Hashtag Pop is a column that explores the relationship of Top 40 hits and their presence in culture and the internet.
There will be a debate among future historians over whether or not One Direction ever actually existed.
See, One Direction is a band less made up of people and more made up of social media currency. They’re built on Facebook likes and Instagram favorites, on reblogs and retweets. They’re treated by their fans in exactly the same way that those fans treat the characters on their favorite TV shows and movies, in their favorite books and graphic novels.
The fans of One Direction speak in the vernacular of fanfiction, a literary genre wherein budding authors tailor stories and characters from existing properties to fit their own preferences. This results in a practice known as “shipping,” where fans of a relation’ship’ between two specific characters write scenes depicting love between two characters that might not exist in the original property. The consequence of which is usually a portmanteau of character names (like “Spirk” or “Harmione”) and a lot of writing wherein Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock perform very graphic sexual acts upon each other — hence the “Spirk.” And Directioners operate in the same way. They ship Nosh and Ziam and Larry and Jiall and Lilo. They tag their Tweets and Tumblr posts with the names of their ships. They post GIF sets with imagined captions of those band members confessing their love for one another, or they post GIF sets with real captions of those band members, and then extrapolate complex subtext that just simply prove that the two of them are secretly boning each other. Each different group of shippers typically has some sort of problem with the other group’s. There’s a lot of drama.
Such behavior makes it really easy to disassociate One Direction from reality, because when you’re trawling through a series of Tumblrs and find GIFs of The Avengers, and then Sherlock, then One Direction, then Percy Jackson, it can become hard to tell what’s coming from a documentary and what’s coming from fiction.
This would have happened if we had social media in the age of Backstreet Boys and N*SYNC, too, because what is “Best Song Ever” if it isn’t the sonorous major key Max Martin pop turned maximalist for 2013 radio? They fill the same need, strike the same chords, and engender the same, slavish devotion. It’s, to say the least, vaguely unhealthy.
Which is ironic because “Best Song Ever” features maybe the most healthy response to a situation not going the way you wanted in the whole of pop music. When told that the respective objects of their affection are not interested in them romantically, One Direction decide not to feel sad or rejected, but instead to “Dance all night to the best song ever.” Sometimes it seems like if Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson stated in direct terms to their fans that they had absolutely no interest in one another, then Larry shippers wouldn’t dance, but instead riot.
This culminated with the release of the One Direction documentary, Crazy About One Direction, which aired in the U.K. It was, obviously, about those Crazy About One Direction. It painted them in a fanatical light, which, you know, given the completely reasonable responses in retrospect seems totally off base.
There’s plenty about “Best Song Ever” and their earlier, career-launching hit, “What Makes You Beautiful”, that inherently engenders this sort of fanaticism. They’re songs like “I Want It That Way” or 98 Degrees’ “Give Me Just One Night” or “Bye Bye Bye”. By that, I mean they’re instantly memorable, sung by several attractive young men, almost completely inoffensive, very simple, and about women.
But what the Internet has done has fast-tracked the dehumanization of famous people in a way that only tabloids were able to do previously. By GIF-ing, caption-ing, and fic-ing the lives of these people, the individuals that are -inged become clay. Other pop stars have had a pre-Internet life that has marginalized the ability to fictionalize their existences, but One Direction came about at a perfect time to become stories.
The stories they’ve become aren’t necessarily offensive or dangerous or sick or problematic, but they’re certainly separate from the real lives these young men live. And that separation, that bold line between the “real” lives and the “fandom” lives of One Direction, the fact a site called onedirectionfanfiction.com exists, is the biggest catalyst for the success of songs like “Best Song Ever” and the negativity that sound creates. It’s the biggest reason why people at the VMAs boo them and Lady Gaga defends them, why hashtags like #BanOneDirectionFansFromTwitter both start and backfire. For better or worse, the fictionalized filter through which One Direction fans view the band will be the band’s legacy.