One Direction’s SNL Invasion
April 8th, 2012
One of the (many) perks about being an academic studying elements of popular culture is the ability to turn any obsessive tendencies into “research.” I’ve spent the better part of the last month and a half obsessing over Justin Bieber’s “discovery” of former Canadian Idol contestant Carly Rae Jepsen and her subsequent rise to fame in America, and that became “research” when I wrote about the challenges of transnational stardom (and the awkwardness of an 18-year old mentoring a 26-year-old who has been in the music business longer than he has) for Antenna.
However, I don’t mean to suggest that I felt I needed to “justify” my interest in Jepsen’s rise to sudden fame by writing about it – the people who are following Jepsen as a fan, the Beliebers jumping on the bandwagon at the behest of their master, are just as justified as I am. That being said, though, there is a point where I want to be able to turn my interest into something more productive: while for fans this might mean writing fan fiction or creating a fan page, for me it means writing a scholarly blog post on the subject.
This brings me to the subject of this post, which is another pop culture obsession of sorts. I did not know British boy band One Direction even existed until I turned on my TV one morning to discover the band was performing on The Today Show. It was an unseasonably warm day in New York City for mid-March, but that wasn’t enough to explain the screaming throngs of teenage girls watching the performance. Even if Matt Lauer and Ann Curry weren’t pushing the comparison, it certainly evoked the aesthetics of Beatlemania (complete with the floppy hair), and the performances raised what was (to me) an intriguing question: what exactly does a boy band look and sound like in 2012?
In an internet age, the answer was only a few clicks away: Wikipedia offered some background on the band’s creation (formed as part of the British X Factor, finishing in third place), YouTube offered some clips of previous performances (including a preview of their performance on last night’s episode of iCarly), and Spotify allowed me to listen to their album, Up All Night, in its entirety over the course of the past three weeks. Pop culture curiosities are dangerous in this environment, as it’s all too easy to fall down the rabbit hole and come out the other side knowing most of the lyrics to an album of frothy bubblegum pop.
What I’ve been waiting for is an excuse to discuss the whole situation, which for me often means some sort of connection with television. Last night was therefore a golden opportunity, given both the aforementioned appearance on iCarly (which I’d consider highly logical given the band’s target audience) and their slot as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live (which I’d consider much less logical). And given that Ryan McGee has jokingly identified One Direction as my favorite band in his recap of last night’s SNL, I figure the least I can do is spend a bit of time discussing how this performance fits into my “more expansive than I initially intended” knowledge of their oeuvre, as well as ongoing controversies surrounding the show’s musical guest bookings this season.
I have no pretensions regarding music criticism, leaving that to the elder McNutt (my brother Ryan), so this isn’t about whether One Direction is good or bad. Up All Night is the requisite combination of upbeat pop songs and sappy ballads, all with lyrics that are suitably saccharine for a teenage audience. While Mark Blankenship is right to note that the larger invasion of new boy bands comes with a certain degree of decidedly post-adolescent sexuality, citing the frank discussion of One Direction member Harry Styles’ dating life, One Direction certainly sits on the tame end of that spectrum, which is reflected in the hetero-normative, squeaky-clean romance omnipresent within their album. There’s a few nice pop/dance hooks in there, and the Kelly Clarkson-penned “Tell Me a Lie” shows a (still low) level of lyrical sophistication most of the other songs don’t match, but this is not music aimed at a broader audience.
Of course, it doesn’t need to be. One Direction may have had the number one record in the country in the first week of Up All Night‘s release, but that means far less now than it did in 2000 when *N’SYNC was setting records with No Strings Attached. Niche audiences are now capable of elevating artists outside of the mainstream into this position, and in many ways One Direction was positioned as a niche artist: with a grassroots campaign amongst predominantly teen girls based on their success in the U.K. and videos uploaded on sites like YouTube, One Direction arrived to the Today Show with a devoted fan base who knew all of the lyrics despite the fact that the album had only gone on sale that morning (because, of course, it had been released back in 2011 in the U.K.).
The question, though, is whether there’s any chance of them expanding beyond that niche, which would seem to be the function of appearances like the one on the Today Show and last night’s Saturday Night Live. While iCarly viewers are predisposed to teen pop stars (given both Miranda Cosgrove’s music career and the brand connection with Nickelodeon’s Big Time Rush, another factor in the recent boy band revival), tapping into a pre-existing niche for this genre of music, I’m not sure that the average viewer who turns on The Today Show or Saturday Night Live are necessarily part of the band’s demographic. While it’s possible that the increased awareness will lead to more purchases made for daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, there is a certain disconnect operating within the space of Saturday Night Live in particular.
Now, this isn’t the first musical guest this season to create some cognitive dissonance: Steven Hyden has a great piece at The A.V. Club where he breaks down the recent controversies over mediocre (or downright terrible) SNL performances like those from Lana Del Rey or Karmin (a piece I’ll return to in a bit). However, while those performers felt out of their element performing in front of live audiences, I’d argue that One Direction is entirely ready for “the limelight” generically speaking (given that they were built for it from scratch during X Factor, and have been playing it out in the U.K. for half a year), but are ill-suited to this particular stage. When they’re not surrounded by screaming throngs of teenagers annoyingly holding their cell phones in the air, it just doesn’t feel like they’re truly in their element.
