It’s June 2018, and I’m standing on the floor of the Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan, almost 200 miles from where I live. My best friend since high school is right next to me. We’re covered in glitter and two beers in. The pre-show mix has clicked over to “Olivia,” from One Direction's fifth and most recent album, Made in the A.M., and the entire crowd is scream-singing it. Harry Styles is going to take the stage in a matter of minutes. It’s my third time seeing him in a week. I am 35.
One Direction isn't my first boy band love. Pop is my preferred music genre, and I'm a sucker for male friendships, so I've always been in constant danger of getting sucked into that world. I grew up on *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, lost a couple of years to the Jonas Brothers in my 20s, and flirted with a few others, from LFO to BBMak. Boy band fandom has always been a bonding experience first and foremost, and I've forged and enriched countless friendships while discussing my faves. And I haven't moved on from a single group that I really adore, no matter their status. BSB and New Kids on the Block are touring this summer and you better believe I have tickets for both. I cried watching *NSYNC reunite this year at their Hollywood Walk of Fame star unveiling, even though they haven't put out an album since 2001. Boy band love isn't something you just get over.
But when people find out that I’m an adult who loves these bands, particularly, One Direction, they want answers. It’s not something that can simply just be, like me following Brooklyn Nine-Nine or seeing Star Wars movies on opening night. No, this has to be explained, because my existence goes against the demographic that the majority of the public believes boy bands appeal to: teen girls. The fact is that teen girls make stars and set trends due to their passion. ("Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?" Styles even said in his 2017 Rolling Stone profile.) And that's certainly the case with One Direction. Their On The Road Again tour was the second highest grossing one of 2015 (right behind Taylor Swift), and, according to Billboard, they'd sold 7.6 million albums in the U.S. as of 2016.
Despite boy bands' clear power, there’s not a lot of respect in society for the demographic driving those massive sales. The pan to a gaggle of shrieking, crying young girls has been a part of this marketing since the rise of The Beatles, and I’m not the only more mature 1D fan who finds that frustrating.
“Teen girls express their love and passion for their interests so freely and unapologetically, and that scares people who don't feel comfortable with or know how to express themselves freely,” says Cat, 30, who has loved 1D since 2015 and even traveled to Dublin to see one of their final shows, over email. “It's stupid and a shame because teenage girls know what's up.”
When I’m being grilled about liking One Direction, I can tell that the person asking questions is trying to get to some psychological "gotcha" — something to point at to prove that boy band fandom past a certain age is caused by a lingering immaturity. Older women engaging in activities that are commonly associated with their younger counterparts seems to irk in a way that grown men hosting fantasy football drafts or spending hours a day gaming doesn't.
While some of the women I spoke to ... were those passionate teens for boy bands of their past, others didn’t consider themselves fangirls until they discovered One Direction later in life.
So, I’ve always considered my passion for boy bands in general, and One Direction specifically, as an act of defiance. Every time I’ve seen the group or one of its members live, I take a minute to look around me and watch people of all ages and genders — and yes, a lot of girls and women — being happy, free of the gaze that wants them to feel ashamed or silly or self-conscious.
And while some of the women I spoke to for this piece were those passionate teens for boy bands of their past, others didn’t consider themselves fangirls until they discovered One Direction later in life. But no matter how they came to be in this fandom, all of them have experienced that sexist derision. I was told when I was 13 and into Hanson that I was “too old” for boy bands, and that made me question myself at the time. Fortunately, once you realize what structures are working against you and all of your peers, you stop taking those comments as personally.
“In a nice mood, I just explain that the music is great, and concerts are great, and fandom is great, and let people love what they love,” says Joslyn (“past mid-30s”) about getting shamed about One Direction, adding, “In a defensive mood, I suppose I tell them to f*ck off, and also smash the patriarchy." She calls her peer and The Good Place star D’Arcy Carden her “1D fairy godmother” for publicly and unapologetically touting her own love of the band.
While it’s no fun to feel like you have to rationalize your love of something to someone else, it is fun to ask a bunch of articulate women how 1D ensnared them sometime between the band's formation on the UK X-Factor and today, as they maintain four to five (depending on your feelings about Zayn Malik’s much-publicized exit) solo careers.
