Recent news of Zayn Malik’s departure from British boyband One Direction has spurned high-octane emotional responses, ranging from utter despair and mass hysteria to surprisingly vitriolic derision, with a good measure of middle-aged ambivalence somewhere in between. Following Malik’s announcement on the twenty-sixth of March in which he cited stress and personal reasons as his impetus to go, the question: “where were you when you found out Zayn left One Direction?” circulated widely on social media.* The sentiment of the question is strangely reminiscent of other seemingly more serious, important events, like the shooting of JFK, the Apollo 13 moon landing and John Lennon’s death. It’s not appropriate to equate Zayn’s leaving his boyband compatriots with a death, but for many (teen girls and otherwise) the news does form a significant loss of some kind.
One Direction were, and will continue to be, explicitly and blatantly designed to be extremely likeable. Their success is in part attributable to their malleability, their ability to represent whatever fans wish them to (and for their ability to look really nice in pea coats and turtlenecks). Each member inhabits a type that has been carefully moulded, yet simultaneously retains an air of authenticity, suggesting that underneath it all they’re young and having fun, and most importantly, they’re just like you and me. For the uninitiated, Zayn is the dark haired mysterious one with the brooding eyes and the voice of an angel. Harry is the second most handsome and despite seeming attempting to emulate Keith Richards, remains ineffably charming. Liam is the sensible one and as a result is mostly boring in a fatherly way, while Niall sits on the other end of the spectrum with his blonde hair, boyish grin, and a few too many tank tops in his wardrobe. Louis (arguably the most improved over the five years) is a lovable ratboy.** They are undeniably polarising due to their appeal to the traditionally derided demographic of teenage girls, as well as their often saccharine pop music. However they have been one of the most culturally pervasive phenomena of the past five years, since their Simon Cowell-manufactured inception on the British X Factor.
Zayn’s departure marks the end of One Direction as we all knew it, but is also one of the important cultural landmarks of our generation. It’s important because for many young people, it is their first experience of an uncontrollable loss. A loss of something they instilled an incredible amount of emotion, time, and energy, into. As Brad Nelson wrote in a Guardian article on the 27th of March (1 AZ (After Zayn)): without Zayn One Direction is simply reduced to “four goofy white guys shouting” (sorry Harry). Alternatively: without Zayn, One Direction becomes Harry Styles and the Expendables. On a sentimental level, Zayn was the best looking (with the dreamiest eyes and the swoopiest hair) and arguably the best singer (sorry Harry). On a more serious level, the power of his success as an individual with a Muslim background is as unique as it is impressive in the world of boy bands.
Multiple people expressed their concern that the intensity of emotion had made them think that Zayn had died. While the entire saga is alarmingly melodramatic, the underlying emotion is not to be dismissed. For many this marks an ending of a part of youth and also just a part of something that they liked (a lot). Something which was once dependable and real has been altered irrevocably, and if people aren’t allowed to get vaguely hysterical about boybands then I propose a non-hysteria ban upon AFL, Masterchef and Thom Yorke too. The naivete of the One Direction generation has been tainted, and we have all been reminded of the transience of the music industry and life itself. So Godspeed, Zayn, we wish you and your amazing eyes and that beautiful lock of hair, all the power of a thousand Justins and Beyonces in your future eventual solo endeavours.
*I was up early for work and ended up lying melancholy on the couch in my robe watching the ‘Night Changes’ film clip on repeat.
**All One Direction opinions are the author’s own but without argument the order is: Zayn, Harry, Louis, Niall, Liam.