A few weeks ago, One Direction’s Harry Styles received death threats. They were false ones, the result of internet idiocy, but fans came out in droves to show their support for the de facto frontman. The murderous claims targeted the band’s August 5 gig at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey — one of the biggest of their globetrotting, mostly sold-out stadium tour — and occasioned a worldwide Twitter trend, #HarryBeCareful, spurred by fans fearful of losing their beloved Harry. It was an ominous situation until you actually entered the MetLife parking lot.
Swedish electronic duo Icona Pop opened the night, blasting through a bouncy, 45-minute set of EDM-fueled power pop. They’ve mastered the opening-act bit to a glorious extent, dedicating every break for banter to 1D: “I’d like to thank Louis” — pause — “Liam” — pause — and so on, until every boy was given a moment. When they blasted through their Charli XCX–penned 2012 hit, “I Love It,” they did so with Spice Girls–in-their-prime levels of ferocity. They even edited the distasteful “bitch” in favor of “bish,” an applaudable recognition of their audience. We’re not in Gothenburg anymore.
When One Direction took the stage, they did so fashionably late, as if they were waiting for the sun to set to perform amid an iPhone-lit nighttime ambiance. And there was a change to their walk-on ritual: Typically, or formerly, 1D would air a clip of each boy exploring some country: reading a map upside-down in Egypt, swimming in the Mediterranean, what have you — they’ve been kicking their gigs off that way for years. It gave the audience a feel for their expansiveness, validating that “biggest band in the world” title for even the most disinterested dad dragged there by his daughter. But with the departure of noted tenor Zayn Malik, the video was scrapped, replaced by the fantastic now-foursome in their 2015 incarnation, dancing in front of pastel cartoons. It’s here that Malik’s absence feels the most real: One Direction is truly a group of four English white boys now.
They lead off with “Clouds,” the sister song to their fan-created single “No Control.” It’s a soaring Eighties jam in its own right, the last song on their powerhouse fourth studio album, FOUR. Styles opens with a delicate “I know you say/That you don’t like it complicated,” and the shrieks that follow his all-too-familiar rasp are deafening. He knows it, and smiles. Niall Horan, the Irishman of the group, emerges toting a bright red Gibson SG. It’s not the acoustic he’s known to bring out near the set’s end — this is new. When Malik was a driving force in the band, Horan hid behind his guitar. It was his shtick. In Malik’s absence, it’s his strength.
Horan and his six-string aren’t the only ones affected by Malik being out of the picture. It’s Louis Tomlinson, once the outcast of the group, who has somehow redeemed himself. For a band like One Direction, who owe their entire career to their social-media-loving, endlessly enthusiastic, and loyal fanbase, it’s moments of access — or the illusion of it — that determines popularity. When Malik attacked Tomlinson on Twitter earlier this year, responding to Tomlinson’s remarks about Malik’s no-name producer bud Naughty Boy, the 1D girls aligned themselves with Tomlinson. He went from being the problematic boy of the bunch to someone they can sympathize with, not unlike the recent transformation of Justin Bieber.
It doesn’t hurt that the fan favorite FOUR track is “No Control,” a Tomlinson-penned number. Before they jump into it near the middle of the set, Liam Payne thanks the crowd for making their first song post-Malik, “Drag Me Down,” a smash. (The Nick Jonas–channeling jam broke a Spotify record, with a whopping 4.75 million plays in a 24-hour period.) He uses it as an expression of his gratitude, before launching into “When Louis and I were writing this song…” and the crowd roars, knowing “No Control” is imminent. A girl near the stage stands on her chair wielding a “Drag Me Down Is the Resurrection of One Direction” sign.
One Direction–as-songwriters is clearly a new development. It gives them a certain feel of authenticity that will work: The Directioners will continue to grow with them, as long as they’ll have them, and vice versa. When “No Control” slows into what would have been Malik’s bridge, Horan takes over, struggling just a bit with what his former bandmate would normally ease through. He destroys it, even so.
In “Drag Me Down,” there are moments that sound like they were written for Malik, but Styles sings them (while dousing himself and the audience in water, no less). Throughout the entire set, the boys alternate in filling the void Malik left. It’s spread out enough that it’s completely seamless. They never mention Malik, and it doesn’t seem like his presence is missed all that much. The only real hiccup of the entire night is Tomlinson forgetting the words to his verse in the Fleetwood Mac-styled “Fireproof,” and even that seems to please the crowd — it’s humanizing.
Last year, when One Direction played the very same stadium on the very same night, Malik looked distressed. He would often turn his back to the 80,000-capacity venue; he would barely manage a smirk. Malik was checked out: His bandmates could clearly feel it, and it was apparent there was something off. There’s nothing like a 1D gig, but you can tell when their hearts aren’t in it.
Tonight their encore changes to reflect the blow to their boyband. “Act My Age,” a surprising Dropkick Murphys–esque B side, replaces “Live While We’re Young,” a nod mostly to the Horan-loving ladies in the audience. Their 25-song, two-hour set ends how it always ends, with the familiar “Best Song Ever,” the girls who were crying moments earlier wiping tears from their giant grins and soaked dimples. It recalls a moment earlier in the evening, when hundreds of attendees pulled out pieces of paper that read “Thank you for staying” in 1D’s immediately identifiable font of choice. Zayn is gone, but One Direction isn’t. And the girls? They’re not going anywhere.