This British boy band is the kind of thing serious music critics like myself aren’t supposed to like. First of all, let’s just start with the phrase “boy band”. Something you can’t take seriously after the dubious success of the likes of NKOTB and the Backstreet Boys, right? What’s more, “boy bands” are hardly the rage these days. (Jonas Brothers. Remember them?) You’re more likely to be a success in this environment if you’re a poppy, cute-as-a-button solo act in the mould of, oh say, Justin Bieber. So that’s supposed strike one against this band in question, One Direction. Supposed strike two is the fact that the band is a product of the Simon Cowell UK-Based Reality TV Talent Show Competition The X Factor and signed a multi-million dollar record deal with Cowell’s Syco label after appearing on the program. Supposed strike three is the fact that this group has a rather contrived and dubious origin that screams “manufactured”: All five members originally tried out and failed under the “Boys” category on The X Factor, but then one of the guest judges suggested that they be put into a band and try out in that category, where they actually got to compete. How’s that for instant fame and success? Strike four? Well, they didn’t win. (Wait a minute. Maybe that’s not a strike.)
However, despite all this, the boys’ debut album, Up All Night, is a little bit of a revelation when it comes to tweenybopper bubblegum pop. I don’t know how to put this politely, so let’s just say that the album, in all of its disposable and of-the-moment glory, doesn’t suck. Really. It doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s actually quite appealing and surprisingly muscular, unafraid to crank up the electric guitars and sometimes tone down the cheesy keyboards that marred previous boy bands. It’s unabashedly pop, but it actually rocks. For that, One Direction has generally won over the critics overseas, and the group actually recently walked away with a 2012 BRIT Award for Best British Single. To put that into perspective, it’s the musical equivalent of New Kids’ taking home the Grammy for Best Record of the Year. Meanwhile, Up All Night is literally a patchwork created by a who’s who of pop talent behind the mixing board and in the songwriting chair – you won’t believe this, but even Kelly Clarkson had a hand in writing one of the tunes. (She writes music? Really?) That the jigsaw nature of the album’s creation generally works is probably a small miracle into itself.
However, there’s a lot to like about this gaggle of teenaged pop stars. For one – and I’m about to immolate my indie-rock cred right here – but they name-check Katy Perry on the title track. (This will be much to the chagrin of my fellow writers at PopMatters, but I actually like Perry: she’s got some decent pop songs, and, well, any woman who has the gravitas to film a video where she shoots whipped cream from canisters on her chest earns points in my fem-exploitation book.) The boys in One Direction are also something of open comic book geeks, or at least pretend to be. Two of the songs on Up All Night directly reference Superman. I can get down with that, if you’ll excuse me while I put down my copy of Watchmen. All in all, Up All Night is the kind of record that I wouldn’t cringe at if much of the tracklisting worked its way onto Top 40 radio (which it has in the UK, where it was released in late 2011), and is the sort of album that, if I had a 10-year-old daughter, wouldn’t feel embarrassed about if she decided to put the CD into the car stereo on a nice long drive to Grandma’s house.
There’s some great stuff here, and I write that hesitantly knowing that millions of prepubescent girls will be holding onto every word of my commendation, while millions of indie hipsters are probably preparing to shuck me with rocks for merely suggesting that One Direction is a pretty not bad boy band. The best thing to be found on Up All Night is the electro pop house anthem “Tell Me a Lie”, which bristles with a pulsating beat that, in other hands, could have been a druggy ecstasy-fuelled club anthem. But there’s still an underlying sense of threat and menace to the proceedings despite the bubblegum trappings, suggesting a real future for these guys well into their 20s if they can continue to tap this vein. Also, the album is particularly front-loaded, as their two biggest UK hits open things up in a delicious one-two punch: “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Gotta Be You”. The former is a nice get-up-and-go dance number (complete with cowbell!), and the latter boasts lovely string samples and orchestral stabs. “Taken”, the story of a young lad who is basically dealing with a stalker of a girl who pines for him despite his relationship status, is another triumphant high point with its bitter and twisted lines (“Now that you can’t have me / You suddenly want me”). It’s surprising mature and creepy in equal measure. Album closer “Stole My Heart” is another techno-baiting anthem that practically pours glitter out of your speakers.
Up All Night, however, isn’t flawless. In particular, the song “One Thing” has a melody that nicks quite liberally from the chorus of the Backstreet Boys’ monster hit “I Want It That Way” – so much so that Nick Carter, A. J. McLean, and company have a pretty compelling case to launch a plagiarism lawsuit if they really want to. Homage or theft? You decide. As well, some of the ballads in the center of the record are particularly syrupy and saccharine, so much that they make my teeth hurt. The acoustic guitar led “More Than This” is a bit cloying, and it doesn’t move the band much far beyond their ‘90s ancestors. “I Wish” is another directionless mid-tempo pseudo-slow jam, and even some of the stadium stompers fall on the weak side: “I Want”, with its pinkly piano line, uncomfortably conjures up the spectre of the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel, just uncomfortably married with Brian May-esque guitar lines.
Still, Up All Night is a laudable addition to the boy band pantheon, often surpassing the work of other pop acts du jour and the ghosts of Wahlberg past. If I can get serious for a moment, even though it’s easy to take aim at bands like One Direction, they do play a vital role in the development of more arty music. For instance, if it wasn’t for the (sometimes made-up) ‘60s tween bands such as the Archies and 1910 Fruitgum Company, “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads wouldn’t even exist. So, while some might want to sharpen their knives and really plunge them deeply into the carcass of bands such as One Direction, who knows what indie-rock anthem this group will inspire some 10 years from now, presumably long after this band has long been largely forgotten by the masses? For that, Up All Night is a largely sterling example of the boy band template, and one can only imagine what possibilities will come of it. For the here and now, though, Up All Night is a well-crafted slice of pop you can pop bubbles to, one that shows that there might be only one place where One Direction can go from here, assuming they’re not written off and laughed at as just another put-together poseur superstars in the years to come. And that direction would be, admittedly, up.