Harry Styles is asking us to be quiet. He would like to determine which side of MetLife Stadium is the loudest, he tells us, but he cannot perform this carefully controlled experiment unless we’re beginning from a place of silence. “Shhhhhhh,” he says, like an exasperated substitute teacher. This test is designed to fail; Harry Styles asking tens of thousands of teenage girls not to scream is like that thought experiment where someone asks you to think of anything but pink elephants. The crowd finally represses itself into a fidgety hush, but a few errant whoops shoot up like fireworks. “Shhhhhhhhh,” Styles chides them with a devilish smirk. “You’re ruining it for the whole class.”
The air is charged with a number of tensions that will go unspoken, at least from the stage. One of them is that Harry Styles might die tonight. A few weeks prior to Wednesday night’s show in East Rutherford, someone who calls himself Mr. X tweeted out this suitably supervillainious message: “I Made This Account to Let Everyone Know That Harry Styles Will Die, August 5th, 2015, At MetLife Stadium.” News of the threat traveled quickly and widely through the One Direction fan community, as things do, and so as Styles addresses the crowd, the hashtag #HarryBeCareful is also trending worldwide. Directioners tweet solemn pictures of cops and security guards at the concert, claiming that the threat has noticeably increased security presence — although I have no reason to think this is not just business as usual for a stadium concert from one of the most popular bands in the world.
There’s also the implicit fact of Zayn Malik’s departure, which the boys themselves won’t mention tonight but which is, unavoidably, a popular topic of iron-on T-shirts and fanmade posters. A group of tailgating girls in the parking lot are holding a provocative sign that says, “We Don’t WANT Zayn Back”; they are alternately booed and asked to pose for Instagrams. Many signs make reference to Larry Stylinson, the fanfictional conspiracy theory that posits Styles and Louis Tomlinson are secretly in love with each other. Hovering in the air is also the fact that Tomlinson confirmed this week that he’s going to be a father. He’s definitely the least animated one onstage, and many Larry truthers believe this news about the baby has caused some drama between him and Styles. When you are a Directioner, there is a little bit of text and a whole lot of subtext. A huge part of the fandom comes from reading into silences, words, facial expressions — this is what makes the community so strong, creative, and interactive. Many on Twitter will swear that they caught a glimpse of Tomlinson crying onstage. The boys rarely play into any of these conspiracy theories directly, but every once in a while they throw the audience a bone (or perhaps a red herring). Tonight, onstage, Tomlinson is wearing a T-shirt that says in small lowercase cursive script, “not heartbroken.”
From the lip of the stage, Styles has parted the seas like a tattooed, bedheaded Moses, and he is finally ready to start the experiment. “Shhhhhh,” he tells the left side one last time. “NOW SCREAM!!!!!” Imagine an amusement park that has 10,000 roller coasters, all for some reason arranged side by side. That place would be a Zen monastery compared to what MetLife Stadium has just turned into.
By now you’ve probably heard the line that One Direction is not your typical boy band. They refrain from wearing matching outfits, they don’t dance, they write (or at least co-write) a lot of their songs. But given that they’re really the only reigning boy band of the millennial era, this kind of makes them the typical boy band by default. They’re self-aware heartthrobs for a generation raised on hyper-self-awareness. They have observed the pitfalls of their predecessors not so much through received wisdom but through GIFs and jpegs of them looking stupid — they have probably seen the BuzzFeed list “18 LOL-Worthy Types of Boy Band Photo Shoots,” and they have probably LOLed. They know that Chris Kirkpatrick hair jokes are still funny and that Justin Timberlake was the only one who made it out famous. They know, gravely, that JC Chasez made a run for it, too. Above all things, One Direction give off this air that they know. Almost everything that Styles in particular says comes out encased in invisible scare quotes. In the promotional video that plays right before they take the stage of their current corporate mouthful of a tour, the Honda Civic Tour Presents One Direction on the Road Again, a video plays in which Styles says with mock sincerity, “A big thanks to our friends … Honda,” his eyebrows arching at just the right angle to let you know that he, like you, thinks this is ridiculous, and also that the suits at Honda are not going to send someone out to reshoot the video and ask him to read the line over one more time with more feeling, because he is Harry. Fucking. Styles.
One Direction are the first dominant boy band of the social-media era, and their brilliance lies in being just blank enough to use this to their advantage. Perhaps no boy band in history has been a more direct and aerodynamic vessel for young-girl exuberance than One Direction. The boy bands of the past, or at least of the last generation, not only came with prepackaged personalities and shrink-wrapped backstories, but in their lyrics they often broke hard truths and bad news to the girl listener. Their songs told stories of a reality in which some people, girls among them, are coldhearted jerks. ’N Sync’s most earth-quaking hit was a kiss-off for the ages (“Bye, Bye, Bye”); the Backstreet Boys frequently sang of loneliness and cruel heartbreak (“Quit Playing Games With My Heart” was their breakthrough). Even when the comparatively soft 98 Degrees claimed that the hardest thing they’d ever had to do was turn around and walk away, they were still just finding a really nice way to break up with you.
One Direction represent something new: Their dominant lyrical theme is the (female) listener’s awesomeness. (It’s worth noting that the Backstreet Boys also sang about awesomeness, but it was usually their own: They had it going on; they were original, sexual; they were back, alright!) The girl in the One Direction song, on the other hand, is usually a more fully developed character than the singer. She has a name (Diana, Georgia Rose, etc.). She’s usually misunderstood (her mother might not understand why she dresses like that — but Zayn Malik does, baby). She’s been so trodden down by the world that she doesn’t even realize she’s beautiful! But the guys of One Direction do, and they want to scream it from the rooftops in choruses as loud and celebratory as soccer chants. Their devotion is so over-the-top that it’s almost religious. Let’s have another toast to the Girl Almighty! they cry. They are so excited to wake up next to her that they can’t even fall asleep. They — yes, all five of them — want to be the one to light a fire inside those eyes. They are the sonic equivalent of any scene in Magic Mike XXL that involves divorcées getting their groove back, but for teenagers. One Direction want to wipe away the dirt of the world, awaken something dormant within you, and teach you about your depths in the process, girl. They are our Manic Pixie Dream Boy Band.
