Last Friday, Louis Tomlinson did the unthinkable: he released a new single that’s as good as it is catchy. (Gasp.) A collaboration with Bebe Rexha and Digital Farm Animals, “Back To You” marks the 1D alum’s second foray into professional independence, with his first anointed via “Just Hold On,” the dance jam he co-helmed with Steve Aoki back in December.
This is a big deal. Because while I’d never dare suggest that Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, and Louis Tomlinson are in competition with each other, there’s still been a pressure placed on them by critics and those outside the Directioner family to compare them to their boy band predecessors. But the thing is, life outside of 1D has allowed for creative and personal freedom. So when we size up one comrade against the other, we measure them based on a system they’ve outgrown.
And that’s why One Direction will be the first boy band to breed five successful solo artists.
Which has never happened before.
After New Kids on the Block, Jordan Knight and Donnie Wahlberg forged their own solo paths before returning to the group (with whom they’re still touring), while Backstreet Boys followed suit after reforming a few years back. Meanwhile, *NSYNC gave us Timberlake and Lance Bass, but JC Chasez, Joey Fatone, and Chris Kirkpatrick were left largely behind. And Hanson, well, they’re brothers—should one choose to go solo, it would ruin both the trio and Thanksgiving dinner.
So when Zayn initially left One Direction, the pattern seemed to be set in place: getting a jump start on the rest of the boys, he solidified his independence through a full-length debut released exactly one year after his departure. And in those early days, he seemed like the Timberlake—a young man whose talent eclipsed the collective effort and would cement decades of success and spotlight.
But that’s not what happened. Following the release of Mind Of Mine, Zayn used his platform not to tour or endure an extensive press circuit, but to speak on his anxiety. He also began collaborating with girlfriend Gigi Hadid and Donatella Versace, which led to several collections stemming from his own artistic vision. He released a memoir. He opened up about his disordered eating. In short, he was not Justin Timberlake, but Zayn Malik.
Which reflected the way his musical brethren also outgrew a stale boy band formula. Where Timberlake’s success immediately led to the collapse of *NSYNC entirely, One Direction still released Made In the AM, an album without Zayn that completed an artistic narrative defined by the group’s combination of catchy pop and increasing lyrical maturity. (See: they sing pretty explicitly about sex — or at least having had it.) And they also left on a high note: opting to forego another world tour, they played their last show on The X Factor before embracing and leaving the stage, sending the message that they were the ones who decided what their hiatus would be marked by, and they were the ones who dictated its terms.
And they haven’t stopped, by the way.
For some of us, it’s entertaining and fun when a band alum we don’t connect to fails to make it as big as one that did. And in the nineties and 2000s, it was easy to subscribe to that mindset. You liked bands as a collective and reserved the right to cheer for your favourite. But you also understood that if your opinion wasn’t the primary one, you would never see Chris Kirkpatrick again.
But the internet—and One Direction—changed the formula. Fans formed fan groups based on their favourite members, uniting through Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat to build empires. Yes, their love of the band altogether eclipsed a devotion to Liam or Louis, but no one member was the unpopular one. Each had enough emotional backing to ensure that should they go solo, they wouldn’t fall flat.
And this is something each member knows. At no point since the hiatus have the remaining four slagged off the group or the fans who carried them. At no point have they dismissed getting back together, or blamed the break on the actions of one (ahem, ZAYN). Instead, they’ve maintained a united front, congratulating each other on singles and solo tours and the release of Dunkirk. They’re acting less like former boy band members and more like former coworkers, assumedly understanding the pointlessness of burning a very important bridge, which serves to keep the fanbase united, too.
Where each member would have support from the fans who love them, their professionalism and obvious respect for one another has allowed the collective support to continue. Fans aren’t mourning the end of One Direction as we knew it and taking comfort in their chosen member, but in the success of the band’s ability to breed four (and five) capable pop stars. One Direction have given fans permission to cheer for everyone, therefore ensuring that their next steps be cheered on, too.
That’s exciting, and I’m here for it. It was a buzzkill to watch Justin Timberlake revel in the glory and JC Chasez (with his superior voice) be forgotten after a brief solo career. Instead, we get to watch as 1D graduates decide what type of artist they want to be. We get to be surprised at Niall’s super-sexy “Slow Hands” and feign surprise that Liam Payne opted to bring the party tunes. But perhaps most importantly, we get to attend upwards of five world tours, instead of waiting for one.
Even though when that day comes — when they reunite and I scream, “I told you so” into the night — I (more than any of you) will be ready.