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Given that this is the band’s last North American appearance before they take an "indefinite hiatus," the number does seem a little bit stingy. But at a show like Jingle Ball the night is so tightly packed with radio-friendly pop that Selena Gomez and Ellie Goulding are allotted four songs apiece. In comparison, 23 minutes seems an impossibly long stretch, a vote of confidence and a display of deference, a track laid out for a leisurely victory lap.
So it’s hard not to hear the deadline as being as much for the boys on stage as it is for the fans who’ve come to hear them play. One Direction has spent most of the last year ticking their way down to this hiatus, their first extended break from a grueling schedule of near-constant recording and touring since they were put together on the British television show The X-Factor in 2010, when Harry, the youngest, was just 16. It’s been years, and then months and days, and finally we’ve come down to the last few minutes remaining. For just about half an hour, they’re still the most famous boyband in the world, and a sold-out Staples Center is still screaming their names. After that, it’s less clear what comes next.
All boybands have a shelf life, and the five-year mark appears to be the outer limit of it. *NSYNC managed three albums between 1998 and their own "indefinite" (now permanent) hiatus in 2002; the Backstreet Boys and the Jonas Brothers delivered four apiece during their heydays, lasting from 2000 to 2005 and 2006 to 2009, respectively.
All boybands have a shelf life, and the five-year mark appears to be the outer limit of it.
Someone must have studied this history when they drew up One Direction’s contract with Sony: the band needed five albums to fulfill it, and they’ve just managed to deliver, recording on the road, taking two or three weeks between touring for one album and starting promotion for the next. The constant, grinding pace of their output is at odds with the insistently friendly, regular-guy vibes the boys perform in public; looking at their schedule, you can’t help but be reminded that behind their big grins, easy banter, and on-stage antics is a very profitable machine which has been working frantically against a set deadline since the minute the ink started to dry on their contracts.
This is not to say that the band is doing badly, exactly. They haven’t put out a commercial disappointment yet. Their latest, Made in the AM, debuted at number two in America, just under Justin Bieber’s Purpose, which was released the same day. (And in their native UK, 1D did manage to best Bieber for the number one spot.) Its first single, "Drag Me Down," sold more copies in a week than any of their previous tracks. In terms of sheer dollars, One Direction might have a few years left in them yet.
On stage, the band passes the time with practiced ease. They do two big singles from old albums, and three from the new one. Harry and bandmate Liam Payne sing the last chorus of "Perfect" to one another. Niall Horan mimes the chording on the guitar he’s usually strumming when they play. They close on a song called "History," an album track from Made in the AM: we could be the greatest thing that the world has ever seen. Louis Tomlinson yelps his way through the bridge, pleading with us that this is not the end, this is not the end, we can live for-e-ver.
But by now every one of those minutes is up. The song finishes. The boys hug, they bow, and then, all of a sudden, just like that: they’re done.
The next act, a 17-year-old named Shawn Mendes, is already starting to take the stage.
The thing is that boybands have a shelf life for two reasons. Sometimes the fans outgrow the band. That happens, certainly; girls get older and want different things from their music and their idols, and the generation coming up doesn’t want the last one’s cast-offs.
But just as often what happens is that the boys in the band outgrow their boyishness. It’s not that they get old, exactly. It’s that they stop being dreamy, which is to say, available to slot into whatever their fans’ dreams happen to be. They turn out to be prickly, difficult, specific people, men who’ve spent their formative years being loved widely, wildly, but not known intimately.
They stop being dreamy, which is to say, available to slot into their fans’ dreams.
Sometimes, in the case of extraordinary talent and savvy, you get a Justin Timberlake. Nick Lachey has made himself a post-98 Degrees career on reality television. Mostly, though, there are failed solo projects and increasingly depressing bids for relevance as teen idols struggle to figure out how to transition into the adult market—and how to accept that, even if they enjoy some success there, they’ll probably never again be as famous as they were in their youth.
Growing pains started plaguing One Direction long before their hiatus became official: their fifth member, Zayn Malik, missed a bunch of early promotional appearances for their last album, Four, and then quit the band abruptly — mid-tour — in the spring of 2015. He’s spent the months since aggressively creating a new image for himself, posting moody, mostly shirtless black and white selfies to Instagram, getting high with reporters, and leaving his pop-star fiancée to go on well-papped "dates" with a Hadid sister. When he signed a solo contract with RCA, he tweeted about how thrilled he was to be making #realmusic at last, and earned the ire of everyone still devoted to the (very real) anthemic pop of classic One Direction.
Zayn’s departure would have been bad enough, but it turned out to only be the beginning: a few months later, People posted a story claiming that Louis, 23 and fresh off a breakup with his longtime girlfriend, Eleanor Calder, was going to have a baby with his "close friend" Briana Jungwirth.
By the time the band confirmed that they were planning on taking a break starting in early 2016, it was clear that they weren’t going to last much longer at the rate they were going. They were exhausted; they were falling apart. I love One Direction — I do — and yet, still, honestly, knowing that it was about to be over felt a lot like relief.
