Don't Look Now, But One Direction Is Making Great Rock Music

One Direction
Sony Music

One Direction

After embracing 80’s tunes on their last album, 1D is back with another killer single. Will casual fans care that One Direction is no longer a pop band?

When all is said and done, what will One Direction's legacy be? Surely the U.K. quintet will be remembered as one of the biggest boy bands in the history of pop music, capable of selling out stadiums and birthing a new No. 1 album every year. But will 1D be remembered as one of the best boy bands ever, the one that distanced itself from the loathsome qualifiers often tied to industry-formed pop collectives and actually evolved into a genuinely enjoyable act? One Direction is miles away from where it started when it formed in 2010 and was slinging out tasty pop-rock treats, and now holds the title of World's Greatest Classic-Rock Band That Doesn't Really Play Instruments and Wasn't Alive in the 1980s. I don't know how we got here, and I don't know how much if it can be chalked up to Harry, Liam, Zayn, Niall and Louis, but here we are.

On Monday (Sept. 29), One Direction released “Steal My Girl,” the first single from their upcoming studio album Four and the heir apparent to their awesomely bombastic 2013 single “Best Song Ever.” Like that song, “Steal My Girl” is an ode to an unflappable girl with bodacious moves, and also like “Best Song Ever,” One Direction's new single could be snuck onto your dad's favorite rock radio station between Van Halen's “Jump” and The Who's “Baba O'Riley.”

The ostentatious guitar riffs of “Best Song Ever” aren't there this time, but “Steal My Girl” has very “Cherry Pie”-esque lines like “Kisses like a queen, her walk is so mean/And every jaw drops when she's in those jeans,” delivered in between avalanches of piano-led power-pop and stomp-clap beats. The chorus is a pints-up sing-along at a packed bar, with all five One Direction members coming together to remind everyone not to mess with their girl(s): “Couple billion in the whole wide world/Find another one, ‘cause she belongs to me.” It's a ridiculous concept and revisits a problematic gender dichotomy (if only 1D had changed the last line to “she belongs with me”), like most great hair-metal singles. And it's not even a particularly innovative song, as Paramore's Hayley Williams correctly points out. Still, “Steal My Girl” is One Direction's most deliriously fun single since “Kiss You,” a chunk of rock music so chewy that it can dominate your whole afternoon if you're not careful.

This moment has been in the works for a while. One Direction's debut album, Up All Night, arrived in the U.S. in March 2012, and since that carbonated opening statement (led by the group's top-notch debut single “What Makes You Beautiful”), the former X Factor finalists have slowly but surely moved away from bubblegum pop. Instead of whooshing down the hip-hop/R&B slide and calling Nelly or the Clipse — as *N SYNC and Backstreet Boys did back in the day, respectively — One Direction landed on rock music as their next target. Sophomore album Take Me Home flaunted the group's new intentions: “Live While We're Young” nodded to the guitar riff of the Clash's “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and “Little Things” was co-written by Ed Sheeran. Following the album release, 1D recorded a medley of Blondie's “One Way or Another” and the Undertones' “Teenage Kicks” for charity; most of the members got new tattoos and started dressing like the members of Blink-182. One Direction was still working with the same producers as Up All Night, and remained ostensibly controlled by The Machine that assembled them when they were reality show contestants. Yet there were clearly nudging their sound into more guitar-based territory, and their handlers (management, labels, Swedish producers) all seemed okay with that choice.

One Direction's third album, Midnight Memories, was its first out-and-out rock project, a smattering of upright folk (“Story of My Life,” “Through The Dark”) and fuzzed-out anthems (“Little Black Dress,” “Midnight Memories”) that came from a more diverse pool of songwriters, including Jacknife Lee, Teddy Geiger (!) and Ryan Tedder. There isn't a lot that stalls on Midnight Memories — the album might be a little long, but 1D is crushing its genre appropriations and sounds giddy taking swipes at adult themes. One Direction was also taking more ownership of its music: Midnight Memories had the boys contributing lyrics and adding their influences to 12 songs on the standard edition's 14-song track list. Those influences, naturally, skewed toward a time before the 1D boys were alive: “I love that '80s rock vibe, I'm a massive Eagles fan,” Niall Horan told Billboard last year. “Love Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, The Who.”

Midnight Memories boasts more guitar-playing from Horan, who brandishes his instrument at One Direction's stadium shows with a pleased look underneath his blonde mop, as if to point out, “We are not a boy band, boy bands don't shred.” If the shrieking pre-teens and lovingly intense fan signs tricked you into thinking a One Direction stadium show was a new-school Backstreet Boys concert, 1D's lack of choreography, solo-prone backing band and reliance on laser lights constantly remind its audience that it is not BSB. What's the difference between a One Direction concert and Mötley Crüe concert in 2014? The Crüe crowd may be older and the group members might actually be creating the riffs to which they're head-banging, but from a musical standpoint, the two experiences are becoming less discernible.

“I think it's just a progression on the last stuff we've done,” Zayn Malik said about Four earlier this month, and “Steal My Girl” certainly confirms that assertion. Four will be a rock album, and if One Direction makes another a fifth album, that probably will be, too. But how long can this last? Those screaming fans populating One Direction stadiums are getting older, and history tells us that the market for a boy band’s new music diminishes greatly once its younger followers move on to more grown-up fare. One Direction’s problem is that they’re already creating adult music (with PG-rated lyrics, of course) but, as a boy band, lack the perceived “authenticity” to bring in adult consumers and establish longevity, no matter how many songs they co-write on an album or how many times Horan waggles his guitar at their shows. And who knows if One Direction even wants to grow old together? It’s easy to forget that 1D has pumped out four albums in four years while maintaining a mind-numbing touring schedule. Even if its members don’t want to go solo, something’s got to give at some point to slow down productivity.

It’s unlikely that this highly enjoyable phase of One Direction’s career will last forever, or even for that much longer. And when the group’s magic finally runs out, casual fans will likely recall the band’s enormity, the crying tween girls at their stadium shows and a few of their catchier hits. But the secret of One Direction’s second phase is that it’s been dominated by big, dumb rock influences, and has produced some big, brilliant songs. If you want to disregard “Steal My Girl,” that’s fine; just know that you’re letting one of the better rock tunes of the year pass you by.