From my experience (and with absolutely no real authority on this issue), the band’s basic stage move is rhythmically bouncing around, a technique that implies some kind of audience to interact with. On the Today Show, that audience is present, making the performance dynamic if not exactly what one might call “choreographed” in the traditional sense. On Saturday Night Live, it honestly just feels weird: the lack of any visible audience means that the camera becomes the audience, but given SNL’s traditional demographics the people on the other side of the screen are the people turning to Twitter wondering who the “Bieber tribute band” is, not the fans to whom the onstage antics (including some mid-performance tomfoolery) are another opportunity to connect with their favorite band members, or the fans watching the diegetic iCarly webcast they appear on in their cameo appearance on that series.
That’s really the story, at the end of the day: One Direction are not interested in delivering cohesive musical performances. If they were, they would have replaced one of the two up-tempo songs with a ballad and sprung for some stools to sit on – it’s a cliche, but it works. However, their live performances are purely driven by a connection with the audience, a chance to see them “live and in the flesh.” They’re more human when they’re air drumming along with the song, or poking a fellow band member in the face while he’s singing, which means that the singing is mostly beside the point. They weren’t lipsynching (although the choruses were pretty clearly pumped in), but if they were would any of their fans actually care? Is there any injustice to sweetened choruses when the actual singing has been already established as a secondary function of the performance? Without any actual choreography to go along with the singing, it’s just a bunch of kids bopping around on the stage in what seems like a random pattern, and yet that might be all their audience is looking for.
The question then turns to where they’re looking for it, which seems to be Saturday Night Live’s angle here. This is where I would somewhat contest Hyden’s binary between SNL and the online video culture more influential in launching artists. To be clear, I agree with the basic hierarchy that Hyden sets up in this passage:
“What SNL represents is legitimacy for musicians that the Internet, no matter how ubiquitous a presence it has in (some of) our lives, decidedly does not. The hostility that Del Rey’s appearance inspired speaks to this; sure, she was big online—and signed to a major label—but what was she doing here? How did she earn this?”
While I completely agree that SNL represents a step to legitimacy, and the dissonance I mentioned is certainly prefaced on this hierarchy, SNL is also itself a part of that internet culture. The musical performances have their own featured space on the NBC website in addition to being excerpted on Hulu. It’s very likely that a large selection of One Direction’s fanbase will see these performances in this setting, and not as part of the live broadcast last night, which is perhaps the logic from SNL’s perspective: One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” has been liked over a thousand times in about twelve hours, and it hasn’t even been posted to the official Saturday Night Live page yet.
In other words, Saturday Night Live’s goal is not necessarily to draw viewers to the 11:30pm broadcast on Saturday night so much as they’re interested in generating traffic to their websites, and to Hulu. The ability for the musical performances to be extracted from the show means that the NBC website can become one of what Hyden identifies as “the myriad of musical video options online, where you can play what you want when you want, and always with a new set of choices once the video is over.” While the SNL rabbit hole isn’t quite as deep as YouTube, you can still go from One Direction to The Shins, or from Robyn to The Black Keys, and lose an hour of your day being exposed to NBC’s online branding (and the advertising attached to it).
In other words, One Direction decidedly didn’t fit into Saturday Night Live, but they don’t necessarily have to given that many people will see them outside of the context of the rest of the show. The band’s hammy appearance at the end of the Manuel Ortiz sketch might have drawn eye rolls from viewers outside of the One Direction demographic, but it’ll draw in hundreds of thousands of viewers excerpted online, making its potential dissonance within the broadcast a calculated decision. SNL’s desire to tap into the zeitgeist is an attempt to seem like they’re on the cutting edge of popular music, but it’s also a direct effort to leverage the online success of particular artists (like Karmin or next week’s musical guest, Gotye) into gaining a foothold into that online market.
While I’d argue this was present with Lana Del Rey or Karmin, its merger with the manufacturing central to the boy band as musical genre made it seem that much more apparent. One Direction’s presence meant that their promos were broken down and reported on by entertainment blogs and fan sites, reflecting the band’s marketing strategy driven by saturation. Instead of feeling like SNL taking a stab at the popular, it felt like SNL was willing to be invaded by the popular, opening itself up to become another engine for the One Direction machine.
I’m not necessarily arguing that this is “wrong” or below SNL: after all, both the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync appeared on the show back in the day. However, it seems like the cultural place of boy bands has shifted such that the invasion seems more hostile to the mainstream: while their cameo on iCarly is acceptable synergy, their presence on Saturday Night Live is an affront to the standards of the program even as the program’s standards willfully shift to tap into the online video market they desire to be a part of.
- A fun user comment from The A.V. Club writeup of the episode: “I expected One Direction to dance for my amusement. And they did not. WHAT KIND OF BOY BAND ARE THEY?!”
- It’s odd to note that Karmin’s performances of “Brokenhearted” and “I Told You So” are not available on the NBC.com website – instead, they’re on Karmin’s Vevo page, which means that any ad revenue is filtered entirely through the band (and that it’s located connected to the band’s own YouTube identity, which is where their fame lies). I wonder if they actually bought out the exclusive rights to performances, which are also unavailable on Hulu. Meanwhile, my brother has more on Karmin and the “Uncanny Valley of Pop” that’s worth reading.
- The plot to the iCarly episode, by the way, involves one of the members contracting jungle worms from Carly’s water bottle (not making this up), and then faking being sick to avoid giving up being taken care of by a guilty Carly. It’s perfectly harmless, and fit in fairly well with the show’s broad sitcom sensibilities.