The male teen idol might be the most unfairly maligned type of musical act among the rock cognoscenti—not nearly as musically skilled as jam-band noodlers, fluffier than the group of guys dressing up like Kiss and playing “Rock and Roll All Nite” at outer-borough dive bars, more likely to be derided for skating by on cute-but-not-hot looks than their female peers. So much of the animosity, of course, comes from the idea that the fans of these artists are young girls, screaming their hearts out as much because of the people flailing around and singing on stage as they are because of the hormonal awakenings happening inside them.
The newest entrant into this much-maligned category: the five 20-and-unders from the British Isles who collectively go by the name One Direction. Put together as a sort of patchwork from the British edition of the televised talent show The X Factor—each member had tried out for the show separately and not made the cut, but were seen to be more than the sum of their parts by pop spark plug Nicole Scherzinger (herself no stranger to the idea of being better in a band, having had a patchy solo career here following her tenure in the brand-extending girl group the Pussycat Dolls) and X Factor figurehead Simon Cowell—the group eventually went on to place third in the competition.
And now, thanks to a pump primed by the Internet (and a lead single that touches its target audience where it counts, about which more in a second), Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson seem to be poised to follow in the win-the-long-game tradition of such American-talent-show also-rans as Miranda Lambert and Jennifer Hudson, as well as that of imported idols like Justin Bieber, who is trying to grow up in the public eye by making jokes about a pet snake named “Johnson” and displaying fealty to his similarly famous other half Selena Gomez.
After a few appearances across the Northeast, One Direction made its New York debut Friday night, when they performed at Radio City Music Hall as the opening act for the Nickelodeon-borne boy band Big Time Rush. Excitement for their set was in the air from the moment the doors opened; homemade T-shirts fashioned (still!) from puffy paint and permanent marker declared which “team” the young women wearing them happened to be on, while a security guard stationed near the door checked pieces of oak tag proclaiming love and devotion. The crowd popped the moment a banner (really, a simple black sheet with the band name in what looked to be a font scavenged from a late-’90s CD-ROM of “grunge” typography) was unfurled; that moment had been preceded by a small blimp emblazoned with the headliners’ name launching itself above the crowd, and despite its aerial feats (whoever was in charge of the remote control should get some sort of bonus for the way it almost buzzed the crowd), it was the sheet that got the bigger reception by a long way.
The lights went down, and a video came up. Designed to count down the 60 seconds leading into the group’s performance, the clip has them all getting in a speeding van, with the action pausing on particularly attractive freeze-frames to outline each member’s basic personality quirks. (Harry dislikes beetroot. Zayn likes tour buses.) When they finally did hit the stage, the screams from the devoted were so loud they could almost be felt, like a pelting rain. At certain moments in order to fit all five of them into the viewfinders of the cameraphones that stayed, stubbornly, in the air for their whole set, it seemed like the members were gathering together. They didn’t dance as much as they leaned and bounced, bringing to mind the doo-wop-era groups that would congregate on brownstone steps. They thanked the audience. They covered Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” a curiously mature choice that had the mothers and daughters in the audience grabbing onto one another and singing along, like the younger women had with every other song. (I didn’t ask those around me if their knowledge of the band’s catalog, the sum total of which is an album that didn’t officially come out here until this week, was from smuggled-in CDs, or streams, or more illicit means of music-gathering.)
The seven-song set closed with the band’s current single, the peppy, slick “What Makes You Beautiful.” The track (No. 44 on the Hot 100) could be easily dismissed as a slick piece of post-Lavigne pop—just enough guitar crunch to make its sugar cereal go down a bit more grittily—if not for its lyrics. “You’re insecure/Don’t know what for,” it starts. And then it goes on: “You’re turning heads when you walk through the door/Don’t need makeup/To cover up/Being the way that you are is enough.” In the age of “It Gets Better” and those YouTube clips where young women unsure about their place in the pecking order ask the masses to weigh in on their appearance—and get crucified by the site’s anonymous, spelling-challenged hordes of commenters as a result—”What Makes You Beautiful” is an unbelievably canny move, a love song that doesn’t just glide over its intended’s imperfections, but instead transforms them into assets. It’s a rebuke not just to minor cruelties, but to the paparazzi-photo-sneering, awfulplasticsurgery.com-devouring culture as a whole—and it’s a message that, truth be told, could probably be appreciated by more than a few adults feeling isolated and hidebound as well.
Monday morning, the group performed on Today, filling Rockefeller Plaza after a weekend of suburban CD signings. The performance of “Beautiful” wasn’t by any means perfect; those familiar with Cowell’s notoriously sour reactions could have probably envisioned the face he made when the boys tried to hit some of the lower-register notes. (No charges of sweetened vocals here.) But watching individual members of the audience sing along, their mouths turned upward, it was possible to see awkward phases be not entirely shed, but at least forgotten about for a couple of minutes—an appeal that, sadly, too few of the people ridiculing haircuts and baby faces are ready to grant as not just valid, but necessary for girls on the cusp of womanhood.