Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
With everything that followed its release — the best-selling albums, the stadium tours, the still-growing solo careers that resulted from a global pop phenomenon — it’s easy to forget just how pristine One Direction’s debut single was upon its release. “What Makes You Beautiful” immediately introduced American audiences, unfamiliar with the quintet from their bow on the British version of The X Factor, to a brand of wholesome boy-band bubblegum that hadn’t existed on Top 40 radio since the early 2000s.
The harmonies were as crisp as a fresh Polo tee; the guitar lick served as a loving wink from the Swedish power-pop factory from which it was birthed, and a change-up of the EDM-charged production that had seeped into top 40 radio; and then there were Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson, singing about a girl’s unknowing goodness with a combined charm that would take over the world.
A few months after One Direction finished in third place on The X Factor, songwriter Savan Kotecha went to London to help pen the group’s first original music with Rami Yacoub and Carl Falk; Kotecha’s wife had come to London with him, and was feeling insecure in their hotel room. “I heard her just straightening her hair, like, ‘Oh, I’m so ugly, I feel so ugly,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘No, you’re beautiful! You don’t even know you’re beautiful!’”
Kotecha wrote down the phrase in the Notes app on his phone and brought it with him to the studio, where the trio of writers began piecing “What Makes You Beautiful” together. The song was finalized in Stockholm a few months later, after Kotecha added the line “The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed” — also inspired by his wife — to the chorus at the last moment. “I sent the new lines over to Carl and Rami in Sweden,” Kotecha says, “and then I woke up to a text message from Harry Styles, because they were already in Sweden, and he was like, ‘You got something with this song.’”
Styles was right: “What Makes You Beautiful” peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 chart, and helped One Direction’s debut album Up All Night score a No. 1 bow on the Billboard 200 chart in March 2012. The single essentially got the ball rolling on one of the decade’s most impressive commercial runs in popular music, which coincided with a boy band mini-boom (The Wanted, Big Time Rush, JLS) and eventually served as a blueprint for Fifth Harmony’s own post-X Factor run of success. As all five members continue their solo endeavors, Kotecha believes that they each have had an evolving relationship with the song that introduced them to a global audience.“I do know that Harry has performed it at his solo shows, which is really cool,” Kotecha says. “He was always the one who really loved it.”
Although Kotecha has helped write smashes for Ariana Grande, Maroon 5 and The Weeknd, he considers “What Makes You Beautiful” as one of his most important contributions to popular music this decade, particularly for younger listeners.
“I hope that its legacy is that it created a lot of memories for people from their teenage years,” says Kotecha. “It’s taken a life of its own — I’ve seen videos of Coldplay covering it, and people [performing] it during live lounges, which makes it seem like all of these incredible people see it as just a great pop song.”