Personally, I’m here in 1D fandom specifically because every member of this group is really bloody talented, and because together, they create something special. One Direction put out five full albums in the five years after they were formed and competed on The X-Factor, and the progression is really stunning. Like Styles, who wholeheartedly threw himself into nightly performances of it during his solo tour, I think their first ever single “What Makes You Beautiful” is a forever bop. But hold it up to their Paul Simon-esque grief ode “Walking In The Wind,” the groovy "What a Feeling," and the previously mentioned Beatles homage "Olivia" from their 2015 album, and there’s no question that One Direction worked and evolved and poured their hearts into what they were doing over the years. Their credits accrued over time, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson being the most prolific songwriters in the group. ("And remember if it’s by One Direction and it’s a banger I probably wrote on it," Tomlinson tweeted on the band's eighth anniversary this year. He's not wrong.)
Yet while I’d argue they’ve put out some of the best pop-rock of the last 20 years (just try not to sing along to “Story of My Life,” I dare you), there’s more to the fandom than just the group's talent. With boy bands in general, and One Direction in particular, the personalities behind the music are just as important as the songs themselves. “The more I listened, the more I wanted to know about them,” Viv, 30, explains of the band. And 1D is still capturing new fans three years into their hiatus, because it just takes a few clicks to access their entire history, dating all the way back to their X-Factor video diaries. “The way they hit it off from the moment they were formed as a band was pretty magical, and I feel fortunate we live in a time where it's all archived and easily accessible in online videos and social media posts,” says Cat.
What those videos portray in many cases is a camaraderie that’s infectiously joyful and sometimes downright tender.
In my personal circle, people are still accidentally falling in love with the band. Because, and this is universal among 1D fans, I have a playlist of their most lethally charming YouTube moments, and I’m not afraid to use it. What those videos portray in many cases is a camaraderie that’s infectiously joyful and sometimes downright tender. They may be living extraordinary lives, but there’s an element of 1D that’s just four goobers hanging out and enjoying each other. They are not the boy bands of the ‘90s, in that they’ve only ever performed a synchronized dance in jest. Because they’re not beholden to any choreography, their concerts are barely controlled chaos. When I saw *NSYNC live in the late '90s, I’d have to wait for those little interactions between the members that would happen between moves — with One Direction, those interactions are basically why you bought the ticket.
And then there's what the band represents. As a result of all of their history easily able to be rediscovered online, the group's origin story stays alive. You're not just able to watch a band take off, but you also get to witness deep, life-altering friendships being formed, and that has a profound effect. “Some of us had very particular dreams and never got there. Some of us never really had particular dreams in the first place, at least not the grandiose kind, but always wished we had,” writes Gillian, 37. “So what a treat to watch a bunch of good boys not only achieve their dreams, and not just genuinely acknowledge they're lucky to have done so, but truly enjoy the ever-loving f*ck out of it, and revel in the fact that they get to share their joy with other good boys they love.”
One Direction is also a case of old-school business choices butting up against the “wokeness” of the current times. The way that the group has been presented to us by their management and label very often conflicts with who they seem to be in practice. When Wikileaks posted thousands of emails allegedly hacked from Sony, they included some One Direction image strategy details that are downright distressing, including labeling Styles "adorably slow" and Malik "a player." (Tellingly, a lot of media coverage of that leak poked fun at fans who were upset by this information.) Though Styles was just 16 — a child — when the group got together, he was quickly determined to be a ladies man. Tomlinson was frequently depicted as a careless partier, despite how close he is to his large family and how much charity work he does. Interviewers would frequently fixate on personal questions instead of the group's work. Fortunately, fans of all ages are better equipped than ever to recognize when they’re being pandered to, and social media enables that conversation to spread.
Nic, 36, refers to the members’ “fighting spirit” in this regard, explaining, “I think as members of a boyband their media images were carefully crafted, and (for example) watching Harry Styles consistently be respectful when answering questions about women, and his mostly female fanbase, despite the headlines implying he was womanizer, was a fascinating lesson in media literacy for me.”
As it usually is with a group of attractive young men who sing, the sales pitch for One Direction seemed to be built around them as crush objects. “I find myself having to field presumptive remarks about who I have a crush on or whatnot, with the assumption being that that's the reason why I am a fan of the band,” explains Viv. But that pitch assumes that potential fans won’t pay attention otherwise, and, much more troublingly, that most potential fans are girls who have sexual or romantic interest in boys. In reality, there’s a robust LGBTQ+ presence in the One Direction fanbase (find many discussions of their “most lesbian lyrics” on Tumblr), and the band has shown its support by acknowledging these fans in interviews, pointing out pride signs and flags in the audience of their shows, and being just as affectionate with male fans as they are with girls and women.