But that relief is odd, because this year’s scandals were by no means the band’s first brush with bad PR. One Direction has always toed the line between what we can write off as boyish exuberance and what we can’t help acknowledging as bad behavior. Their tattoos and unapologetic partying are one thing; this 2014 video, shot in Lima, Peru, of Zayn and Louis getting high and using a racial slur, is very much another.
The band handled that incident, which had senior members of Parliament calling for apologies, with what has become their customary wall of silence. It’s a bizarre, bizzarely effective tactic: when something happens that they don’t want to talk about, they just don’t talk about it. Without fresh content to spur them, stories in the press die out pretty quickly. And for fans, for whom the whole point of One Direction is pleasure, pure and simple, there’s no profit in dwelling on their shortcomings. So, mostly, we don’t. Louis has never addressed or acknowledged the video publicly; he certainly hasn’t explained or apologized.
But there was a reason that Zayn leaving and Louis becoming a dad felt different than Peru: because both were not just passing moments but long-term, permanent changes. And because the kind of changes they were went to the heart of the fantasy that One Direction sells, which is that there are four boys in the world who love each other, and aren’t afraid or ashamed of it, and want very badly to be allowed to love you the same way.
To make matters worse, as the news of the band members’ messy, grown-up lives kept emerging, One Direction was still on tour, pretending none of it was happening. They played a show the night that news about the pregnancy leaked; in the Snapchat videos fans posted, you could actually hear how quiet the crowd got every time Louis started to speak. They were expecting something — something — but it never came.
The events of 2015 have been a sobering reminder that boys didn’t belong to us or anyone, and that the fantasy they were selling was just that: something fantastic, imaginary, and impossible to keep. This is the kind of boring, banal truth that the kingdom of boybands is built on evading: that our idols are humans, that they are just as likely to get drunk and forget to wear a condom as the normal, boring boys we already know and loathe.
It’s a lesson we all think we know already, that Prince Charming isn’t real and a lot of paparazzi photos are staged and not every celebrity is like, so totally nice and normal. But in this case it’s particularly shocking because seeming normal might actually be the thing that One Direction is best at. Normal is their currency, the thing that elevated five talented but mostly unremarkable singers and frankly terrible dancers to sustained, international superstardom: their ability to seem like themselves in front of camera after camera, day after day after day.
Celebrities are expected to work in front of a lens all day and then go home, turns their phones on, and send us a selfie of them relaxing, looking glamorous but casual, in bed. One Direction has often been touted as the first band to find success in large part on the strength of their social media strategy — their X-Factor handlers gave them early training in "how to respond to Tweets," and they were regularly posting videos and pictures of themselves online long before Taylor Swift claimed her Tumblr URL.
It’s a lesson we all think we know already, that Prince Charming isn’t real.
Their seeming accessibility has been a big part of their appeal, but it’s also, ultimately, played a role in their current troubles, giving voice to their less innocuous sentiments, their less palatable instincts. The more we see, the more we see the friction between the versions of themselves they’re selling and the complicated lives they’re actually leading.
Because One Direction sells a very well-packaged fantasy. Their official channels tell an endlessly charming story. When ugliness appears — in the form of negative press or homophobic tweets or leaked videos or just inconvenient facts, like unhappiness, like accidental pregnancies — they refuse to allow it entry into their narrative. They simply blank it out. The message is clear: what happens to Harry or Louis, Liam or Niall, or even Zayn, is not the same thing as what happens to One Direction. The problem is, we can’t pretend as effectively. We can’t avoid knowing we’re being lied to.
So now comes the hiatus. And now we get to find out what is going to happen to Harry and Louis, Liam and Niall and Zayn, when they aren’t One Direction anymore.
Jingle Ball offered up an answer, actually, or at least a suggestion. Joe Jonas, lately of the Jonas Brothers and a disappointing 2011 solo project, played a set with his new band, DNCE, a little bit later in the night. DNCE's first single was called "Cake By the Ocean," and the band played in a mishmash of glittery catsuits and sunglasses and kilts and athletic wear.
It wasn’t a headlining spot, sure, or any guarantee that their upcoming tour will be a success. But it was something new; it was proof that there’s possibility for second and even third acts, sometimes, and that the coming of change does not necessarily mean the beginning of a definitive end.
And anyway, One Direction aren’t giving up the ghost of their band just yet. It’s not unprecedented: the Backstreet Boys have released two albums since the end of their real run in 2005, and they’re collaborating with a member of *NSYNC on a zombie western flick right now. As long as they don’t break up, there’s still a chance that One Direction finds a way to evolve that works for them and their fans.
You only get to be a boyband once.
That’s what they’re banking on now, anyway. The day after Jingle Ball, Niall reportedly said that the band planned to tour for "Made in the AM" after their hiatus, which fans have pegged to end in 2017, maybe. The boys keep talking about their comeback like it’s a sure thing, even though they can’t possibly know that it is. If and when they’re ready, they have to know things will be different. They have to plan for it. You only get to be a boyband once.
For now, though, their fans are still willing to wait to find out what that looks like. 2017, we’ve decided. You can almost hear the clocks being wound up all around the world, and the countdown to what comes next starting up all over again.