Around two years ago, America was meeting One Direction.
Pop music moves quickly: since then, One Direction has released three albums and a feature documentary/concert film, and is preparing for a U.S. stadium tour later this year. Building on my initial consideration of the band’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, the band and its fanbase have been a point of interest for me during this period. There was the time their fans threatened The Who on Twitter, the time they fought back against restrictive definitions of fandom reinforced by Ubisoft in a YouTube ad, and the time when Larry Stylinson shippers were shamed by promotions for a documentary airing in the U.K. And that’s only scratching the surface of a band and fanbase that remain at the epicenter of contemporary notions of stardom both on the Internet and within the music industry (where the band continues to function in a marginalized yet lucrative corner different from the “success” of the boy bands of my own youth).
Within this context, my brother Ryan—who, if you’re unaware, writes about music as I write about television—reached out for my thoughts on One Direction’s opener on their upcoming stadium tour, 5 Seconds of Summer, who are currently embarking on a similar American tour. His interest was in thinking about the function of genre, as the Australian foursome functions as what he calls “the next logical evolution of One Direction” through their direct engagement with rock music. Whereas One Direction’s expansion into the rock space was part of a gradual evolution (and a clear claim at legitimation relative to the bubblegum pop of their “youth”), 5 Seconds of Summer is starting from a place of playing their own instruments, writing their own songs, and resisting the label of “boy band” despite being a group of four teenagers with carefully cultivated haircuts.
The band raises many interesting questions, and considering the relationship between the two bands—who are not coincidentally managed by the same company—offers lots of broader considerations of the way we can understand “boy bands” as a construct that can cross generic lines in our contemporary musical moment. Musically, “She Looks So Perfect” looks set to make a run as a potential summer anthem, and the EP of the same name sold 143,000 copies in its debut (which is not far off from the 176,000 copies One Direction sold of their first LP in 2012).
But what I’m interested in exploring is what I discovered when I was prompted to consider the band more carefully. Searching for the band on Spotify turned up She Looks So Perfect and its four carefully curated pop songs, designed to break the band into the American market after previous success in the U.K. and their native Australia. However, what I found on YouTube was something entirely different, an extensive back catalog of original material and video content. The discovery has me thinking about the narrative of “discovery” as a form of branding, and the ways the band’s launch shows an interest in maintaining that narrative as the primary lens through which the band is to be viewed.
5 Seconds of Summer has two YouTube channels. One, its Vevo account, houses its official music video for “She Looks So Perfect” along with behind-the-scenes material. In that behind-the-scenes video, “lead singer” Luke Hemmings says “this is our first proper music video. Like, we’ve had three other ones, but they’ve kind of been…low budget, I guess.” Indeed, the video for “She Looks So Perfect” walks and talks like a professional music video, complete with a fairly silly concept—the band’s music makes people strip down to their underwear—and what the director describes as a “high energy” performance by the band.
The three other videos Hemmings describes are not on their Vevo account. They’re on the band’s own YouTube account, notable for its age: its first videos were posted in 2011, acoustic covers by Hemmings—then 14—that evoke the videos that led to the discovery of Justin Bieber (among others).
5 Seconds of Summer emerged in an era where becoming stars on YouTube was something people did, and it’s hard not to see Hemmings’ floppy blonde hair and presume he was thinking of Bieber’s success as he records acoustic covers of Cee-Lo Green or Bruno Mars on his webcam. The YouTube account even bears the mark of Millennial self-expression, still tagged in its URL by its original username “Hemmo1996.”
However, unlike Bieber, whose stardom was based on the novelty of an unassuming tween tackling contemporary R&B, the videos are framed as a form of direct address. As the videos evolve and Hemmings is joined by his bandmates, the music itself mostly stays the same: acoustic covers of pop and rock songs, ranging from Adele to Blink-182. But what changes is that—unlike Bieber—the band starts to refer to their fans directly, building a fanbase of people who are following their videos on a regular basis. Their cover of Chris Brown and Justin Bieber’s “Next To You,” their first video to go “viral” in the traditional sense, opens not as a pitch to record labels but rather as a casual greeting to their online audience.
After some initial awkward teenage banter about Liam’s colored hairspray, guitarist Michael Clifford finally disposes of the formalities: “This is ‘Next to You,’ we’re 5 Seconds of Summer, go subscribe and like and shit.” It’s an acknowledgement of the economy of YouTube, one that the band subsequently leveraged into local stardom in Australia. The videos become a chronicle of their success, moving from thanking fans for listening to thanking them for coming out to shows, or updating them on their more “professional” music developments.
Of course, the video itself isn’t professional. It’s directing fans to Twitter and Facebook pages, and informing them of professional appearances (including a set of acoustic covers on NOVA, a local Sydney radio station), but the video is the very definition of amateur. The band talks over one another, drummer Ashton Irwin loses track of what they’ve said while bothering bassist Calum Hood, there is much horsing around (which brings to mind what my colleague Jennifer Margret Smith refers to as the “homoerotic masculinities of the modern boy band”), and in general there’s a sense of playfulness that extends to other more “slice of life”-style videos that eschew musical performance in favor of lipdub or general tomfoolery.
