I'm an intelligent, (mostly) stable woman in my mid-twenties. I have a real job. I pay my taxes, and sometimes even my rent. I have a serious, non-imaginary boyfriend. And yesterday I shed a tear for Zayn Malik, the doe-eyed, chisel-jawed, single strand of hair-flaunting Bradford Bad Boi who, after being at the beating heart of the world’s biggest boyband for four years, eight months, and two days (who’s counting?), has left One Direction.
When I first heard the news, I was in denial. “He’s not leaving leaving,” I sighed to my co-workers, confident in my superior 1D knowledge. “He just needs some space. He’s on a break”. Then someone pointed me towards the official statement.
No. This couldn’t be happening for real. Sure, Zayn was having problems, but what international pop syndicate like One Direction doesn’t have its problems? They couldn’t do this to me. Not now. Not over Facebook.
I sank deeper into despair, and all I could hear were 1D lyrics.
Those gloriously high cheekbones provided a bone structure ripe for labelling “gaunt” and “haggard”, and eventually tabloid stories accusing him of cheating on his fiancée saw him sign off for stress. He’s still a self-conscious “little boy from Bradford” at heart, who needs to spend as many hours alone doodling on his bedroom walls as he does singing to thousands of girls on stage. With almost no time off from an insanely intense schedule over five years, it was only a matter of time before somebody cracked, and it was probably going to be our sweet prince, Zayn.
But really, this is all beside the point. The joy of One Direction, and basically all the obsession-inducing delights of this world, is that it’s a fantasy. I have a lot of feelings about that fantasy. The success of the band relies on presenting the dream as achievable. The narrative constructed around them, from their lyrics to their interviews to their PR coverage, all works to portray the boys as both the ultimate heartthrobs and the familiar boys-next door. It’s why they’re consistently presented as emotionally vulnerable yet playful and boyish, sexually available but non-threatening, absurdly famous but grounded in their humble beginnings. (And of course, the girl of their dreams is YOU. Yes, you, “5 foot something with the skinny jeans”.)
It’s why sane adults can get sucked into an obsessive click cycle after stumbling upon a “ONE DIRECTION BEST BITS” video on YouTube. It’s why, when I introduced them to an (admittedly quite hungover) friend, she cried and whispered: “they’re just so perfect.”
Zayn’s departure tears a hole in the dream. The One Direction Fantasy™ doesn’t include difficult feelings or missing members. It rests on the idea that the only thing the boys could possibly love more than their fellow bandmates is the fandom, which means staying together forever, for each other and us.
It depends on a suspension of time, in which the boys are forever on the cusp of adulthood, never quite becoming men. Now, it feels like it’s only a matter of days before the remaining members sprout beards, beer bellies and resigned expressions, heirs to the three sad Take That members, trying to fill the hole left by their absent comrades by squeezing into a too-small bed.
I always knew the dream was an illusion: a concoction of the teen imagination, perfected and sold by media giants, hoping to design a band as popular as possible with the widest variety of teenage women. I (sort of) knew they didn’t really love me. And I knew it could never last.
I just didn’t think it had to end so soon.
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