Maybe It's Time to Retire the Term "Boy Band"
The real stars of last Friday's One Direction concert
Photos by Jack Gorman (unless indicated)
One week ago today, tens of thousands of Houston's biggest One Direction fans -- most of them accompanied by their parents -- flocked to the gates of NRG Stadium, toting signs, glow sticks, and homemade T-shirts. It was strange to realize that only 13 years ago, I was on my way to watch 'NSYNC perform on their PopOdyssey Tour at the Astrodome, now run down and dwarfed by its newer neighbor.
What was even more surreal, however, was realizing that though the Dome is a monster, its capacity would have never been large enough to house the crowds hoping to catch a glimpse of the world's biggest act on their current tour. Then or now, it's not likely that any other band would have been able to pull the same size crowd.
Then again, a lot has changed for pop music in the last decade.
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For starters, the term "boy band" seems to have disappeared right along with the popularity of millennial acts such as 'NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees. Instead, the men of One Direction -- Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson -- have redefined what it means to perform alongside one another as a musical act.
In fact, they would prefer the term "boy band" not be associated with them altogether. But that would require music critics, fans and non-fans alike to truly look at One Direction from a critical standpoint and recognize the impact these five men have had on music and pop culture since their breakthrough.
Though their critics might disagree, One Direction have found a way to break the mold since forming four years ago on Britain's The X Factor, by not only surpassing their predecessors, but throwing the boy-band and pop-star rulebook out the window. And honestly, it's working quite well for them.
After witnessing how fans react to the likes of Katy Perry or Backstreet Boys, you realize just how much these acts pale in comparison. Sure, all three artists are hit factories in their own right, but girls seem to lose their proverbial shit over One Direction. Each night it seems like they're walking into a reenactment of the Beatles performing at Shea Stadium in 1965.
But despite their popularity, One Direction act so humble that it doesn't seem quite real -- not just to their fans, but as human beings in general. It's easy to brush off how many times they thank the crowd, or how they take time to address the crowd one by one, but last Friday the men of One Direction refrained from blanket statements that felt cheap and robotic.
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And although they sometimes sing of those young-adult urges, they always seem acutely aware of the innocence their music attracts. For one, Styles probably spent more time blowing kisses, posing for photos and talking to members of the audience than he did singing. At another point in their set, Horan was cut off by bandmate Payne after a hat was thrown onstage by an audience member, specifically for Horan to wear.
"Don't let our fans down, Niall," Payne urged. And without missing a beat or shrugging the request off, Horan placed the hat on top of his head in a gesture that will forever mean more to that fan than could possibly be conveyed in words.
Perhaps it takes exposure to live pop performances to notice, but these are the small details that other artists so often lack.
But what's most impressive about One Direction -- and what more pop stars could stand to take note of -- is how to balance the "wow" factor with real intimacy. Sure, it's great that artists like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus are attempting to bring awareness to real issues like youth homelessness and the dangers of growing up as an LGBT youth, but when asking fans to shell out more than $50 per ticket, it might be wise to put a little more personality into your show.
The Backstreet Boys last year, just for comparison's sake
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
It's easy to thank your fans for giving you an amazing life, and it's easy to talk about how your hopes and dreams have become a reality when you're sitting on a throne of cash. It's not easy to put aside a persona or an ego to interact with a crowd, but it's even harder to walk onstage and not need those things.
But somehow, the men of One Direction have found a way to be as human as they come. They're not interested in dance routines, so they just don't -- live or in their music videos -- nor do they waste time on pointless costume changes in the way that past and present pop starts tend to do.
Sure, there's more of a "whoa" factor when a band turns into real-life ventriloquist dolls like I saw on the PopOdyssey tour, but in hindsight One Direction made better use of their time by actually interacting with their fans rather than putting on a spectacle for them.
Speaking from experience, a young girl is more likely to remember and obsess over that time her favorite band member made eye contact with her, or actually spoke with her. Everything else will remain a blur.
So kudos to One Direction. It seems they have always made it an unwritten rule to use their time onstage and on-air to focus on the true talent of performing. It's something that, when properly conveyed, needs no fancy stage, backup dancers, or 27-outfit wardrobe.
But hey, that's just my opinion.
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