This week, British heartthrobs One Direction — the most successful boy band in a decade by just about any standard — release their third studio album, “Midnight Memories.” If it feels crazy that the group is already on its third album, that’s because it absolutely is crazy–it was just March of last year that the group released their first album, “Up All Night,” to United States retailers. The 20 months since have encompassed not only a second album and multiple hit singles, but celebrity relationships, mostly imaginary pop feuds, and even the now-obligatory behind-the-scenes concert film.
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One Direction have basically run the boy band playbook like NFL coach Chip Kelly has run the Philadelphia Eagles, moving at a breakneck pace determined not to let opponents catch their breath. Consequently, it’s almost impossible to tell at what point One Direction are on their career arc: we’ve experienced such a concentrated explosion of 1D mania that it feels like the backlash that inevitably hits all mega-successful teen groups should have begun by now, but in truth, they haven’t even been around for as long as Backstreet Boys had been by the time they released their blockbuster “Millennium” album.
Perhaps the only way to see where One Direction is on its trajectory, compared to other boy bands, is to see how closely “Midnight Memories” follows the pattern that has been established throughout history by the group’s most obvious predecessors on their junior releases. The blueprint for the third boy band album is an intricate one, but most closely adheres to the following five halfmarks:
1. Increased emphasis on in-group songwriting and/or performing. The third album is usually when the boy band starts getting fed up with criticism over how they don’t write their own songs or play their own instruments, and wants to establish their artistic integrity and prove they’re “more than just a boy band.” Thus, even if the first two albums were almost entirely external in their writing and performance, the third album will usually include much more of the group’s last names in the liner-note credits.
2. More mature lyrical themes. The “boy” part of the boy band appellation also usually starts to grate by the time of the third album, and LP3 thus tends to include songs based around more adult subject matter that would’ve come off as scandalous on the first few releases. Usually, this just means sex –still alluded to more than explicitly described, but undeniably prevalent nonetheless — but occasionally it also means a newfound self-awareness, a sense of the group’s own place in the world.
3. Flirtation with contemporary sounds. While the first two boy band albums tend to establish a kind of signature (and usually fairly bland and inoffensive) sound, the third tends to see the group branching out into new territory, usually via the trendy sounds of the moment, meant to establish the group as a legitimate player in the contemporary pop market, outside of the blind adulation of their “teeny bopper” fans.
4. A much bigger scope in production. This sort of goes hand-in-hand with #3, but aside from style, often the LP3 for the boy band just sounds bigger than 1 and 2–the result of a bigger recording budget, bigger expectations, and even bigger stadiums to fill with their new tunes.
5. Decreased sales. This is obviously somewhat beyond the control of the boy band, and not by design on their part, but nonetheless, perhaps the most reliable part of the boy band formula is that it never ends up selling as well as album number 2 — a pattern that even the most popular boy bands throughout history have struggled to break.
So before we look at One Direction’s recent effort, let’s look at the third albums of five of the most famous boy bands of the last 30 years, and see how they’ve helped establish this formula over time:
NEW EDITION, “ALL FOR LOVE” (1985)
More songwriting/performing? Not so much — 10 of the 11 tracks were composed by outside writers (mostly boy band impresario Maurice Starr), as the album was hastily assembled and recorded to help make good on a demanding contract the group had signed with record label MCA. They did, however, compose the second side’s “School” entirely themselves, just the second New Edition song written by the group.
More mature lyrics? Opener and lead single “Count Me Out” is kind of a “Cool It Now” lite, priming listeners for another album full of popcorn love ditties. But by the album’s slower middle, there’s some definite hints at dirtiness — “Whispers in Bed” could easily be interpreted as being about phone sex (“I pick up the phone and I dial your number / I always have these images of you running around inside my head”), and the suggestion in “Tonight’s Your Night” (“I want you to feel the power of our love”) goes well beyond a long walk on the beach.
Contemporary sounds? “School” would again be the most obvious example of this, as the song was the group’s first entirely-rapped jam, emblematic of the increased popularity of hip-hop in the mid-80’s. The album also features the first few New Edition songs that seem written to be used in a montage sequence for a mid-’80s blockbuster — second single “A Little Bit of Love (Is All It Takes)” in particular could probably have slotted easily into “Footloose” or “Vision Quest.”
Bigger sound? A little bit, though it would be hard not to get at least somewhat heavier than the light, airy bubblegum of the first two albums.
Decreased sales? “All For Love” was released pre-SoundScan, but whereas 1984’s self-titled album peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 chart and spent 54 weeks on the chart, “All For Love” only mustered a No. 32 peak, although it did reside on the chart for 48 weeks.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK, “STEP BY STEP” (1990)
More songwriting/performing? Like New Edition’s third LP, “Step By Step” was still mostly composed by Maurice Starr, but New Kids Donnie Wahlberg and Danny Wood each received one co-write each, on “Games” and “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” respectively. (The group would really flex their songwriting chops on their fourth album, 1994’s “Face the Music,” with unspectacular results.)
