In my (relatively) short lifetime of cultural awareness, I’ve witnessed a (relatively) massive evolution of pop music. My first taste of true love hit me around age six when the Backstreet Boys released “Larger than Life.” I spent hopeless hours within earshot of the television, waiting patiently for a glimpse of A.J. McLean to appear on the Disney Channel. (I know what you’re thinking: “A.J.? Really? The one with the weird goatee?” To that, I have no explanation other than my taste in men has always been completely baffling, and remains so to this day.)
Sadly, my interest in the fangirl lifestyle withered over the course of elementary school, and by the time I started middle school at age ten I had no interest in wasting time on the pursuit of rock stars. I was more into spelling bees. Since then, I have realized that fixating on some kind of heartthrob would have been much more fulfilling, and recently I’ve developed a fangirl obsession of my own… I am currently CAPTIVATED by fangirls themselves, whom I will henceforth affectionately refer to as “stans” because fuck gender-exclusive terms. (“Stan” is a name that members of popular fandoms have adopted for themselves, originating from the Eminem song of the same title. In the song, “Stan” is an unstable superfan who is constantly trying to get Eminem to respond to his letters.)
Many of my friends “stan” (it’s a noun and a verb!) for various pop stars, and it is endlessly amusing. One Pink Floyd stan friend of mine peed her pants at a Roger Waters show because she didn’t want to miss anything by going to the bathroom. Another friend introduced me to a Twitter account that constantly posts GPS coordinates of One Direction’s location. I’ve been on the receiving end of a couple of these weird-but-kinda-awesome obsessions myself; every time another person tags me in their tattoo of my face or lyrics, I say a silent prayer to the gods of pop music that one day I too will have a Twitter account dedicated to reporting my GPS coordinates. That is the goal.
An awareness of the music industry leads one to assume that amassing a colossal, unconditional-love type of fandom is the objective of creating pop music. In an era in which I can (theoretically!) download this One Direction album for free, like, two weeks before it’s even released, musicians must rely on the sale of their merchandise/show tickets/image/souls to make the millions, and it’s the stans who are spending. This is common knowledge, and bands like One Direction are now specifically engineered to appeal to the type of people who are prone to falling in love with cute, singing boys. And that, my friends, is why their new album Midnight Memories is so interesting.
Clearly, Midnight Memories is a pop album. It’s got a bunch of songs with catchy hooks and intense production, sung by dreamy boys with British accents. The interesting part is the subtle transformation of One Direction’s music itself. Instead of the overt drum machine sounds and saccharine harmonies that glued their first hits to the insides of our skulls, they’ve crept into a more alternative-leaning realm of pop. Listening to songs like “Something Great,” “Story of My Life” and “Through the Dark,” it’s obvious that One Direction is completely aware of what’s poppin’ right now in the Billboard Top 100; Gotye and fun. have brought indie-folk-whatever-rock to pop radio and Avicii made a #1 album of electronic dance bangers featuring a bunch of country singers. The One Direction boys are beloved by their fandom for the references they make to more “obscure” bands: they wear Joy Division shirts and I’m pretty sure one of them has a Pink Floyd tattoo. And that’s what works now, because the mainstream uppercrust machinery is no longer strong enough to turn a few cute boys into an international sensation. In 2013, you gotta make sure you appeal to the kids whose taste runs deeper, the kids who pride themselves on their knowledge of classic rock and independent labels.
A perfect example of the band’s new direction is “Something Great,” which was co-written by Snow Patrol lead vocalist Gary Lightbody and frequent Snow Patrol producer Jacknife Lee (who has produced albums for Weezer, R.E.M., Bloc Party and many others). Snow Patrol’s 2006 song “Chasing Cars” brought them to the forefront of the mainstream in an era of pop otherwise dominated by Rihanna and Pink, and their emergence as an “alternative rock” band coincided with a time when the internet was becoming the final frontier for music. Before this, people were certainly downloading, but “Chasing Cars” is noted for the way its astronomical digital sales revealed the true impact of the internet on the music industry. Around this time, the rapid population growth on social networks like Myspace and Facebook helped out kids who otherwise would’ve been stuck with the trends and fashions of their own environments learn about what was trendy in other cities and countries with ease. There have always been “hipsters,” there’s always been punk rock and underground scenes. However, now the underground is at anyone’s fingertips, and the accessibility of every “scene” is basically effortless. The explosion of indie-rock in the mainstream made it even cooler to find a band that “nobody else has heard of,” and the counterculture allure of this new kind of pop has become a marketing point for the big men on the pop music campus. One Direction has used their Joy Division T-shirts to master the art of attracting a more diverse fanbase. More diverse, probably, than any other boy band that’s ever sold out an arena. Midnight Memories is an impressive illustration of that brilliance.
Of course, adventurous attire aside, timeless synths and bubblegum lyrics are still sprinkled throughout the album. The opening track, “Best Song Ever” is sassy and infectious, its cutesy lyrics always finding their way back to “oh oh oh/yeah yeah yeah.” They’ve thrown in some romantic jams that almost hint at r&b (such as “Right Now”) and a reworking (to put it kindly) of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” (“Does He Know”) both of which add a little more dimension to an otherwise straightforward faux-indie creation. Slow, emotional songs like “Half a Heart” add a swirl of acoustic guitar in a successful attempt at a more organic sound.
Midnight Memories is a solid specimen of easily digestible boy-band pop. There is nothing overwhelming, nothing to process, and nothing that speaks to the heart of the average listener. However, the seeming simplicity of the album belies the underlying complexity of its marketing: one-dimensional music, manufactured for a new breed of superfans. One Direction knows exactly what they’re doing, and they’re doing it well.