The landscape of 1D fandom changed in 2015, however. It was only a matter of months into my time in that universe that One Direction announced a hiatus, which was initially planned to last 18 months but has now dragged on for three years — hence Styles’ solo world tour, a tentpole experience of my summer. During this hiatus, Styles and Niall Horan have both released full-length albums and toured them. Liam Payne has released several singles and an EP. Tomlinson has promised that his album is coming soon; he’s currently stealing hearts as an X-Factor judge, being praised by viewers for being a nurturing mentor, countering toxic masculinity by being emotional and supporting his male acts when they are too.
In addition, Styles has continued to establish himself as an ally of inclusion. Actions like waving “Black Lives Matter” flags and sensitively helping a fan come out to her mother have made his shows a welcoming, safe space for fans of all identities. (At the aforementioned Detroit show, he congratulated an expectant couple not on their "boy" or "girl" but on “whatever it decides.”) In several cities, fans organized “rainbow projects,” using colored paper and their cell phones to turn arenas into giant, twinkling pride flags. One of the reasons Nic says she went to see Styles more than once was because she wanted to “engage openly with a larger queer community as often as [she] could.” He’s an extraordinary example of a pop star who’d had a prescribed career ahead of him but broke out of that box, and for the benefit of all of us.
There are days when I feel a little more down than usual that it's been so long since 1D has done something together, I've also been through this before.
It’s bittersweet to watch all four One Direction members continue to be the creative, conscious celebrities I know them to be, just separately. But as I mentioned before, the group put out five albums in five years, and toured all but the last one. (I’m hanging on by the skin of my teeth until I die or hear Made in the A.M. live, whichever comes first.) I don’t like the idea of pushing young, talented people until they burn out, and I don’t think expressing yourself individually comes at the expense of being able to return to a group dynamic. I know how much each of them has to give, and I’ll always feel like a proud mama when I see one of my guys headline a show.
And while there are days when I feel a little more down than usual that it's been so long since 1D has done something together, I've also been through this before. Kevin Richardson left the Backstreet Boys and returned. New Kids on the Block were broken up for 14 years before making their comeback. So I know that being a human being means never saying "never," but I also know that it's ultimately OK if there's never a traditional reunion. As attached to *NSYNC as I was, their breakup never made me bitter. I still have so many amazing memories, and they're still on all of my playlists.
But every fan is handling the hiatus a little differently. Joslyn tells me that an adult fan 1D Slack that we’re both a part of wasn’t even created until after the break began, and there’s been a steady output of fanfic, fan art, and — our lifeblood in these trying times of the band not being together — memes.
“I participate in fandom more. Maybe over time, I felt more comfortable or brave,” Maggie, 38, explains about how the hiatus has affected her. She also says that she doesn’t “feel like [she has] to keep up with every aspect of their solo careers,” picking and choosing what she pays attention to.
Nic calls the 1D fandom “notoriously fractured,” and attests that “the hiatus has made that aspect even worse.” Being a One Direction fan online can mean curating your feed so you’re surrounded by “your” people. Wading into it is sort of like walking into the Mean Girls cafeteria and getting the lay of the land from Janis and Damian. There are factions based on favorites and theories and relationships, and those factions all have names. “Some days it doesn't even feel like there's still a cohesive ‘One Direction Fandom,’ because everyone is rooting for their favorite member,” Nic adds.
So the love persists, and so do the conflicts. There’s a hint of pain too, because some of us are still holding our breath for an announcement that may never come. “Maybe it's a little dramatic, but there's a hole in my heart that (an active) One Direction used to fill,” Cat says. “Missing the band, and having the smallest flicker of hope that they'll reunite someday, is keeping me here.” But like many of us, Kim, 39, is around for the long haul. “That feeling never goes away, you know? I've been a Backstreet Boys fan for 20 years now, and my love for them has never faded. It will be the same for One Direction,” she says.
For a lot of these women, it's the friends they've met through the fandom that are making the wait — a possibly interminable one — bearable. Whether 2015 was it for One Direction or not, they're still providing a safe space, a creative outlet, and a social home base for their fans — of all ages.