This balance between performance and the personal follows the band to the present day, as the YouTube account offers a living video diary of the band’s rise from a local Australian success to their expansion into the U.K. (documented in a series of London-set video diaries focused on the writing and recording of their EP), and then finally their arrival in America. The difference is that while the London video diaries begin as the band chronicling themselves for the purposes of interacting with their fans (even discussing the difference in time zones that make it more challenging for them to talk to their Australian fanbase on Twitter), they evolve into a more traditional “Day in the Life” video package, identifying the inherent value of this sort of “behind-the-scenes” glimpse is at developing relationships between the band and their fans. It also mirrors the behind-the-scenes content that One Direction cultivated in their grasp at global domination, not coincidentally at the same time as 5 Seconds of Summer was opening for One Direction on their Take Me Home tour.
The video diaries continue on into their return to Australia and—as noted—their recent trip to Los Angeles, but in both cases the content of the video shifts: rather than the band documenting themselves, there is now clearly a videographer, and the Los Angeles videos in particular are clearly staged as a chance to let the band show off their personalities.
The direct connection with fans they originally used as a way to build an audience is now being actively engaged with by management companies and record labels to build a brand, one that will continue to prove valuable at the band goes on tour in North America with One Direction later this year.
I could break down this history all day, which has been the band’s central narrative in pieces like this Billboard profile (which also delves into the social media connections between the two bands). What interests me, though, is how this history is being framed in the context of their North America debut. Although the band has an EP that was released in Australia and the UK, along with singles for which they recorded the aforementioned “low budget” music videos, none of those songs appear on She Looks So Perfect. The choice to debut with an EP is an interesting one given that they could have cobbled together enough material for a full length, or at least something closer to a full album than what was released. It seems likely that the band will be playing songs like “Out Of My Limit” or “Gotta Get Out” when they open for One Direction, and American audiences will have no legal way to own the songs in question given that they’ve never been released.
Although it’s plausible that this boils down to issues with their U.S. record label, either with rights to the existing songs or with a desire to take the band’s music in a more calculated direction, it has the effect of transforming their back catalog into something that needs to be discovered. And rather than going to iTunes or Spotify to discover through the music itself, barricading the older material on YouTube means that potential fans must consume the music through a YouTube channel as focused on the band personally as on the music. Although there are traditional music videos like this one for “Try Hard,” it’s nonetheless focused around personality such that it that lets fans get to know each member’s personality and connect with their favorite accordingly.
It also means that new fans will be exposed to their journey from Hemmings recording acoustic covers on his webcam up until the band’s rise to fame. It functions as a documentary archive, allowing audiences—if they so choose—to reconstruct a story not dissimilar to the one shown in One Direction’s feature documentary, This Is Us. Whereas One Direction’s beginnings were part of a corporate structure in the form of The X Factor, 5 Seconds of Summer has the benefit of a story with humble beginnings, one that lives online as evidence that this band was quite literally plucked from obscurity—and high school—to what seems likely to amount to international success.
The challenge becomes how this relationship is cultivated from this point forward, now that the band is launching the definitively professional stage of its global career. In a series of videos on the two-year anniversary of the band’s formation in December 2011, the YouTube channel calls attention to this history directly, with each band member being reflected on by his colleagues.
Meanwhile, the band’s most recent posting to its official, non-Vevo account is a Google Hangout, the logical evolution of its early forms of direct address, in which they can personally connect with their fans while fraternizing accordingly. These remain teenagers, after all, and there’s a looseness to this collection of highlights that says as much: as much as the costumes and the casual drop-in from One Direction’s Niall Horan are planned, the sense of chaos is crucial to the band retaining the sense that they’re not simply part of the machine.
The YouTube channel itself does this work for them. While Hemmings can call back to his origins on Twitter, he’s not just calling back to a personal memory: he’s calling back to something few fans experienced when it happened, but something that hundreds of thousands have experienced since. Hemmings’ first video has been viewed over 500,000 times, evidence that new fans are traveling back to see the beginning. Over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve been able to reconstruct and relive the band’s history, a rabbit hole that I call research but that for fans of the band becomes a space of discovery. By making this material something fans must seek out and experience for themselves, in a space where young audiences are more and more likely to consume music, the band’s management has commodified their history in ways that will help shape their “breakout” in the months ahead. It ensures that even if fans experience the band live, they still have something to “discover,” in much the same way that their initial fans would have discovered their videos on the same YouTube channel.
It also, returning for a moment to the questions raised at the beginning of this post, definitively frames them as a boy band. In fact, it works to argue that the definition of boy band is shifting away from the music itself to the way the band’s image is constructed, in this case considering the platforms and strategies within those platforms used to represent the band. While the fact the band writes much of their own material and performs their own instruments differentiates them from their tourmates One Direction in meaningful ways (albeit ways that One Direction has worked to challenge on occasion), the way they rose to fame is heavily entrenched in discursive forms associated with contemporary pop stardom. Although someone listening to “She Looks So Perfect” on the radio might wonder if they’re listening to an attempt by a rock band to break into pop radio, anyone who surfs the band’s YouTube channel will easily—and rightfully—place 5 Seconds of Summer as the latest entry into the ranks of the contemporary boy band.