At this point in my life, I’m just a little too old to be within a boy band’s target demographic. Mostly, my life isn’t too affected by this; it’s not like I’m constantly seeking out a source of lighthearted pop music, soulfully crooned by a group of messy-haired rapscallions. But were such a group to come along, the sad truth is, young as I still am, the upcoming careers of those fresh-faced harmonizers wouldn’t be launched on the promise of my loyalty. In fact, record labels and PR firms might not even count on me becoming a fan at all. The sad truth is, as a twenty-two-year-old, I am officially too old for boy bands, if marketing and capitalism have anything to say about it.
On the flip side of this: I love One Direction. I love everything about One Direction. I am a massive One Direction fan.
I became a One Direction fan three years ago, a few months after “What Makes You Beautiful” was released. Back then, I was nineteen and finishing up my freshman year of college – maybe at the far end of the boy band demographic, but still represented. Over the last three years, I’ve been there for every new One Direction album, every single, every video. As I grew up and out of the key demographic for boy bands, a funny thing happened: One Direction stopped being a boy band.
For people unfamiliar with One Direction beyond “What Makes You Beautiful” and maybe a few other of their singles they’ve heard on the radio, that might come as a surprise. But they’ve come a long way since “What Makes You Beautiful” and their little blazers and suspenders and striped shirts, and as an adult One Direction fan with an entertainment blog, I’m going to detail just how far they’ve come. They’ve evolved so much in just four years, both musically and as people, and deserve to be seen for the music they’re making currently, rather than the music they used to make.
So, let’s run through their bio really quickly. One Direction was put together on The X-Factor back in 2010. All five boys (Niall Horan, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, and Zayn Malik) auditioned for the show as solo singers but were put together in a group by Simon Cowell. They were instant audience favorites, and ultimately came in third place. Then they signed a recording contract and almost immediately became a worldwide phenomenon.
To start off, let’s go back to 2011. That’s when One Direction’s first album Up All Night came out, featuring “What Makes You Beautiful” and “One Thing”. As you may have expected, this album is pure bubblegum pop. All the songs are about love in some way – wanting a girl you can’t have, wanting a girl you barely know, being wanted by a girl who can’t have you…
The songs are fun, as is the album as a whole. But it’s a very youthful approach to having fun, more along the lines of “let’s stay up all night and hang out with our friends” (which happens to be the exact narrative of their song “Up All Night”). Still relatable, but it’s not hard to see why this album was targeted at people between the ages of 13-18. That’s exactly how most teenagers look to have fun, and what makes up their memorable nights. They sound like seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds trying to connect with other people their age – which is exactly what they were.
Of course, with any band that focuses heavily on the theme of love, the theme of sex is unavoidable. This is a huge thing in tracking how One Direction has evolved, partially because it’s something that comes up on every single album, and partially because there’s such a huge change in how the topic comes up in their songs. On Up All Night, things are pretty tame – sex is hinted by the name of the album (and the song with the same name), but it’s not totally explicit. Even in the song “Up All Night,” it’s maybe there if you’re looking for it (with lyrics like “I wanna stay up all night and do it all with you”), but in the context of the song, it’s really not as obvious as you might expect.
Then there’s “Gotta Be You,” which is totally about taking a girl’s virginity and then not calling her afterwards (“and girl what a mess I made upon your innocence / and no woman in the world deserves this / but here I am, asking you for one more chance”). But the most overtly sexual song is “Another World,” which isn’t even actually on the album – it was a bonus song on international deluxe versions of the album. With lyrics like “I’ll lift you up, I’ll never stop / You know I’ll take you to another world / I’ll build you up, I’ll never stop / You know I’ll take you to another world” and, “Baby let me find out your secret / Let me in, let me show you that I’ll keep it / Close to my heart, jump in the deep end”…Gee, I wonder what it’s about. It’s the one song that’s actually about the physical aspect of sex, whereas the rest of the sexual references on the album are more about the emotions behind it – and really, the idea of intimacy in general, not specifically just sex. With that, it’s easy to hide the references to sex in most of their songs, but “Another World” is the first time where the message of a song is unapologetically and unequivocally, “this song is about a sexual relationship”. It’s the first time they’re this blatant, but certainly not the last. But we’ll get to that.
