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I tweeted a fantasy music video idea about Malik’s imminent return, I Gchatted hysterically with fellow fans, and I exchanged forensic notes on the digital paper trail allegedly proving that the prodigal son was coming home. When it turned out not to be true, I went on something of a media diet from One Direction news to avoid further pain and possible embarrassment at being 30 years old and emotionally attached to a boy band. But last week, as One Direction’s On the Road Again Tour landed on US shores and Malik reportedly bought a £3million estate with his fiancé, Perrie Edwards, it looked more decidedly like everyone was truly moving on.
I believe in boy bands as a profound social good, sources of light and gentleness in a world that is not in the custom of rewarding these characteristics in its young men.
My investment in Malik’s return was not about the superior quality of One Direction performances as a quintet or about alleviating my concern at the rumors that he was too drug-addled to perform any longer. I wanted Malik to come back because I believe in boy bands as a profound social good, sources of light and gentleness in a world that is not in the custom of rewarding these characteristics in its young men. Junior high school hallways run thick with boys sharpening their teeth on the ill-fated hopes of young girls. The girls hope in vain that if they are kind and accommodating enough to these boys, they’ll be rewarded with affection in return. But boys know better than to return a girl’s affection without sexual caveats and social posturing, if they choose to acknowledge it at all. The pitiless disparity between when girls and boys mature only exacerbates the callousness of boys when they dismiss girls; he treats it with the same gravity as shooing away a fly but she feels as if a knife is being twisted into her heart.
From this inhospitable landscape of asymmetrical emotional investment, girls find refuge in the Kingdom of the Boy Band. Or perhaps more accurately: The Kingdom of the Girl. In this territory, the boy band members are present only to witness a girl’s particular beauty and to enthusiastically, nay, obsessively, seek her affection amid what is certainly a mob of romantic interest from a phantom horde of boys just outside the frame. On the first track of One Direction’s Four, Malik opens with the line, "She been my queen since we were 16, we want the same things, we dream the same dreams," elevating the girl in question to royal status and aligning his vision for life and hers into one perfect dream. On track five, Niall Horan hollers, "Let’s have another toast to the girl almighty, let’s pray we stay young, stay made of lightning," effectively advancing the girl from queen to actual deity and force of nature in under 15 minutes.
Boy bands love hard and they love very specifically. They love with reckless abandon, recognizing the singular perfection of a girl and pursuing her shamelessly.
Boy bands love hard and they love very specifically. They love with reckless abandon, recognizing the singular perfection of a girl and pursuing her shamelessly. The very fact that they’re boys who sing love songs is evidence of their willingness to be humiliated for the sake of her affection, for in what other context is young male vocal ability cherished as a romantic draw? The ever-hardening boys at school might dismiss them in homophobic terms, while being scarcely able to hide their confusion that the unfeeling hyper-masculinity they’ve been socialized to perform isn't yielding the same returns as skinny jeans and the occasional falsetto.
The Kingdom of the Girl manifests in a new way with each boy band to come onto the scene but it is always laid on the unreliable foundations of boys who will grow up one day, or men who already have. With enough monetary and celebrity incentive, they can uphold the fantasy that they seek only to serve in the Kingdom of the Girl for all eternity. The girls cling to this fantasy not because they are selfish but because their lived experience of boys and men is so relentlessly disappointing. They wouldn't need to be worshipped in the fantasy if only they could be seen in reality. But cracks emerge and the ground shakes under a man who has been kept a boy too long, he longs to say and do more than serve. And though it was not Malik’s intention when he broke free in March, he broke a lot of hearts in the process.
Years after the end of 'N Sync, when someone simply mentions "Justin", everyone knows that it is not Bieber or Theroux being referred to.
As the most objectively handsome member of One Direction and armed with a sincerity that it would be hard to manufacture even with rigorous media training, Malik was always my favorite member of the group. I keep writing "Malik" here because I am a 30-year-old professional writer who knows that it is customary to use surnames to refer to public figures in an article. But when I speak of him in conversation, I call him "Zayn." It is an unofficial law of boy band linguistics that all members are known by their first names only, bestowing even ordinary names like Kevin and Joey and Nick with a singular status of power and PG-13 sex appeal. Years after the end of 'N Sync, when someone simply mentions "Justin", everyone knows that it is not Bieber or Theroux being referred to. They shed their family names to become our familiars, nexuses of simultaneously safe and infatuated love. They wield a discerning eye that recognizes the absolute marvel of a person in a girl who would otherwise be considered ordinary.
I regrettably missed the boy band craze as an adolescent, skipping straight from crushes that resided solidly in childhood, on boys like Jonathan Taylor Thomas, to crushes on men, like Trent Reznor and Kurt Cobain. Their combination of talent and sulking masculinity, as differently as it manifested in each of these men, prepared me for the tedium of heterosexual romance if not necessarily for some of its abject cruelties. But never indulging the fantasy of the Kingdom of the Girl when I was actually a girl left a cynical hole in my unromantic heart for years. That is, until a friend insisted that I watch the videos for "Kiss You" by One Direction. Harry Styles leads off the chorus that they all soon join, singing, "So tell me girl if every time we to-o-uch, you get this kind of ru-u-ush? Baby, say yeah, yeah, yeah!, Yeah, yeah, yeah!" as the boys get rambunctious in a number of humiliating costumes including skiing get-ups and striped prison uniforms. There are far more emotionally gripping songs in the One Direction catalogue, but the simple and joyful expression of a rush that signals that this is no ordinary kiss moved me. It opened the wound of an entire girlhood of unrequited affection that I tried to salve with the bitterness of Nine Inch Nails and the acid of Nirvana when there was sweetness nearby in 'N Sync, right there on the same aisle of CDs.
It opened the wound of an entire girlhood of unrequited affection.
Me loving like One Direction is as much about embracing their positivity and romantic sincerity as it is about mourning the failure of the wider world to even faintly reflect either. One Direction created one of the most compelling fantasy worlds for girls in music history, they fortified it by being gentle and gave it life by surrendering so much of their own lives to the group. But when Zayn broke through the very foundations he had helped establish, it became clear that the fantasy world is not so much a structure on land that is destroyed with great effort but a bubble floating in mid air. The Kingdom of the Girl is fragile and easily burst by the sharp edges of the outside world, the particular magic of One Direction was a safe, soft space. It is nothing short of a miracle that the boys who became men that make up One Direction dutifully kept it afloat for as long as they did.