There are ways in which this approach can seem facetious, corny, perhaps even retrograde. When their first smash single “What Makes You Beautiful” came out, there was, as there always is on the internet, a minor feminist kerfuffle — were these guys trying to say that female insecurity and passivity were sexy? What about the women who walk around owning it all the time? Fair enough, but I would contend that, culturally speaking, we are right now in desperate need of what One Direction are selling. We’re living in a moment when we’re suddenly just waking up to the fact that we’ve spent centuries treating young women like garbage — fed them the lie that they’re not good enough or smart enough or thin enough or pretty enough, and then wondered why so many of them grow up and develop self-esteem issues or eating disorders or stay in abusive relationships or generally feel like they are not entitled to any of the good things in this world. So any kind of cultural product that grabs a megaphone and tells girls in no uncertain terms that they are inherently worthy of love and adoration and respect is more than okay in my book — it’s maybe even a teensy bit radical. One Direction might take this sort of message to the extreme, but — not unlike the selfie — they’re an understandably overblown corrective to a culture that in the past has systemically striped young women of their self-confidence. They’re a boy band perfectly compatible with the coming era of the strong woman. They worship her even more than she worships them. Four humble, immaculately coiffed servants bowing to millions and millions of queens.
Which, over time, is a hell of a lot of bows. Understandably, One Direction are tired.
There are plenty of reasons to suspect that the next One Direction album will be the last. Malik’s departure is the most obvious, but there’s also Liam Payne’s recent much-scrutinized comments that the band “are in need of a break,” or — forgive me, Directioners — their new single, “Drag Me Down,” which, despite breaking Spotify’s one-day streaming record, has got to be their most lukewarm one yet. (Maybe I’m just stretching for Magic Mike comparisons here, but to my ears, the chorus melody is weirdly reminiscent of Ginuine’s “Pony,” albeit a much less sexy version.) It does have a sort of ingenious build to something I think I have to call a guitar-driven dubstep drop, but on the whole it feels phoned in and devoid of chemistry.
But no one at the concert seemed to agree; “Drag Me Down” was one of night’s most well-received songs. In fact, One Direction’s fan base is so devoted at this point that it doesn’t really matter if they phone it in. It is almost astonishing how little this band does onstage. I don’t even mean that as an insult; it’s actually endlessly fascinating to watch a non-dancing, non-instrument-playing boy band take up stadium space. Very occasionally they stand in a neat row of four at microphone stands, and Niall Horan is usually holding a guitar and sometimes strumming a few chords on it, but other than that, the guys are left to wander aimlessly and empty-handed around the stage when they’re not singing lead — waving to people, laughing at signs, blowing kisses, collecting the teddy bears and notes and funny hats that people throw at them. It is riveting. Their show is a master class in both minimalist charisma and direct-to-fan service. They shout out as many signs as they can from the stage; they take birthday signs very seriously. (Understandably, a One Direction show is a little bit like a cockpit of an airplane; it is everybody’s birthday.) Their voices sound generally great, but that’s almost a moot point. You can barely hear them because there is not a single moment when 75 percent of the crowd isn’t singing every word.
Boy bands — even self-aware ones — have shelf lives. And so a bigger question than whether or not this next album will be their last is if, and when, Styles will launch his solo career. (Especially with Malik gone, it’s blazingly apparent that he has the most star power onstage.) Styles is a bit of a wild card, but that’s what makes him so fascinating to watch. In the late days of ’N Sync, Timberlake projected a sharp, calculating hypercompetence; in their final videos you can almost see him plotting a solo reign behind his eyes. But Styles’s charm lies entirely in the fact that he looks like he just woke up and has not really figured out yet what he’s going to do with his day. He’ll have the opportunity for solo stardom should he choose it, but he also gives off the anarchic sense that he could blow it all on purpose. Which — since we’re living through the reign of Rihanna, who’s made the art of DGAF-ness is its own kind of winning charm — is probably precisely why he will be huge.
The clock is ticking, but for now Styles is alive (phew!), well, and a member of One Direction, a band that — it’s impossible not to note after seeing them live — brings an insane amount of joy to an insane amount of people. Their onstage veneer is still shiny enough to reflect the fans’ fantasies and conspiracies back to them, but the cracks are beginning to show. Tomlinson’s imminent fatherhood — the mother is not his girlfriend, but someone he has sort of ambiguously defined as “a friend” — might be the first hint that their lives are getting a little too complicated, adult, and just flat-out real to withstand the weight of millions of young-adult fictions. But their fans have grown up with them, and maybe they’re ready for whatever’s next, too.
Even though it’s hard to imagine a female pop star of their ages (which range from 21 to 23) getting away with a show so chaste, sex was only directly alluded to once at the One Direction concert. It was during the lite-rocker “Better Than Words.” Horan sang the lyric, “You make me wanna …” and then slid a hand down his crotch … which was perfectly framed in close-up on the Jumbotron, by a camera waiting to capture this highly choreographed thrust. It elicited the loudest screams of the night; Horan’s prior verbal command to scream finished a distant second to something a little more visceral. For one moment — fleeting, teasing, and entirely preplanned — the fantasy fused with reality.