The Religion of One Direction24 November 2020
In the Name of Harry Styles, Our Lord … Amen
At first, I didn’t like them. You weren’t supposed to. Boys pantsed you in the playground. They licked the sap from trees thinking it was honey. Boys were pests. When I read about an up-and-coming boyband in the rainbow-glazed entertainment pages of Total Girl magazine, I decided to bring the matter before the jury the next day at school. The response was negative.
Noted. Not supposed to like One Direction.
It was 2011. We were in grade five. If you needed enough support to wear a crop top, you were hot shit. We discussed the structural integrity of tampons and tried to smuggle Forever… by Judy Blume into our library pile when our mums weren’t looking. We were fine in ‘girl world’.
One night, my brother and I were left with our babysitter. Alice was—as all ‘big girls’ were to me—so cool. We spent the night watching [V] Hits, a collage of hedonistic femme-pop; a top 40 countdown announcing itself ad infinitum. In ‘Super Bass’, Nicki Minaj was air-grinding with her pink-haired posse. In ‘Born This Way’, Lady Gaga was helming a flash-mob, clad in a studded silk-and-leather underwear set. If it weren’t for Alice sitting next to me, I would have responded to Gaga’s instruction to put your paws up with a bold salute of my own. None of this was new to me.
But now, interrupting the strobe lights and chunky wigs, five boys had invaded the screen. Four brunette, one blond; all skinny and wearing low-slung chinos. My first reaction was not exhilaration, but rather boredom. Who are these bland boys, and where has Gaga giving literal birth to herself gone?
Alice stirred excitedly beside me as the first lyrics swamped the living room. You’re insecure, don’t know what for.
‘One Direction!’ she squealed. ‘Do you like them?’
I hesitated. I wasn’t supposed to like them, but I also wanted very badly to impress Alice.
‘YES! Of course, I do! Love them!’ I turned to the screen, desperately hoping she wouldn’t ask me any more questions that would reveal I knew nothing.
‘I like Harry the best,’ she declared. A boy in a checkered button-up sung to us. Deep caverns were fixed in his cheeks, bolstered by a perpetual smirk.
The group ascended sand-dunes and ran towards the camera, then away from it. Three female companions arrived in a Volkswagen beetle, wearing pastel short-shorts and Ray-Bans. A soccer ball was thrown around haphazardly. The boys ran into the water with their pants hoisted up. When the bridge came, Harry leaned into one of the girls as though he were about to kiss her; but instead serenaded her up-close. I glanced at Alice, trying to gauge her reaction. She was frozen, transfixed. My brother was dozing off next to me.
The final jubilant chorus imploded, then the instruments disappeared and it was just Harry’s voice. YOU DON’T KNOW YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL. OH-OH. THAT’S WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL.
The next music video started. Alice said something else about how devastatingly beautiful Harry was. Time moved on. But even when my teeth were brushed and the lights were off, I was still thinking about what I had witnessed. It was all so sincere. It seemed like they really wanted me—eleven and scrawny, with a sparse, stringy fringe—to know that I was beautiful. I wanted to be one of those girls on that sepia-toned beach, getting chased around and charmed. I wanted to possess the precise anatomical ratio of being simultaneously pretty and not knowing it.
I don’t remember how my friends came to love them too. Maybe they all had similar experiences with big girl babysitters. But suddenly, it was a thing. We were all infatuated.
We each assigned ourselves a ‘husband’. I was an emphatic Zayn girl. I loved his gravity-defying quiff, his thick eyebrows, and that he spoke quieter than the rest of the boys. I memorised each of their hometowns and birthdays, the names of their parents and who they were dating. I wrote down all I could find in little flip-top notebooks, a diligent detective in a sweat-stained school polo. Zain Javadd Malik (my future last name!). Born January 12th, 1993 (only seven years older than me!)
After school, I ruthlessly hogged the family computer, shoving my younger brother out of the stuffy front room. I watched any YouTube videos of the boys that I could find. They made dick jokes and flirted with female interviewers. They interrupted and roughhoused; zipped and unzipped their hoodies like bored kids at the back of a classroom. They all wore stylist-vetted preppy clothes, but they looked like they balled the sleeves of their jumpers into their fists and wiped their noses on the fabric when no-one was looking. They looked like they wore supermarket body spray.
By the time their album arrived, I was indoctrinated. I replayed the music video to ‘One Thing’ over and over, taking turns watching each of the boys. When Harry looked deep into the lens and sung you keep makin’ me weak, I felt like my chest was filled with something carbonated, like I’d had too much fizzy drink. All that I could do to release the energy was to let out a big, long, primal squeal of affection.
Those years of condensed hormonal obsession seem foreign to me now. There remains the surface embarrassment of knowing that I kissed the posters on my wall, one-by-one, before bed each night. But more than that, it seems like I was a different person; like I was gripped by something strange—even insidious—for five years of my life.
On one hand, an isolated period of total fanaticism is deeply ingrained in the experience of being a teenager. Perhaps amidst the volatility of growing up, it helps to have something steady to hold onto. Yet, it seems to me that my loving of One Direction was motivated by something else, perhaps something deeper—the desire to be noticed.
Concerts were not just a musical event, but a night charged with the restless possibility of proximity. In those multi-tiered stadiums, we were sharing AIR with them. There was the chance to lock eyes with them from the crowd, to touch them if you were in the front row, even to commando-crawl onto the stage if you were brave enough. If you were fortunate enough to catch one of the half-drunk Mount Franklin bottles they lobbed into the crowd—you had basically shared saliva with them.
When the boys came closer to our seats to sing on the B-Stage, a friend and I repeatedly shrieked their names, filling every silence. NIALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL! Surely, we reasoned, one of them would glance absently in our direction, in which case they would have our cherubic faces stored in their brain—even if only for the night.
At another show, I made a sign reading WAVE AT ME on one side and BLOW ME A KISS on the other. To my dismay, security made me rip the letters off to ensure that I
wouldn’t use the sign—it would block the view from behind us. When we got to our seats, I crouched down and painstakingly attempted to glue the paper cut-outs back on with Papaw Ointment.
A scroll through my now-defunct fan Twitter is a glimpse into the mind of another girl. I repetitiously summoned the band members from their corner of cyberspace, pleading ‘plz follow me xo’, and ‘notice me, king’. My attempts were, of course, futile; the tweets drowned out by all the other teens trying to be seen.
Every time they came to Melbourne, my friends and I would embark on a pilgrimage to their hotel, camping outside the lobby until the sun went down. One stagnant summer day in 2015 was spent traipsing through the chlorine-scented hallways of Crown Towers, riding the lifts up and down; hoping to run into Liam on his way to the gym, or Louis returning from the breakfast buffet.
What was our plan? What were we searching for? Was it the chance for a rushed selfie and garbled recitation of how much I love thee? It seems to me now that we were unknowingly participating in a new kind of twenty-first century groupiedom, with all the obsession, but none of the backstage fondling.
What about the energy I hurled from my enclave of the universe to theirs? Do the eight consecutive hours I spent watching a ‘1D Day’ live stream mean anything now? Perhaps the members of One Direction were more imaginary friends than idols; a salve for the loneliness, to be accessed instantaneously through the sheer power of fantasising.
Between the ages of eleven and fifteen, my gaze was perennially fixed on five intercontinental males, rather than on my own life; dull and remarkable, all at once. My contentment was contingent upon their approval, rather than my own. All that I am left with now is disorientation and a collection of crumpled concert programs in my bottom desk drawer as remnants of a fever dream.
And an attraction to Harry Styles. That still remains.