First thing first. Full disclosure: I didn’t pay much attention to One Direction back when they were launching hit after hit. For me, their songs were never more than inoffensive background noise, more or less forgotten even before they were over.
Sure the guys mostly managed to sidestep the cheap, cheesy pop that has made so many boy bands instant jokes. And one of them played guitar. But respectable doesn’t equal interesting. Give me always-destined-to-be-dated-as-hell-someday camp classics like Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” over well-sung, well-meaning, but frankly, kind of beige 1D hits like “The Story of My Life” and “Drag Me Down.”
Throughout the quintet-turned-quartet’s four years of active duty, I thought my apathy was due to my middle age. Perhaps I was finally too old to really get whatever makes tween girls squeal. But ever since the band went on hiatus and started spawning separate solo acts, I’m suddenly feeling young again. I may never really understand why 1D made it so big, but damn, I can’t get some of its erstwhile members’ solo singles out of my head.
When Liam Payne recently went Top 10 with his first entry, ”Strip That Down,” 1D became one of only four groups in U.S. chart history to have at least three members score Top 10 singles outside of the band. (The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and New Edition are the others.) That’s a pretty lofty achievement for a boy band, especially one from the UK. Keep in mind that no members of Take That (including Robbie Williams), Westlife, or Boyzone has ever seen the view inside the Top 40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.
American boy band-ers from the last 30 years haven’t fared much better. Backstreet Boys have produced zero spin-off hitmakers to date, while two members of New Kids on the Block, Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre, can call themselves one-Top 10-hit wonders. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake is the only ex-NSYNC-er who has no reason to reunite.
So far One Direction is batting four and a half for five in the “Life after...” game. As Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, and Liam Payne have released solo material, each has managed to carve out a specific niche in the 2017 musical soundscape, even if Louis is still waiting for his first trip to the U.S. Top 10. (He’s already gone there twice in his native UK.) Not bad considering the group’s history: In 2010, Simon Cowell cobbled together One Direction for The X Factor after the five then-teens failed to wow the judges as solo acts. (They ended up placing third.)
Creatively, they’ve moved forward by moving backward. Zayn left the group in March of 2015, nearly a year before 1D went on indefinite hiatus. Like prematurely ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, he had the most to prove, and like the former Ginger Spice, he delivered. (Geri’s solo bow “Look at Me” was no “Say You’ll Be There” or “Spice Up Your Life,” but what a successful statement of intent!)
Unlike Geri, Zayn made a smashing transatlantic crossing. He topped both the U.S. album and singles charts with his 2016 solo opus Mind of Mine and its lead single “Pillowtalk,” respectively. He also accomplished what 1D never did: He scored a No. 1 U.S. single. Justin Timberlake couldn’t do that until his second solo album.
The first post-1D spin-off Niall Horan has yet to scale such lofty heights, but he quickly logged two Top 20 singles in the U.S. His debut album, Flicker, hit No. 1 last month, putting 1D in a tie with The Beatles as the group with the most members (three) to top the U.S. album chart on their own. Raise your hand if you expected him to be the Lance Bass of 1D. Niall may have strummed that guitar heartthrobbingly, but he always seemed like the one most likely to end up on reality TV.
Musically, Niall is a little Ed Sheeran, a little 1D. There’s not a lot of flash there, but it’s classy stuff. With the right producer, he’d probably be unstoppable. Proof: the Tiësto remix of “This Town,” which was one of the hottest things I heard all summer on the dance floor at DJ Station in Bangkok.
Stateside success has so far eluded Louis Tomlinson, although it’s not for lack of quality control. His first three non-1D singles emphasize up-to-the-second production flourishes over singing prowess, which gives his vocals the slight whiff of anonymity. But even if he’s the least distinctive ex-One Direction-er, Louis knows how to ride a melody, and he has excellent taste in collaborators. They include superstar producer-DJ Steve Aoki on “Just Hold On” and Bebe Rexha and Digital Farm Animals on “Back to You.”
He doesn’t show up until nearly a minute into “Back to You,” his headlining debut, but his producers, Digital Farm Animals and Tommy Danvers, crafted a sturdy musical backdrop for his belated entrance. Sadly, the song stalled at No. 40 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
“Cause nobody cares when you’re boring,” Louis sings on “Just Like You,” last month’s second preview of his forthcoming album. He’s definitely avoided boring us up to now in his solo career, but it might be too early for an I’m-famous-but-I’m-just-like-you confessional. Louis is the one most likely to keep acting like a star.
Naturally, Harry Styles is the biggest risk-taker of the bunch. He goes for George Michael Listen Without Prejudice-style artistry on his solo debut, even cribbing the title of his first single from another recently deceased pop icon: Prince. I’d take Prince’s “Sign O the Times” over Harry’s “Sign of the Times,” but the versatility he exhibits on his No. 1 self-titled album (plus his key role in director Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed World War II drama Dunkirk) makes him the one most likely to have creative staying power.
Meanwhile, Liam is the one most likely to make me want to press repeat over and over while I’m at the gym, which means that in a few years, his first three solo singles will probably sound like relics from 2017. That’s pretty par for course when your musical priority is the dance floor. But for now, Liam’s new single “Bedroom Floor” should keep me moving into 2018. His full album hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m secretly anticipating it like a teenage queen awaiting 1D’s return. (Don’t hold your breath, young ladies.)
So who does solo best? Harry’s album is the most impressive musical achievement, but if I was trapped on a deserted island with only a single 1D solo track for musical company, I’d pick “Pillowtalk.” That’s not just because Zayn’s vocals are dreamy enough to rest my head on. The song is that good. It’s the sort of steamy, soulful slow jam that Justin Timberlake has yet to pull off.
Nothing else on Mind of Mine matches it, but if Harry decides to focus on acting in the future, Zayn is definitely the one most likely to be still making 1D’s young female fans swoon when they’re 30.