My colleagues thought this would be funny. "Romano, I've got an idea for you," one of them said on a conference call. "You should review Midnight Memories, the new One Direction album." I could barely understand him because he was laughing so hard.
My colleague was laughing, I suppose, because I do not seem like the sort of person who would like One Direction. In fact, I'm pretty sure I seem like the sort of person who would hate One Direction. I'm 31 years old. I'm male. I once lived down the street from an artisanal mayonnaise shop in Brooklyn. My last music story was an admiring profile of Jake Bugg, the young, rootsy British singer-songwriter who recently said that One Direction "must know they're terrible" because they "sing meaningless tunes." I don't know what a Harry Styles is. And I don't think I've ever heard a single One Direction song in the wild.
If all of that doesn't qualify me to review One Direction's latest LP, I don't know what does. So here we are.
I took the assignment for two reasons. The first is that when people talk about One Direction, they tend to talk about everything but the music. Their Simon Cowell-X Factor genesis story. Their hormonal teen-girl fanbase. Their 16.5 million Twitter followers. Their stratospheric record sales (19 million singles and 10 million albums in about two years). And, of course, the tabloid exploits of resident ladies' man Styles, who is one of the 14,000 celebrities to have dated Taylor Swift (so far). I figured that a blind musical taste test—a review by someone who might as well be an alien from another galaxy as far as One Direction is concerned—could yield some interesting results.
The second reason I took the assignment is that I'm not actually as offended by "manufactured pop music" as I'm supposed to be. In fact, I think that people who behave as if they're morally repulsed by it—such as the commenter on a recent One Direction piece in the Guardian who wrote "Do we really need reviews here of this tripe?," or the one who described the band's music as "a right bag of wank"—are either hypocritical or myopic.
Myopic because these also tend to be the sort of listeners who subscribe to the auteurist theory of popular music, in which an artist who writes his own songs and plays his own instruments is automatically better than an artist who sings someone else's songs and employs backing musicians—never mind the fact that this sort of collaboration was the norm until the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along and has recently become the norm again. By such standards, Frank Sinatra was "inauthentic." So is Beyoncé. That's a pretty shortsighted approach to music, historically speaking.
Chances are it's hypocritical as well. In my experience, listeners who mock contemporary acts such as One Direction are often very fond of older groups cut from the same cloth. For example, I adore the girl groups of the early 1960s: The Cookies, The Ronettes, The Shangri La's, and so on. I also love Motown. But there's no real structural difference between One Direction and, say, The Shirelles. Like One Direction, The Shirelles were groomed by an industry Svengali. They performed songs written by professionals. They let producers and session musicians assemble their records for them. They wore matching outfits and sported similar haircuts. Sure, boy-band songs all sort of sound the same: adrenalized tempos, computerized harmonies, exuberant choruses. But most girl-group songs sounded the same, too. They're just a few decades older at this point. Patinaed. Age makes everything seem a little more "authentic."
None of which means, of course, that One Direction's music is any good—just that there's no honest reason to think that it couldn't be. Which is what I wanted to find out by reviewing Midnight Memories. How are these songs? These performances? These recordings? Is One Direction today's version of The Shirelles, or The Monkees, or Boyz II Men? Or do they fall short of the best of their manufactured-pop predecessors?
On Saturday morning, I received an advance download of Midnight Memories. I had to drive from Los Angeles to Rancho Mirage that afternoon—a four-hour roundtrip. I listened to the LP all the way out to the desert and all the way back.
It's not a great album. Then again—in the finest pop tradition—it's not really supposed to be. Instead, Midnight Memories is more like a bunch of aspiring singles jumbled together, jostling for attention.
Some don't deserve much. The title track, a Def Leppardish stomper that's received a lot of pre-release publicity for supposedly showcasing 1D's new, rockier direction, is abysmal. An unconvincing riff-rock verse gives way to an ascending double-time bridge; the whole thing climaxes in a faux-"Pour Some Sugar on Me" chorus. It all sounds so cold and calculated—like a song assembled from spare parts left behind by Joe Elliot, Nikki Sixx, and Steven Tyler for an off-off-Broadway musical about The Age of Hair Metal—that it's impossible to get through, even though it's less than three minutes long.
"Happily," "Something Great," "Better Than Words," and "Through the Dark," are less irritating but no better, really. They're either bland, unmemorable pop (the first three) or bland, unsuccessful rip-offs of Mumford & Sons (the last one). It's been a day since my Midnight Memories road trip and I could barely remember enough about them to write the previous sentence.
That's the bad news. The good news is that One Direction are appealing singers and seamless harmonizers, and that the rest of the songs here—nine in all, the vast majority—are strong enough to be singles. A few, in fact, are pretty terrific.
One Direction's sudden Mumford fixation doesn't always disappoint. The current single "Story of My Life," for instance, strikes me as one of the best songs of the year—a gentle acoustic loper that starts out sounding a lot like Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" before bursting into a big, simple, beautiful hook that gets stuck in your head the first time you hear it and refuses to leave for the next 48 hours (at least). "Diana" is just as addictive: marry a stuttering "Don't Stand So Close to Me" verse to a charging "Boys of Summer" chorus and you're bound to wind up with a very effective hunk of power pop. "You and I," meanwhile, is a lovely, asymmetrical little ballad that never indulges in the kind of soggy bombast that sinks so many boy-band love songs—perhaps because it was patterned on Peter Gabriel's immortal "In Your Eyes." (One Direction's core songwriting team—Jamie Scott, John Ryan, and Julian Bunetta—clearly subscribe to the "good artists copy; great artists steal" school of thought; the beginning of first single "Best Song Ever" is such a cheeky rip-off of The Who's "Baba O'Riley" that it's kind of endearing.)
Best of all, perhaps, is "Little Black Dress." Over a hot, slashing guitar riff that recalls Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen—or even Jimmy Page on one of his poppier days—the formerly PG-rated One Direction lads leer at a young lady who has "just walked into the room, makin' heads turn." "Did you come here alone?" they ask. "It's too late to go home," they explain. "I won't do you no harm," they promise. And then they sing "I wanna see the way you move for me, baby" a dozen times. "Little Black Dress" doesn't explode into massive chorus; it's not really danceable. Instead, it just grooves along, almost messily, sounding like what it's about: sex. You get the sense that this is the kind of music the boys of One Direction actually enjoy listening to—and making.
So am I going to listen to Midnight Memories every day? Probably not. For now I'm too busy spinning my Shirelles records, and I suspect I always will be. But when one of these songs comes on the radio, I'll happily turn up the volume and sing along.
Human beings—especially music fans over the age of, say, 25—usually assume that the present is worse than the past. That the culture has lost its way. That today's pop stars are uniquely plastic, uniquely talentless, uniquely reprehensible. That the nadir is now.
But pop music never really changes all that much. It's catchy and romantic and adolescent. Sometimes it's disposable. Sometimes it sticks with you. At its best, a pop song can give you three minutes of pure pleasure without asking all that much in return. Walling yourself off from the possibility of experiencing that kind of escape again and again, in real time, seems like a pretty boring way to live.