Up All Night is unique amongst One Direction’s albums because it’s the only one that the band members had absolutely no hand in writing. They signed a record deal after their appearance on The X-Factor, and it seems like this album was more or less handed to them. That, plus the fact that this was intended to be a bubblegum pop record for a burgeoning boy band, means the lyrics aren’t necessarily complex or deep. They’re not necessarily bad, just pretty surface level in terms of the emotions and meaning of each song. The most compelling song lyrically is probably “Moments,” which was written by Ed Sheeran, not their usual team of songwriters. “Moments” was also one of three songs from Up All Night that was still being performed during their third tour; considering that the other two were “What Makes You Beautiful” and “One Thing,” it’s probably a sign that “Moments” has a special place in the band’s heart.
It’s really important to note that the family-friendly, young-skewing appeal of One Direction’s music didn’t apply to the boys themselves. Sure, they played along with their various boy band identities, but from the very beginning, all five members made it clear that they were normal boys. That included making some immature jokes, drinking, getting tattoos…and onstage, they made no efforts to put on a clean, kid-friendly show. They were fond of making lyric changes during performances, which sometimes meant a phrase here and there would be switched out with some little dumb joke. And sometimes it meant Harry sang “you can be preoccupied, different dick every night,” or that Louis sang, “I need you here with me now cause you’ve got a big dick”.
Best songs: One Thing, Tell Me a Lie, More Than This, Save You Tonight, Moments
Of course, while they made sex jokes night after night and started covering themselves in tattoos, only fans started to see the changes in One Direction. To outsiders, they were still nothing more than kids singing about girls. Their second album Take Me Home, released in 2012, didn’t do much to change that public image. And even for fans who have followed their career, it’s not an astronomically huge departure from Up All Night. Their songs are still about having fun, still about love, but there’s a slight growth in maturity. The first track on the album is “Live While We’re Young,” which has a rather YOLO-esque quality to it. The lyrics, coupled with the video (featuring the boys and a bunch of people hanging out on a camping trip), makes the song seem a bit more oriented towards college-age people, rather than preteens or high schoolers (of course, given that I was in college at the time, I might be viewing it a little subjectively). This is still a pop album, but has a rock edge to it; these songs are fun, but not meaningless.
This album still has that focus on love, but with a slightly different approach. You still have songs about loving a girl from afar and loving people you can’t have, but there are also songs like “Little Things,” which is about loving somebody means knowing about and appreciating everything about them, because those insecurities and bad sides are part of what makes that person who they are. Or there’s “C’mon C’mon,” which is all about a developing attraction to a girl the speaker met in a club – a standard song for a boy band, sure, but it’s a far step from “What Makes You Beautiful”. The guy telling a girl that she lights up his world like nobody else isn’t the same person who’s going to be telling some attractive stranger to “move a little closer now”.
Take Me Home also has a fair number of ballads on it. They’re still in the minority compared to the upbeat songs, but they’re notable. For one thing, the ballads bring more focus to the music itself. Not the words, not the beats, but the music – chiefly, the boys’ voices. While their recorded music doesn’t recreate the experience of a live performance (where they harmonize on almost everything, so sections that are only sung by one member on the album are always deepened and much more complicated live), the emphasis on slower music mixed in with the more pop-y numbers on Take Me Home makes it clear that the focus for this album was very different than Up All Night. All the songs aren’t meant to sound the same; they’re meant to portray different emotions and tell multiple stories. Sure, Up All Night did have some songs about heartbreak, or not being able to be with the person you love, but it’s more notable on Take Me Home. That’s probably because it’s not as if the slow songs are the sad ones – you have songs like “I Would” and “Back for You,” which are as pop as you can possibly get, and they’re both about unrequited love in some form.
And then, of course, there’s the way the theme of sex is brought up on the album. It’s mentioned here and there – eagerly chanting “tonight let’s get some” in “Live While We’re Young”; all of “C’mon C’mon” which is clearly intended in end in a one night stand; “they don’t know what we do best / it’s between me and you, our little secret” in “They Don’t Know About Us”. Much more overt than anything on Up All Night, though still not a huge focus.
Except, of course, for “Rock Me”. “Rock Me” is so beautifully and unapologetically about sex, to the point where, yes, the boys have replaced the word “rock” with another four-letter word during live performances. The chorus basically consists of the line “I want you to rock me” over and over, and during the bridge, we get, “R-O-C-K me again, yeah”. It’s almost subtle, except for the part where nothing about it is subtle at all…and the best part is, they get so much more obvious as time goes on.
But the best thing about Take Me Home is that the members of One Direction were finally involved with the writing process. Not to a massive extent: out of twenty songs (including bonus tracks), the boys are credited on five. I don’t know enough about their songwriting process to really speculate as to what input the boys had, or how influential they were in shaping this album and their evolving sound, but it was still a step in the right direction (no pun intended). It’s easy to feel, as a fan and a consumer, that their music was starting to be shaped by what the boys themselves wanted, as well as working toward recreating the successful parts of their first album. Everyone had such a strong idea of who One Direction was with Up All Night; with Take Me Home, they were able to build on those expectations, or throw them away entirely. Still, one thing was made abundantly clear: if you couldn’t tell from Up All Night, Take Me Home took away any arguments that these boys aren’t talented. They know what they’re doing, they know what they want to sound like, and they sound good.
