The first time I listened to One Direction, it was when Up All Night shot to #1 in the U.S. in its first day of sales. I’d seen the boys on my Tumblr dash for a while, but never paid particular attention to them. I listened because I was curious, because I didn’t understand how a boy band from the UK could earn such intense popularity so quickly. I liked the music (I’ve always had a soft spot for boy bands) and I thought the boys were cute — but it wasn’t until the summer after that release that I really got into One Direction.
The first time I listened to One Direction was almost two years ago. The band has since become one of my favorites, a go-to source of happiness whenever anything is wrong in my life. The band’s second record, Take Me Home, got me through my first break-up and a major breakdown about my future. It brought me closer to people and pushed me away from others. It helped me come to terms with the toxicity of some of my relationships and helped get rid of the welling sense of failure and depression in my chest when everything went nuclear. As silly as it may sound, listening to Take Me Home (and, to a lesser extent, Up All Night) for the last year has had a significant impact on my growth as a person. Getting into One Direction has given me a significant amount of joy (as well as a significant amount of sexual frustration — I have eyes as well as ears, my friends) and honestly? I am so, so, so happy that I opted to listen to them on that spring break night, when I was alone in my bedroom surfing Tumblr.
As I’ve gotten increasingly invested in One Direction, the band has changed its aesthetic significantly. No longer are the boys innocent-looking teenagers singing about sex. Now they’re semi-grown men, covered in tattoos (and still singing about sex). The new album, Midnight Memories, marks this change in a significant way. I’ve made tons of jokes on my private Twitter account about the obvious 80s and 90s alt-rock influences on the album — “The Journey is strong in this one” — but this album is a noticeably different sound from One Direction’s previous two albums.
I figure there are multiple reasons for that. For one thing, the boys had a much heavier hand in writing this record. And for another, the boys have been progressively moving toward a much more pop punk aesthetic for many, many months. Tattoos aside, the hair has gotten greasier, the stage performances racier, and the overall demeanor much more adult. My friends and I have made several comments about “1D looking like they just crawled off Warped Tour” but — but that’s the thing. I don’t know if it started when they started covering “Teenage Dirtbag” at live shows or at some other time, but rock influences (particularly pop punk) have quietly edged into the way that One Direction present themselves to the world, and that’s doing a lot of things to my emotions.
One Direction is slowly but surely asserting its claim over the creative control of its look and sound, and that’s really fucking cool. This album sounds and feels like it was created not for the fanbase, but for the boys themselves. Midnight Memories contains tracks that are incredibly folky (“Story of My Life” recalls the first Mumford & Sons album and “Happily” became my most-played track on the album after like an hour), tracks that are incredibly rocky (“Alive” sounds like a Bon Jovi single and “Midnight Memories” is going to be a karaoke hit, I can feel it), songs that are just really, really fun pop (“Best Song Ever”), and even a song that samples Rick Springfield (“Does He Know?”).
Another significant difference about this record is that it showcases all five members of the band. Sylvia Lesas points out in her review for Evigshed Mag,
“Midnight Memories firmly establishes One direction as a male vocal harmony group and a musical force in the future on the alternative/indie rock scene. Their voices are not interchangeable. Each of members has his own rich, and colorfully nuanced vocal tone. They are equally talented and took risks on Midnight Memories. They showcased their real talent. The turning point wasn’t missed.”
For a more visual representation, see this Tumblr-style PowerPoint on the album. Midnight Memories isn’t dominated by Liam Payne opening every first verse, nor by Zayn Malik and Harry Styles splitting the rest of the big solos between them. Louis Tomlinson and Niall Horan have an equal share in the spotlight this time around. And did I mention that all of the boys co-wrote the album? One particularly emotional track is “Don’t Forget Where You Belong” — a clear love letter to the band — co-written by Horan and McFly. And I mean. Styles co-wrote with Gary Lightbody (of Snow Patrol). Gary Lightbody. This album has some awesome shit going on and the effort put into it is really apparent. It’s cohesive and original and inviting and though there are songs I don’t love, there are always songs I don’t love.
This album is most definitely a turning point, and it will be very interesting to see what the future yields for these five boys. I remember crying at several points during 1D: This Is Us just because of how far One Direction has come, and I worry sometimes that the nonstop touring and recording and publicity are too much. But it’s obvious from listening to Midnight Memories that these boys still very much love what they do, and I hope that as they continue to explore and claim their creative control, that love only increases.
But there’s one thing that a lot of people seem to be forgetting as they review and discuss this record. (Lesas is one of them.) One Direction is still very much a pop group. Alternative and pop punk and indie and folk influences aside, this band is still making pop music. And that’s okay. I don’t understand why it feels necessary to peg Midnight Memories as indie or alternative, because 1) it isn’t and 2) pop music is relevant and important and introspective. Something shouldn’t have to be labeled “indie” to be more respected. It’s angering that even as we celebrate how far One Direction has come musically, we can’t do that and still acknowledge that the band is making pop music. If anything, this record should open up the discussion about pop music. Dissociating One Direction from pop doesn’t make sense. Not even a little bit.
Call Midnight Memories what you will, but from where I’m standing, it’s an expansive pop record that showcases the voices and writing of five incredibly talented young men. My only hope, to be honest, is that we stop writing One Direction off for its outrageous popularity and for the fact that its songs are loved and lauded by teenage girls all over the world. Just because a teenage girl loves something, that doesn’t make it unimportant or trivial or terrible. Writing off popular music is a huge mistake, in my opinion, because it cuts you off from an entire genre of absolute gems. Pop music doesn’t have to come from a hit machine. And writing it off as crap from the get-go isn’t doing anyone any favors. So let’s knock it off and jam to Midnight Memories together, alright?