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.
Earlier this year, Billboard announced that it would be including YouTube streaming in its calculations for its Hot 100 chart. The same week, “Harlem Shake” became the number one song in America based on thirty seconds of it being used in thousands of viral videos.
Billboard chose to implement its new rules that week because it saw an opportunity to draw headlines, furthering their relevance while damaging their legitimacy (see the elder McNutt on that particular subject). They could have implemented them a week earlier, or a week later, but I’d bet money on them waiting for a moment to debut the metric when they could claim a song debuted at #1 because of their new streaming numbers that put Billboard on the pulse of how people are listening to music (Billboard’s Silvio Pietroluongo suggests it just happened to be that week, but I call shenanigans).
The impact of streaming has been less dramatic in the weeks since Harlem Shake’s five-week run atop the Billboard charts: One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” broke a Vevo record for most views in its first 24 hours and debuted at No. 2, but the single failed to gain traction and plummeted out of the Top 10 the following week (to No. 15). “Breaking the Vevo record” has become a new way for fans to support an artist, as Miley Cyrus set a record with “We Can’t Stop” (unseating Justin Bieber, who had unseated One Direction, who had unseated Justin Bieber), which was broken by One Direction, then tested—with some controversy—by Lady Gaga, before being claimed again by Cyrus with “Wrecking Ball.”
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.