More mature lyrics? Not in the usual, sex-oriented ways — the album is still fairly PG-rated, somewhat ironic for a group whose real-life sexcapades at the time were reportedly getting pretty crazy–but the Wahlberg co-penned “Games” does see the group venting their frustration at critics, with Donnie’s “I hear you knocking me but you ain’t shocking me /’cause jealousy is telling me that you’re just jocking me” predating the endless stream of “haters gonna hate” pop anthems that would be unleashed in the 21st century.
Contemporary sounds? There’s the predictable hip-hop influences on “Games” and chart-topping lead single “Step By Step,” but far more telling is the reggaefied “Stay With Me Baby,” likely inspired by the turn-of-the-decade crossover success of reggae artists like Maxi Priest, Ziggy Marley and UB40. Singer Donnie Wahlberg even adapts a ridiculous Jamaican accent, down to saying “me” and “ting” for “my” and “thing.” (Were the song released today, the internet would never let Wahlberg or anyone else hear the end of it.)
Bigger scope? Certainly, particularly on second single “Tonight,” which almost achieves a “Sgt. Pepper” Beatles-type sound with its ornate instrumentation and highly unconventional pop/rock song structuring. Listening today, you can barely even believe it’s an NKOTB song.
Decreased sales? Still pre-SoundScan. Although “Step By Step” spent one week atop the Billboard 200 chart in 1990 and spent 49 weeks on the tally, that couldn’t match “Hangin’ Tough,” which spent two weeks at No. 1 and spent a whopping 132 weeks on the chart.
BACKSTREET BOYS, “BLACK & BLUE” (2000)
More songwriting/performing? Yep. On second album “Millennium,” only Brian Litrell and Kevin Richardson received any co-writes, but on “Black & Blue,” all five Boys get in the credits, with Howie Dorough assisting on a team-high four compositions.
More mature lyrics? Certainly — look no further than infamous second single “The Call,” which sees the group describing (in painstaking technological detail) their deception and betrayal of a girlfriend. Certainly not the kind of brand BSB would have wanted to present when they were still promising “I’ll Never Break Your Heart.”
Contemporary sounds? Not as trend-hopping as some of their contemporaries — lead single “Shape of My Heart” would have fit right in on their first two albums — but the group did still make a couple concessions to the breathless, staccato-marked R&B-influenced pop of the era, particularly on the Rodney Jerkins-produced “Do Your Thing.” The best contemporary nod — the Neptunes’ excellent remix of “The Call” — would appear on the album’s European edition.
Bigger scope? Surprisingly not — the album felt a little small-scale coming after a world-conquering blockbuster like “Millennium,” though the increased emphasis on modern R&B, particularly in the album’s first half, does make it stick out a little in the group’s discography.
Decreased sales? Nowhere to go but down from the 12.2 million moved by “Millennium,” according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Black & Blue” still sold 5.4 million copies, meaning that the fall wasn’t exactly backbreaking — but considering that “Millennium” spent 10 weeks (!) at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, “Black & Blue,” which spent two weeks at the peak, simply wasn’t the same kind of phenomenon.
N’ SYNC, “CELEBRITY” (2001)
More songwriting/performing? And then some. Timberlake had been the only group member to receive a co-write on ‘N Sync’s first two albums (the entire group is credited on the self-titled’s “Giddy Up”), and even then only on one “No Strings Attached” album track. On “Celebrity,” however, JT is a co-writer on seven of the album’s twelve tracks, and JC Chasez is credited on a quartet of songs himself (unsurprisingly, the two would break off for solo careers shortly after the album’s release.)
More mature lyrics? Songs like “Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby” and “Don’t Tell Me That” certainly take a more complex look at adult relationships than “I Want You Back” or “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” but the lyrics are still pretty tame, especially considered next to Chasez and Timberlake’s eventual solo debuts. The real songwriting evolution, though, comes via the defiant “Pop,” which sticks up for its titular genre with a passion and palpable irritation that you could tell the group really took to heart after years of “TRL”-era backlash.
Contemporary sounds? Yeah, though if anything, “Celebrity” pushes pop music into the future, or at least what the future of pop seemed like in 2001 — much of the album sounds like it was recorded inside of a video game (including “The Game Is Over,” natch, which writes the comparison somewhat large), positively buzzing with hyperactive production flourishes. And the Neptunes-produced “Girlfriend,” of course, would point the way towards both Pharrell and lead artist Timberlake’s success in the years to come.
Bigger scope? Certainly. The whole album sounds like it cost a ton to make, which is really what the third album by the then world’s-biggest pop group should sound like.
Decreased sales? Again, 4.9 million copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan) is a lot of albums to sell, but it didn’t even match half of the absurd sales for era-defining blockbuster “No Strings Attached,” which moved 11.2 million.
