Zayn & The Boyband Formula

Sex, Drugs, Wonk & Roll | Anying Guo | March 27, 2016

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Roughly a year ago, our homeboy Zayn Malik left One Direction, leaving fans in tearful fits of sorrow and his bandmates to make a tightly worded statement that “wished him the best.”

A year ago, the unraveling of Zayn from One Direction paved the way for ZAYN, an all caps R&B venture. But, was his departure actually a carefully manufactured move that had nothing to do with his free will, about creating an image so far from One Direction so Zayn could create a social and musical firestorm? Or has this Pakistani prince always yearned for complete musical freedom?

These questions may never be answered because the music industry is a secretive little shit, but we can analyze why Zayn’s departure both continues and destroys a certain cycle in boyband culture.

To navigate the squeaky clean seas of boyband culture, we have to start at the heart of arguably the best boy band of all time: *NSYNC. *NSYNC was a cultural phenomenon, paving the v neck wearing road for all boy bands with their unique members, distinct late 90s/early 200s style, and polished pop sound. People of all ages and backgrounds chose their favorites, with some fawning over the still closeted Lance Bass (bless his soul) or the funny guy Joey Fatone.

However, one of the most hotly debated topics was the classic lead singer argument.

Every musical band or group will have two standout stars whose thinly veiled and never recognized internal competition takes the backseat, in favor of a clean cut image of happy compromises and unbreakable friendship. Think Brittany and Christina during the Mickey House Clubhouse, Nicole Scherzinger and…my bad, The Pussycat Dolls was just a label for her solo career, a topic for another time.

For *NSYNC fans it was JT or JC battle. Billboard acknowledges the vast vocal talent of JC Chasez, calling him the best vocalist of *NSYNC. Singing ability aside, both were young, white, and had the innocent, all-American boy look. However, after the break-up of *NSYNC, Justin Timberlake’s solo career flourished, turning him into a versatile artist and performer and bff of Jimmy Fallon, while JC is now virtually unheard of, writing and producing songs for bigger artists behind a black screen.

And it all comes back down to the most meticulous details of choosing a lead single and carefully transitioning a star’s image from “boy-band” to “forreal adult artist.” JC’s lead single choice bombed in sales and he continued to make costly career choices, while Justin started to make high profile appearances with established artists such as Janet Jackson and released smash after smash to the world.

However, One Direction fans emphasized their equal love for each band member. I’m just kidding. Harry girls, Liam girls, Niall girls, etc, naturally started to emerge from their increased popularity. Because that’s what boy bands do — they present complex and unique archetypes of their members, gauging how fans react to each in order to pick out the most popular (marketable) member.

It became clear that Harry Styles was the leader of the band, intense eyes, tight pants, and all. Media outlets declared him the Justin Timberlake of One Direction, heaping praises on his singing and choice in mate(s). In the midst of this Harry firestorm, Zayn emerged as an outlier of the boyband leader formula. He wasn’t white, he wasn’t afraid to stray away from the generic “we’re here together, forever” statement, he wasn’t vying for 24/7 attention. Soon, Zayn and Harry became the most standout and recognizable faces of One Direction.

Towards the end of Zayn’s departure, it became increasingly clear that he was getting antsy. His personal life was wild and studied microscopically, while his tweets started shifting in tone and quality. Those very reasons became why Zayn left in the middle of a tour – he claimed he wanted to a normal 22 year old, living his life the way he wanted to.

Controversy and rumors shrouded him and One Direction, spurring his and the band’s image and popularity to new levels. In the end, this abrupt departure worked in Zayn’s benefit; his lead single PILLOWTALK is heard in Ubers and frat parties alike. His utter eagerness about finally being able to sing freely was refreshing and infuriating to fans. Perhaps his departure during the tour wasn’t a carefully marketed move, and that in of itself evolves from typical boyband culture.

Fans were shocked. It seemed to be unspoken that Harry would be the first to go. But still, most threw their utmost support at Zayn, promising to support him in whatever he does. One Direction reaffirmed fans that they were going to stay together, but a while later declared a hiatus, but emphasized that it was just a break.

Already we start to see the cracks in the foundation of One Direction; though their sales are still strong and their Instagram followers still swoon, we are starting to watch the slow dissipation of the group through its own members. They grow out of their caricatures and grow into men in expensive suits and high profile relationships.

That’s the biggest problem with boyband culture; fans are given empty promises of sticking together, when it is inevitable that these bands will break up. We hear interviews of compromise and companionship, lapping up every second of forced or genuine affection. We start to believe we know them, their lives and personality.

And that is how the boyband formula has succeeded time and time again. They know how to link these young men personally to us and generate that dedication into revenue. Thus, Zayn’s decision to leave during a tour somehow destroyed the notion that he was all about the money, but also the trust of fans who were still convinced of One Direction’s permanence.

But in terms of One Direction, we wait. We wait for a presumed departure from Harry Styles and we wait for the competing sales from him and Zayn. We wait for Harry to date more models and we wait for Zayn to commit to one. We cling onto the hope that our boybands do not break up at the same rate Drumpf’s ratings rise. Regardless, we fans will always be the determiners and advocates of the success of their careers and that kind of dependability cannot be purchased.