February 10, 2016


How Zayn Malik Hit No. 1 When One Direction Couldn't: Analysis

Getty Images
Getty Images

Earlier this week we reported that former One Direction member Zayn Malik scored his first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with his debut solo single, "PillowTalk." The lead single from Mind of Mine, his upcoming full-length, topped the charts after launching online on Jan. 29. The video, which stars girlfriend/it-girl/Taylor Swift BFF Gigi Hadid was released at the same time and has since collected over 60 million views.

It's great, and expected: Zayn is now teetering a line where he will carry the love and devotion of his boy band past to his R&B/The Weeknd–esque future. What's most interesting about this, however, is that One Direction were never able to top the Hot 100. The closest thing came to hitting No. 1 was in 2012 with “Live While We’re Young,” which hit No. 2. Last year, 1D's lead single from Made in the A.M."Drag Me Down" tapped out at No. 3.

The question becomes, how did he do it?

There's a lot to unpack here, and the majority of it relates to branding. In One Direction, Zayn Malik was assigned the "mysterious" role (in the "Steal My Girl" video and in life). Being a solo artist finally gave Malik the opportunity to, well, speak. He could finally express himself and make the music he most loves. That's an attractive quality. 

The result was a sexy R&B tune. "PillowTalk" is slow moving, Malik doesn't enunciate clearly, or as clearly as he would in 1D. He talks about sex openly, he opts for subtle vocals instead of grandiose hooks. He is, in a phrase, cool now.

"Cool" in the way Justin Bieber's reinvention has been deemed "cool." In some ways, JB and Zayn's transformations mirror each other. Where it took years for pop music to trust Bieber again after years of delinquency, something he counteracted by pairing up with decidedly cool DJ duo Skrillex and Diplo and writing songs called "Sorry" and "Love Yourself." He managed to maintain the strong fanbase of his "Baby" days (teen girls) and expand to young adults (here's where the "cool" factor comes in).

One Direction are easily the biggest band in the world, even on their hiatus. They're inescapable on advertisements, on TV...but don't enjoy the level of radio play Bieber and probably Zayn will experience. 1D is marketed to the young women that love them, while Bieber and Malik have more room and other demographics to enjoy.

It's something celebrate, but also to question: Where 1D were massively popular, folks who believed they were "just for young, screaming girls" missed out on experiencing some really incredible music. Now they're some of the very same people jamming to "PillowTalk," because they fell victim to the marketing telling them they can.

Either way, Malik's solo rise will only continue, like Bieber's. As for us girls? Know that we can listen to anything we want, whenever we want to. One Direction might be no more, but they left us with five really diverse and interesting pop records. That matters so much more than never hitting No. 1 on the Hot 100.