In terms of the boys’ public image, this is really the time that One Direction became One Direction, at least as we know them now. Concerts became a little more edgy, with more sexual references and the occasional moaning and grinding on mic stands from Mr. Harry Styles. And where the Up All Night era featured a strict individual dress code for each member, things began to open up; Harry started wearing headscarves, boots, and loose shirts, which have remained staples of his wardrobe, much to the attention of fans and various BuzzFeed-type websites. Changes like that were visible in every member, and have continued over the years. Of course, just because they look more casual and natural doesn’t mean this image still isn’t being constructed, but it’s less transparent than being told five young adults never wear anything other than suspenders, blazers, letterman jackets, and vests.
Best songs: Rock Me, Kiss You, C’mon C’mon, Nobody Compares
While on their Take Me Home tour, the band worked on their next album, 2013’s Midnight Memories. This is where things get good. While Take Me Home really introduced a rock edge to their music, Midnight Memories was a total blend of rock and pop. There are songs that you can just tell are meant to be chanted by a screaming sea of fans in a huge stadium, the same way you could tell the words “that’s what makes you beautiful” were going to be written on the arm of every middle schooler. Midnight Memories is sort of eclectic, stylistically: you have a few meaningful, emotional love songs, plus some upbeat folk-sounding songs that would fit in next to some of Mumford and Sons’ banjo-heavy songs, plus those huge rock stadium numbers with repetitive vocal and guitar hooks. Every now and then, One Direction would sort of stumble close to this sound on their previous two albums; you could see them slowly sort of moving this way, and on Midnight Memories, they finally figured out how they want to sound.
It’s a little harder to pinpoint the exact age group targeted by Midnight Memories. There’s so much going on in it that it’s impossible to say one particular group would have the biggest respond to it; in terms of the age of intended listeners, I would say it’s probably best suited for people 18-25. One Direction is still singing about love, but in a radically different fashion than on Up All Night, and even from Take Me Home. There’s something more revelatory about the love One Direction is singing about here; the love in “Strong” boosts the speaker up and makes him feel complete, and in “You and I,” it’s the love of two people who have nothing but each other, who will never let go. The stereotypical pop sound is all but gone, save “Best Song Ever”. Otherwise, this album establishes One Direction’s new sound. They’re growing up, they have more to say, and their music is going to reflect that.
There’s a lot going on thematically on Midnight Memories, but the most striking is how love is used. It’s no longer “I love you but you love someone else,” or “I love you so much. Let me tell the world how much I love you.” Now it’s, “I love you because you make me stronger,” and, “Nothing in the world can stop us from loving each other.” But it’s not in that naïve high school way, where all love is true and pure and lasts forever. They’re old and seasoned enough to know when something is genuinely meaningful. Lyrics like “you and I / we don’t want to be like them / we can make it ‘til the end / nothing can come between you and I” or “people always try to escape it / move on to stop their heart breaking / but there’s nothing I’m running from / you make me strong” aren’t speaking about young, blindly optimistic love. These songs are finally representative of what people in their early twenties feel: they’re capable of making deep connections and decisions about how they want the rest of their lives to go.
There’s also a lot on this album about something standing in the way of love. Whether it’s a twist of fate in “Happily,” being physically separated in “Right Now” and “Something Great,” or whatever nameless forces are opposing them in “You and I” and “Strong,” there’s a lot about something, somehow, trying to ruin the deep love conveyed in these songs. Now, I have no idea what inspired these songs, or even if they’re at all based on reality in any way. But regardless, these songs have real stakes to them. They’re not like the relationships seen in “I Would” or “Tell Me a Lie,” where the speaker wants a girl who wants someone else, oh no, how sad. The songs on Midnight Memories are speaking to something much greater and more meaningful than that. Who could listen to “Strong” and not be moved? You can’t help but buy into the emotion of the song because the song matters. It actually has something to say.
