Two weeks ago, I knew just about as much as a 29-year-old American male should know about One Direction — that they were a boy band who got their start on the “UK Factor,” had a couple genuinely solid pop songs that reminded people of the Backstreet Boys and that the one with the best hair had maybe dated Taylor Swift.
THE YEAR IN MUSIC 2012
But after taking on the assignment of profiling One Direction as Billboard’s Top New Artist of 2012, I went as deep as their most diehard fans. I talked to over a dozen people in their inner circle, from management to sponsors to label execs to their songwriting buddy Ed Sheeran. I wanted to know exactly what it was about these five guys — Harry, Zayn, Louis, Liam and Niall, as I can now call them — that made American girls go even crazier than their U.K. counterparts.
“Up All Night,” the band’s breakthrough debut, was a fast seller in England but finished 2011 as only the 16th biggest-selling album of the year, according to the Official Charts Company. In Billboard’s year-end issue, released Friday, the album finished at No. 5 for the year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, thus solidifying that a British boy band is even bigger in America than its home turf — a first after years of attempts to translate the success of groups like Take That, Five, Westlife and many others.
It all made sense when I saw them perform at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 3, which doubled as a global event by playing host to the top fan from over 35 countries. The show was light on big theatrics, refreshingly lacking in choreography and loud as hell — my earplugs needed earplugs to combat all the shrieks. But at the heart of it were five English/Irish boys being boys, running around the stage to excite all corners of the crowd — even clucking like chickens at one point at the behest of a fan tweet — but singing their adorable little hearts out in the process. They came off far more accessible and less rehearsed than their American predecessors, and all the better for it. As their U.S. label head told me the morning after, “It was almost like the biggest showcase you’ve ever been to.”
So when the time came to interview all five members two days after that magical night at the Garden, I was so entrenched in One Direction music and energy that I found I was approaching it less as a journalist and more as a fan — a Directioner, as we call ourselves. Billboard conducted interviews for all five members via phone in between stops on their crazy takeover of New York City, with an occasionally wonky connection that prevented folks like Harry Styles from being able to answer more pressing questions like, “What’s your favorite karaoke song?” or “How long did it take you to rehearse that ‘Dirty Dancing’ move?”
Click one of the guys below to explore our five conversations with Billboard’s Top New Artist of 2012: