It’s been a banner week for having to explain the mystifying pop-culture trends to those whose are unitiated (and older). On Sunday night Miley Cyrus brought the concept of twerking to the attention of each and every American, whether or not they had any desire to learn what that is. Now that we’ve moved on from that (for the love of Billy Ray, say we’ve moved on), another of pop culture’s greatest mysteries is waiting to be explained.
What, exactly, is One Direction, and why are they so popular?
As Friday’s premiere of the hotly anticipated/didn’t-know-it-existed concert documentary One Direction: This Is Us creeps upon us, we are encountering a world divided. There’s one camp, largely populated by young girls ages 6 to 16, each with bedrooms wallpapered with posters of Harry or Liam, who have collectively made—by forming a valiant fan army outfitted with 140-character weapons and daddy’s credit card—One Direction the biggest band in the world.
In the other camp, there’s everyone else. They’re the people who may have heard “What Makes You Beautiful” once or a twice while grocery shopping, but may have had no idea they were listening to a group called One Direction—or, if they did, that the band is currently experiencing this decade’s equivalent of Beatle Mania.
Ha!, you may say. As famous as the Beatles!? Hogwash. So skeptical you are! It is quite the phenomenon, that Harry, Niall, Zayn, Liam, and Louis could conquer the world with so much of said world not even knowing who they are. Here’s how One Direction pulled off being simultaneously the most and least famous band in the world.
First, meet the moppets themselves. There’s 21-year-old Louis Tomlinson, the oldest 1D member and the most adventurous when it comes to the most crucial aspect of boy-bandom: hair. Zayn Malik is 20 and enjoys brooding. Liam Payne, Niall Horan, and Harry Styles are all 19. Liam recently sparked mass global puberty by unveiling his new muscles. Niall is a blonde little leprechaun, and Harry is the lion-maned, piercing-eyed, tattooed one with the effortless charm that will make him Justin Timberlake to One Direction’s ’N Sync decade from now. (He’s also known as “the one who dated Taylor Swift.”)
Upon Googling pictures of this quintet, you will begin debating with your friends over who is the most attractive band member. It is a mildly creepy exercise, but, at this point, a generally accepted one.
In an age where dozens upon dozens of reality-TV singing competitions exist seemingly just to exist, failing nine times out of 10 to produce even a semblance of a hit recording artist, One Direction’s success is remarkable in that they were discovered on the seventh season of the British version of The X Factor. Actually, not discovered. Created.
Louis, Harry, Liam, Zayne, and Niall each auditioned separately for The X Factor when they were just wee ones in 2010. They were all cut from the competition. But soothsayer Simon Cowell, who created and judges the show, saw the future. And the future looked like this: $$$$$. He decided that the five teens could have potential if thrown together as a group.
One Direction’s experience on the show actually resembles the fame and recognition they have now, which is to say they were both a phenomenon and a flop at the same time. Young girls were instantly obsessed, mobbing the X Factor studio each week and tweeting about the group with a rabid intensity that landed them on the front page of the U.K.’s biggest entertainment rags. But the group actually finished third on the show in the public voting, and a distant third at that.
Still the impressive obsession of their fans—dubbed Directioners—was enough to convince some of the world’s best songwriters to pen music for the group’s debut album. The first fruit of that labor, “What Makes You Beautiful,” became the most preordered song ever released by Sony Music. It went to straight to No. 1 in the U.K. and has sold over 5 million copies worldwide.
More popular singles followed—“One Thing” and “Live While We’re Young” among the best. Then came 2 albums and massive success, to the tune of 30 million records sold in just over 2 years. Success to the tune of a massive worldwide tour of 120 venues with an average (sold-out) capacity of 12,500 fans. Success to the tune of becoming, according to Business Insider, the first boy band to be worth $1 billion.
But it’s the case more now than ever, and certainly more than when boybands like Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync were at their peaks, culture consumption is segmented and selective. It’s easier than ever to choose what we listen to and ensure that we only listen to that. (Thank you, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, Vevo ...) One Direction has been dutifully and directly marketing itself almost solely to the army of fans that built them using direct channels like Twitter. It’s how they’ve been so commercially successful while skirting the attention of such a vast segment of the population.
It’s the same strategy Justin Bieber used to turn himself into a blockbuster music act. The only thing different is that the One Direction boys are well behaved and have refrained from the kind of acting out that raises a tween-centric act like Bieber from tween-only status to national headline maker.
It so happens, too, that in addition to being on their best behavior, these are five very charismatic guys who deserve more than being written off as the singing haircuts whom foolish little fangirls camp out on sidewalks to be first in line to meet at premieres. As One Direction: This Is Us shows, they’re mischievous, hardworking, and all actually quite personable and funny.
With the movie about to premiere, the group occupies a weird fame space where they’ve already exploded—billion-dollar boy band, remember—but are about to explode again, louder. This time, however, it will be loud enough for more than just the tweens who made them to pay attention. In addition to a sure-to-be-hit movie about to hit theaters (it’s predicted to break box-office records), the group has a third album coming out this winter and just announced a 2014 stadium tour.
There may even be twerking.