Speaking of having something to say, let’s talk about sex (baby). It’s still not hugely overt, but it definitely comes up. The topic of sex is handled pretty casually on Midnight Memories – it pops up here and there, with some not-so-subtle references. “I said can I take you home with me” in “Best Song Ever,” “I wanna see the way you move for me” in “Little Black Dress”. Where sex was only addressed on Up All Night and Take Me Home where relevant (in the context of a relationship, or expressing intimacy), there’s no real pattern to how it appears on Midnight Memories. Really, it mimics reality: some situations could lead to casual sex, some couldn’t. “Best Song Ever” and “Little Black Dress” might be the most overt, and they’re both about randomly meeting a girl one night and how attractive they are. One night stands are a natural progression in that scenario.
When compared to Midnight Memories, it seems like Up All Night and Take Me Home use sex to prove a point – that point being, look, we have meaningful relationships, we have sex, we’re mature. Look at “They Don’t Know About Us,” which is all about how deep and essential this relationship is, but only the people in the relationship know about it. It has the line, “they don’t know what we do best / it’s between me and you, our little secret”. It uses the idea of sex to illustrate its point: see, no one really knows anything because they don’t know we’re having sex and that’s the strongest thing about us.
But then look at “Something Great,” which is sort of similar. It’s a little unclear if the song is about two people who are actually together and just have been separated, or if it’s about two people who want to be together and can’t for some reason – either one is a valid reading, I think. It has the line “you say we’re better off together in our bed,” which at face value seems to mimic the line in “They Don’t Know About Us”. Our relationship is strong because we share a bed. But it’s not really being used in a sexual context here; sure, they share a bed, but the line isn’t that all their problems would just be fixed if they could spend all their time together and copulate like bunnies. This line is about comfort. It’s about creating a space for the two of you where no one else can go, and where no one else matters. The depth of this relationship isn’t measured by their physical attraction for each other; it’s measured by how much they mean to each other.
Midnight Memories is hugely notable because of how involved the boys were with writing each song. While they were only involved with a few songs on Take Me Home, they were all over Midnight Memories. They worked in different combinations, and still with a couple teams of songwriters, so while they never worked individually, you can still see they had a huge influence in creating this album. Out of eighteen songs, only three weren’t co-written by at least one member of One Direction. Louis is credited on twelve, and Liam on nine. It’s easy to see why this album feels so cohesive and calculated when the band was so involved, and that involvement only increases with their next album, Four.
Best Songs: Happily, Through the Dark, Strong, Why Don’t We Go There
We’ve finally reached the highlight of my existence: Four. This is just all-around such a great album, and its greatness really stands out when you compare it to all of One Direction’s previous work. Remember how I said they finally found their sound on Midnight Memories? On Four, they took that sound and expanded it. I could absolutely see them making more albums in this vein and coming off as totally mature, and getting tons of respect within the industry. There’s still some pop, but it’s much more subtle. Up All Night is a pop album sort of by default; what else are these five boys going to sing? But it’s very much by design on Four. The few songs on the album that can only be labeled as pop songs (“Steal My Girl,” “Girl Almighty,” “No Control,” and “Change Your Ticket”) aren’t pop just because people expect them to make pop songs. They’re pop because they’re designed to be fun and light. But then look at “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” or “Act My Age” – they’re still fun, but clearly have a totally different desired effect and context. There’s more rock on “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” solidified by the fact that One Direction once performed it with Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones, making it a very different type of song than, say, “Steal My Girl” (for the record, “Act My Age” defies traditional genres. The best I can do is call it an Irish drinking song for pirates).
Thematically, it’s a little harder to pin this album down. There are definite commonalities, but it seems like each song is doing its own thing, in a way that hasn’t really happened on their previous albums. For example, where “Tell Me a Lie,” “More Than This,” “I Would,” and “Loved You First” are all essentially about the same thing, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” is expressing something different than “Fool’s Gold,” which is expressing something different than “Stockholm Syndrome”. Still, it feels remarkably cohesive. But if I had to pin down one main theme of the album, I think I’d go with the idea of wanting something. Maybe that’s just going with the lowest common denominator, but you can definitely see some version of want in every song: wanting to be free, wanting forgiveness, wanting respect, wanting to have a secret sex-filled weekend in some hotel room. Maybe that’s meaningful; maybe it’s a sign of their maturity, that they’ve realized that no matter what you have, you’re always going to be wanting for something more. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence. Either way, it creates a subtle effect of inadequacy. To some degree, every song is about not being complete, because how can you be complete when you want something this badly? So while, say, “Fool’s Gold,” which is about being betrayed by someone who didn’t care about you as much as you cared about them, and “18,” which is about being in love with someone for years, are two very different songs, they still fit together because they both express the need for a change. There aren’t really any songs where everything’s going totally right – “Girl Almighty” and “No Control” are the only ones, and maybe “Illusion” and “Act My Age”. There are very real and very tangible vulnerabilities being expressed in almost every song, making the album more emotionally fraught and open than anything One Direction has done before.
