Ask any casual music fan how One Direction will be remembered following its impending hiatus, and some form of the word “big” will be mentioned in response. Since forming on The X Factor in 2010, the U.K. boy band has become one of the most dominant pop acts on the planet, capable of packing stadiums with screaming fans and cranking out one monster-selling album per year. Their singles have been huge, their box office grosses has been eye-popping, their TV performances are deafening and their presence in popular culture is towering. As it stands, any portrait of 2010s pop without Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson front-and-center is an incomplete one.
Okay, so One Direction continues to be massive, especially judging by the excitement around (and sales projections for) this Friday’s release of new album Made In The A.M. Can we talk about how good One Direction is, as a consistent source of rock-solid pop over the past half-decade? Can anyone? Is it possible for one of music’s defining acts to double as one of its most critically overlooked?
A mile-wide gap exists between the perceived quantity and quality of 1D’s music; specifically, there's a dismissal of musical evaluation that finds most analysis replacing “good” or “bad” with “big.” This is because of the group’s primary demographic: Since its 2011 debut, Up All Night, One Direction has functioned as a conduit of joy for younger pop fans, which is usually interpreted as a sign that their music isn’t “serious.” They don’t play instruments; they use a lot of co-writers. The fan base collected a contingent of adult members, but for the most part, critics listened to Up All Night upon its release and shrugged it off as something that wasn’t designed for them. More than likely, they didn’t listen to it at all.
And so it went for four more years, with thousands of teens and tweens singing along to One Direction’s hit singles at their concerts while their parents dutifully waited outside the stadiums in order to keep the music as unobtrusive as possible. It didn’t really matter that, beginning with 2013’s Midnight Memories, 1D’s music recalled the Who and Bon Jovi more often than the Backstreet Boys. It also didn’t matter that Niall Horan was playing guitar at every show, or that the group members were becoming more involved in the songwriting process. One Direction was still a boy band, and since boy bands aren’t aimed at adults, adults disregarded the critical appeal of the group’s music. That’s why One Direction owns dozens of Teen Choice Awards, but has yet to receive a Grammy nomination. That’s why the group raked in $290 million on tour in 2014, per Billboard Boxscore, but it’s hard to find its 2014 album, Four, in a single publication’s year-end albums list from last year.
It’d be one thing if One Direction’s albums were composed of Big Dumb Pop, targeted for dance floors and the top of charts. But 1D was never LMFAO. Its debut single, “What Makes You Beautiful,” stands as one of the fizziest highs in 2010s pop, a sugar rush brilliantly built around rich melodies and lines like “The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed.” Follow-up “One Thing” was nearly as irresistible, and both songs served as an early sonic mission statement: big choruses, slick guitar riffs, sticky-sweet lyrics and a family-friendly package.
The pattern held on 2012 album Take Me Home, in which the boys got a little cheekier with their innuendos while abiding by their pop-rock formula. “Tonight, let’s get some!” they declared on their lead single, and worked more closely with Ed Sheeran. Take Me Home was One Direction’s sophomore album, but in retrospect, it was a transition album and step toward something more substantial.
2013’s Midnight Memories is really where One Direction moved from a handful of solid singles to a legitimately great rock act. That’s right, a rock act—Midnight Memories is no pop project, instead taking its cues from ‘80s arena rock and the folk stylings of their pal Sheeran. “Story of My Life” became one of the group’s signature hits, and with good reason: It’s a genuinely affecting anthem that swells up with precisely enough earnestness.
“Best Song Ever” and “You & I” also stand out, but Midnight Memories impresses mostly because of how deep it is—album cuts like “Diana” and “Little Black Dress” can be placed among the strongest cuts of 1D’s career. The same can be said for last year’s Four, which fully embraces rock bombast and thrives when it moves away from its two singles. “Ready to Run,” “No Control,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and especially “Girl Almighty” display stellar song craft and arresting vocal takes, contributing to an album that’s a front-to-back satisfying listen.
Granted, none of One Direction’s albums—including the forthcoming Made In The A.M.—are overly imaginative, or try to reinvent the pop-rock wheel. Even 1D’s best songs can be viewed as modern refractions of older, adult-approved artists and songs. However, the boys inject enough personality in their music to make the familiar sounds their own, from the manic power-pop of “Kiss You” to the chunky stomp-clap of “Midnight Memories” to the mid-tempo call-and-response of “Drag Me Down.” As the group’s career progressed, the individual members began to distinguish themselves from the pack, so that Louis, Liam, Niall and Harry all had their times to shine (and so Zayn could be missed when he departed the group in March). For those paying even a little attention, One Direction was far from faceless, sporting a vibrancy that helped them synthesize different styles to their liking.
In reality, though, One Direction’s music legacy is that they achieved something that very, very few pop acts before them have: They evolved. One Direction’s sound in 2015 is nothing like its sound in 2011, but their musical output and popularity never dipped. Most boy bands either burn out or fade away from the public eye before they get a chance to tinker with their sound; for instance, *N SYNC dove into R&B but right before breaking up, while Backstreet Boys tried a few new looks but only after everyone stopped paying attention.
One Direction was given the opportunity to grow into a formidable pop-rock presence while inhabiting the spotlight, partially because an ambitious release schedule kept the new music flow steady, partially because their musical impulses were often correct. No one can claim that One Direction kept doing the same thing over and over again, and anyone who says that the music noticeably sagged at any point in their run is seriously off-base.
One Direction is not going to become a critical darling with Made In The A.M., and that’s okay. They weren’t built to be critical darlings. One Direction was constructed to be larger than life, and over a relatively short time period, they achieved that. If becoming one of the flat-out best boy bands of all time was an after-effect, then pop is all the better for it.