Rather than smirk or assume I was joking, he turned to his computer and typed “One Direction” into Spotify and asked which album he should listen to.
A year and a half later, he hasn’t become a consummate fan, but he knows a lot of the lyrics now. He likes the new Harry Styles, but did say, “I’m not sure how I feel about this” when I emerged one day in a pink sweatshirt that reads “1–800-HARRYSTYLES” 10 times in a row in the same design as Drake’s Hotline Bling. I’ve seen annoyance and jealousy about my celebrity crushes from men before, but this feels different. He isn’t as concerned about my giddy admiration of Harry Styles as he is convinced that it’s entirely plausible that Harry Styles, the most famous and beloved young man in the world, would like me back. It is a ridiculous notion, of course, but it is nice to have someone think you hung the moon and tell you so. There is an innocence and earnestness to it. And it reminds me of some boys I used to know.