Speaking of openness, let’s talk about how sex is brought up on Four. And by that I mean let’s talk about “No Control” because “No Control” is sex. Remember when I talked about “Rock Me” and I said their most blatant sexual song was yet to come? Yeah, here it is, kids. “No Control” is entirely dedicated to morning sex and boners, okay. It literally includes the line “waking up beside you I’m a loaded gun” in the chorus. I have nothing constructive, analytical, or critical to say about this song. It’s just a really great song and everyone should listen to it as soon as possible.
The other blatant song is “Change Your Ticket,” which is what I was describing when I mentioned a song about a secret sex-filled weekend in some hotel room. Literally, the first line of the song is “watching you get dressed messes with my head”. There’s also “Stockholm Syndrome,” which was co-written by Harry and he once claimed is about a nymphomaniac. Whether or not that’s true, you can definitely see sexual themes in it, though maybe not as explicitly as “No Control” or “Change Your Ticket”. The approach to these themes, already matured in Midnight Memories, changes again here; now it’s less about casual sex and living a life where sex occasionally happens, and now moreso about having a healthy and regular sex life, particularly with one other specific person. “No Control” isn’t about morning sex the day after a one night stand, and “Change Your Ticket” isn’t about one night turning into a long weekend. These songs are specific; they’re about two people in a relationship, though, to be fair, the nature of that relationship isn’t revealed. There still could be some casualness to them. But that doesn’t negate the intimacy and exclusivity present in these songs, and those are the takeaway here.
It’s also worth looking at the titles of each album in connection to how they present themselves. The titles Up All Night and Midnight Memories both come from the name of a song on the album, while Take Me Home comes from a line in “Kiss You”. They’re also all pretty suggestive. But Four doesn’t come with any connotations. It’s not playing on fans’ attraction to the boys, or a manipulation of their clean-cut image by associating them with some kind of sexual imagery. It’s simple and clean. It’s their fourth album. That’s it. Even the pictures used on the cover of the album are different; while Up All Night and Take Me Home were fun, kind of silly pictures of the boys, Midnight Memories was simpler. But it’s still chaotic compared to the pictures used on Four. It’s just the members of One Direction, no distractions, nothing between them and the music.
The members of One Direction were once again hugely involved in songwriting on Four. This time, only four songs (out of sixteen) don’t have any of the members credited, two of which are bonus songs and unavailable on the physical copy of the CD. So really, only two songs on Four proper. This time Liam is credited on the most songs, with ten, and Louis on nine. This album also stands out because it’s the first time that all of the released singles were written by the band members. Previously, only “Story of My Life” was the only single co-written by the five of them; “Steal My Girl” and “Night Changes” were the only singles released from this album, and while only Louis and Liam wrote the former, all five are credited on the latter. It’s impossible for me to say whether or not what songs are chosen to be a single are at all affected by who wrote the song (though it seems likely that teams were tasked with creating what they knew would be singles to keep perpetuating a certain image for the band), but it seems huge that this time around, everything the public heard was filtered through the boys themselves for the first time.
Best songs: No Control, Girl Almighty, Night Changes, Fireproof
If you were paying attention, you’ll see that each album came out exactly one year after the previous album. One Direction’s pretty much been working nonstop since they were on The X-Factor, and every year, they’ve released an album, then gone on tour, then repeated the cycle. Each album (save Up All Night) has been written and recorded while on tour, which means that whatever new sound and approach they’ve developed has come almost immediately after moving on from their previous record. That makes their evolution seem incredibly purposeful, like it’s not just an effect of them getting older and getting more of a voice (though I do think those are huge factors). Everything they do allows them to find what they want to do, and every year, they hone in closer and closer to the band they truly want to be, that hopefully they can be for the foreseeable future.
If you look at Up All Night and compare it to Four, it seems insane that the same band is behind them both. They’re not the sweet young little boy band they were four years ago; they’ve grown up, and for the most part, their fans have grown up with them. And the fans who were already grown? Well, they’ve been waiting a long time to get to this point.
One Direction’s in sort of a delicate situation right now, because in March, Zayn Malik left the band, leaving them a four-piece. There’s more pressure on their upcoming fifth album now, because now they have to continue the momentum they had with their first four albums, while also proving that they can work even down one member. But I’m really not worried about where things are going to lead; they’re proven every single year that they’re capable of creating something even greater than the last album they put out, which in turn shows that the boys themselves actively want to keep improving. And besides. They wrote an entire song about morning wood. They’re going to be just fine.