The weeks following the release of Fifth Harmony’s fourth album have not been disappointing. In addition to their self-titled record garnering mostly positive reviews, member Lauren Jauregui used her platform to condemn President Trump this week, which reflected the band’s increasingly political presence. Add to this their MTV VMAs performance (which saw the group throw a dummy of ex-member Camila Cabello offstage) and the fact that Twitter cemented “Down” as the real song of the summer, and it’s been a banner year for 5H. The thing is, Fifth Harmony’s success as a group depends on whether they as—a group—can continue to evolve as quickly as Cabello.
Despite Camila having left Fifth Harmony back in December, her narrative continues to be woven within the group’s. The remaining members have fielded questions about their former bandmate during their most recent press cycle, and most of Cabello’s own press has been steeped in 5H tea. But where the group’s VMAs stunt acted a very public declaration of dismissal (both of Camila and any/all discussion about her—as in: she quit, let’s move on), Cabella is arguably freer to speak her mind. She’s gone on the record on what she didn’t like about being in the band, about the recording process, and about her own artistic process, paralleling the conversations Zayn Malik began having in the wake of his One Direction departure two years ago. And with those discussions, he was able to establish himself as a solo star quickly, efficiently, and relatively effectively.
The message sent was that Zayn was Zayn, and the boys were a collective.
After Zayn left in April 2015, the remaining 1D members flew the flag of a united front. And aside from Louis Tomlinson’s Twitter spat with Zayn shortly after (sparking a feud which has since ended), the boys were publicly supportive of their contemporary, despite his stream of shade thrown at the band. So, by the time he released Mind of Mine a year after breaking Directioners’ hearts, Zayn had evolved himself from a piece of a Top 40 puzzle to a grown-ass pop star, singing about sex, relationships, sex, parties, and even sex. And while each Direction alum has gone on to release their own music and solidified their own place on the pop spectrum, it took more time for them to do it.
Zayn could forge ahead quickly without having to stop and think of the group, while time between the start of One Direction’s hiatus and the lads’ debuts as adult solo stars had to allow for fans to process the transition. At least during Zayn’s absence, 1D existed as an entity. (No matter how quickly Zayn moved, the rest of us could cling to the group.) But without One Direction, the boys had to allow for news of the hiatus to die down before re-introducing themselves as artists separate from the boy band spectrum.
Which is fine now, in the year of our lord 2017. Nearly two years from the band’s last bow, we’ve come to embrace Zayn’s newly shaven head as much as Liam is embracing the band’s seven year anniversary. (See: enthusiastically.) But can Fifth Harmony do better?
The thing is, they already have. Where 1D played it safe with their messages of support, Fifth Harmony reclaimed their narrative by physically pushing their former comrade from the stage as a means of showing the world that the four of them make up Fifth Harmony (and that they can—and will—clap back at Camilla’s comments like adults in charge of their own agency).
Which is even more charged when you think of the individuality present from within. While One Direction were always “themselves” on Twitter (especially during the earlier years), they didn’t politicize themselves in an overt way, nor did they condemn the politics of figures they didn’t agree with. Meanwhile, despite offering a united front as performers, 5H continues to express themselves as individuals, with members like Jauregi going so far as to call out the President.
And that’s rare for pop artists in general (shout-out to Taylor Swift), let alone members of a top 40 pop group, especially when you consider how much news of a member’s departure defined them. Bands like *NSYNC remained stagnant following the loss of Justin Timberlake, while the Spice Girls petered out after “Goodbye,” a song largely seen as a dedication to (former) ex-member Geri Halliwell. Fifth Harmony, on the other hand, have chosen to celebrate their new trajectory and have remained united in performance while allowing the breathing space necessary for each member to grow on her own.
Meaning that while Cabello will undoubtedly go on to do interesting things (the woman is talented, let’s be real), Fifth Harmony aren’t reliant on a breakup or hiatus for artistic evolution. 1D’s hiatus may have shown us that boy band members can all successfully launch solo careers in time (and the first departing member will get a jump start), but the way Fifth Harmony have handled their press and their process in the wake of becoming a foursome has laid the groundwork for an even more advanced and sustainable approach to pop groups.
Even if it means tossing a former member from the stage.