How 5 Seconds of Summer Perfected One Direction's Rock-First Formula

Luke Hemmings, Ashton Irwin, Calum Hood and Michael Clifford of 5 Seconds of Summer
David Becker/Billboard Awards 2014/Getty Images for DCP

Luke Hemmings, Ashton Irwin, Calum Hood and Michael Clifford of 5 Seconds of Summer attend the 2014 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 18, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

What happens when a male pop group doesn't have to be called a "boy band"? Big sales, as 5SOS is proving.

On this week's Billboard 200 chart, 5 Seconds of Summer easily debuts at No. 1 with its first album, as the self-titled full-length moves 259,000 copies in its first frame. That's an impressive number for any artist -- only two albums, Coldplay's Ghost Stories and Eric Church's The Outsiders, have bowed with bigger numbers this year -- but especially for one whom most U.S. pop fans hadn't heard of six months ago.

5 Seconds of Summer has no history of selling albums, and the group doesn't have a radio smash (the single "She Looks So Perfect" has come the closest, but only peaked at No. 19 on the Pop Songs chart in early June). They're huge on social media, but so is Austin Mahone, whose debut EP The Secret started with just 46,000 copies sold upon its May release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It helps that 5SOS is closely associated with superstar boy band One Direction: 1D's Louis Tomlinson shouted out the Australian group on Twitter back in November 2012, and the pair of heartthrob collections have since toured stadiums together. But the secret to their success isn't that 5 Seconds of Summer was hyped by a huge artist -- it's that they followed that artist's rock-centric movements, and at the perfect time.

With their debut album, 5 Seconds of Summer has extended the ideas of One Direction's recent Midnight Memories album, but hasn't had to deal with the whole "boy band" social stigma. The Australian group has arrived at a moment in U.S. pop music in which Top 40 fans are clearly ready for a mainstream rock revival, after digesting electro-pop and EDM for years. And who helped speed up that transition and bring guitars back into the fold, without necessarily receiving any of the credit for doing so? One Direction, of course.

From debut album Up All Night onward, One Direction's music has long incorporated guitar into their songs, at first to achieve maximum virality. "Each of the songs have signature riffs -- something so people can play YouTube versions of our songs," Carl Falk, who co-wrote 1D hits like "What Makes You Beautiful" and "Live While We're Young," told Billboard in 2012. Creating a blueprint for easy-to-make YouTube covers is important for exposure, but so is surviving the ever-changing landscape of pop culture; as the 1D boys and their fans grew up, the group's songs started carrying heavier riffs, unabashed finger-picking and hooks that nodded toward 80's power-pop instead of Radio Disney. The folk-tinged "Story of My Life," for instance, became one of their biggest radio hits to date earlier this year, and while a boy band's third album is usually the moment when the deafening buzz begins to fade, One Direction bucked that trend with last year's Midnight Memories, which scored the troupe's biggest sales debut to date.

5 Seconds of Summer's 10 Biggest Influences

"Story of My Life" sounds nothing like latter-day *N Sync or Backstreet Boys, whose sounds bent toward R&B and hip-hop at the end of their amazing runs in the early 00's. That's because One Direction read the tea leaves in popular music and correctly identified that rock was gradually seeping back into Top 40. The folk revival of 2012 (better known as the "Ho Hey" Era) combated the bass drops and made Mumford mainstream; that movement couldn't be sustained, but its ripples are still being felt. Ed Sheeran is now playing arenas, Lorde is a phenomenon after dominating the alternative charts, and Bruno Mars is still throwing all sorts of retro trinkets into his blender, to Super Bowl-sized success. Meanwhile, smaller rock artists (Bastille, American Authors) and veterans (Paramore, Fall Out Boy) are tossing out crossover hits with greater frequency. And One Direction, a group most casual music fans know as a boy band, is churning out songs that resemble Cheap Trick more closely than Justin Bieber.

Now 5 Seconds of Summer -- who can emphasize good guitar-playing as well as good looks -- is reaping the rewards of what 1D has sown, in a big way. The Australian quartet has arrived with well-chiseled songs and rock credentials intact, at a time when the world is ready for a band with guitars to take over.

Currently, 5 Seconds of Summer is enjoying all of the perks in America that 1D experienced when they first arrived in early 2012: they're foreign heartthrobs who are still in their teens and haven't been around long enough to get into any trouble. Stylistically, however, 5SOS is right where One Direction is at on Midnight Memories -- buzzing riffs, thudding drums, swaggering vocals and lyrics that limit their flirtatiousness to a PG-13 rating without becoming too overtly sexual. The songs on 5 Seconds of Summer hint at a punk-rock snottiness that may reveal itself on future albums, but the album also boasts a slew of precise songwriting from the 5SOS members themselves, who stress the fact that they all write their songs and play their own instruments. These guys may look like boy band members, but anyone paying attention to them can't question their authenticity.  

One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer come from different backgrounds -- a British "X Factor"-bred pop group versus a YouTube-born rock collective from Down Under -- but musically, they've ended up at the same point. And while 1D will have to adapt its image to keep fans screaming for more, 5SOS is ready-made to have a long run. Selling 259,000 copies in one week? It's just the beginning for 5 Seconds of Summer. Pretty soon, they won't be opening for anyone.