JONAS BROTHERS, “A LITTLE BIT LONGER” (2008)
More songwriting/performing? Not really applicable to the Jonases, as the rare boy band who actually played and wrote the great majority of their own stuff. But “Longer” is the first JoBros effort to not include a single cover, aside from the “Hello Goodbye” rendition available on the Target-only edition of the album.
More mature lyrics? Some, particularly on lead single “Burnin’ Up,” a Foreigner-worthy declaration of lust that even sees the group breaking out the falsetto to somewhat salacious effect. Nothing to get the FCC up in arms, but certainly more adult than “S.O.S.” or “When You Look Me in the Eyes.”
Contemporary sounds? Again, “Burnin’ Up” sees the group working in the kind of slick, disco-funk stomp that had previously been decidedly absent from the band’s pop-punk-based music, but which had recently earned mega success for the likes of Maroon 5 and Fall Out Boy on crossover hits. The pounding melodrama of “Can’t Have You” also betrays a little Snow Patrol-type influence, which oddly enough, would actually have been considered a trend-hopping thing in the late ’00s.
Bigger scope? The thing sounds pretty huge, like a group ready to cement their ascent from fun-time kiddie family band to world-conquering young-adult heartthrobs. Even the pop-punk tracks that sound not too dissimilar to their previous efforts–“Pushing Me Away,” “Got Me Going Crazy”–pack an absolutely massive wallop with their widescreen production.
Decreased sales? Not really, actually–the album sold just as well (1.6 million sold compared to 1.9 million sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan) and even charted higher (a No. 1 peak on the Billboard 200 versus a No. 5 peak) than the group’s self-titled second effort. There’s an explanation for this, though, which is that, unlike the other groups listed here, the Jonas Brothers’ first album mostly skipped under the pop radar, peaking at just #91 and only spawning a hit single when “Year 3000” was reissued from the group’s second album. So for most of America, “Longer” was only the second album they knew from the Jonases, making follow-up “Lines, Vines and Trying Times” the de facto third.
And that brings us, at long last, to One Direction’s latest. So how does “Midnight Memories” fit the historical mold? Like the rest of them, let’s take it one cliche at a time:
More songwriting/performing? Sure enough. One or more of the group contributed to the writing on three of the tracks on last year’s “Take Me Home,” but a whopping 11 of 14 tracks on “Midnight Memories” bear the name of at least a single 1Der in the credits. Louis Tomlinson has the most of the group, with nine credits, while Liam Payne comes in a close second at eight. (Second single “Story of My Life” is the only song on the album to be credited to all five members.)
More mature lyrics? Well, the thing IS called “Midnight Memories,” isn’t it? The boys aren’t staying up late to watch Adult Swim, as made doubly clear by the lyrics to songs like “Little White Lies” (including the Drake-esque couplet “You say you’re a good girl / But I know you would girl”) and especially the promiscuity-promoting bonus track “Alive,” which features Liam lamenting to his shrink, “I don’t know why I wanna be with every girl I meet,” and the (female) shrink giving him the very responsible guidance “Hey, it’s alright / Does it make you feel alive?…Live your life, even if it’s only for tonight.”
Contemporary sounds?Rather than the obvious EDM influence you might expect from pop stars like 1D — though “Little White Lies” does get a little dubsteppy on the chorus — the Direction lads go the other way with it, instead looking towards the folksy banjo stomp of Mumford & Sons, one of the only contemporary recording acts currently selling more than One Direction themselves. “Story of My Life” is the most obvious example, but second-side cuts “Happily,” “Through the Dark” and “Something Great” all bear the unmistakable Mumford scent as well.
Bigger scope? Oh yeah. On the songs that don’t lean Mumford, the boys largely harken back to the days of ’80s mainstream rock, with fairly direct homages to fist-pumping and/or lighter-waving blockbuster classics like Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (the title track), Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” (“You & I”) and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” (bonus track “Does He Know?”) Two very different types of stadium rock are blended, but they both sound absolutely enormous.
Decreased sales? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? So far, though, the returns seem to be bucking the historical trends — “Midnight Memories” is projected to sell around 525,000 to 550,000 copies in its first week, which would be right on track with sophomore album “Take Me Home,” which did 540,000 in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The album’s first two singles, “Best Song Ever” and “Story of My Life,” both debuted in the Top 10 of the Hot 100, largely on the backs of their first-week sales.
It’s way too early to say, but it seems like One Direction might be able to have their cake and eat it too with “Midnight Memories”–following basically every instruction in the boy band third-album manual, but without the accompanying drop in sales or popularity. Maybe there’s something to be said for constantly staying on the offensive in pop music, or maybe One Direction just made a pretty solid third album. If they can avoid the fourth-album formula — which usually means a total plummet in popularity, if not the outright disbanding of the group — then we’ll know they’re really onto something special.