During this week five years ago, One Direction made history.
Their debut album, Up All Night, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart on March 31, 2012, a few months after being released in the group’s native U.K. By topping the U.S. albums tally in its first week, Up All Night made 1D the first British group to debut at the pinnacle with its first release.
At the time, One Direction was a promising new act but unknown to many of the Directioners who would be filling up stadiums in their honor on upcoming tours. But what their chart-topping achievement did do was indicate that 1D was beginning to revive the best-selling boy band and the pandemonium that goes hand-in-hand with that concept.
Once the days of the “boy band renaissance” were over, with most ’90s groups being disbanded by the time Justin Timberlake released Justified in 2002 (other than Backstreet Boys, of course), there was a boy band drought that lasted for nearly a decade following the heights reached by *NSYNC, BSB and 98 Degrees. The closest thing was maybe The Jonas Brothers, but even if JoBro mania was on the same level in terms of the fans, only two of their four albums reached the top spot of the Billboard 200 — and frankly, none of their hits ever took over the mainstream the way that “I Want It That Way” or “Bye Bye Bye” did.
So when five charming, young, heartthrob-ready boys from the U.K. were put together to form a boy band on The X Factor in July 2010, their formation came at a time when pop culture was hungry for another male pop vocal group to root for. And once “What Makes You Beautiful” came along, it was pretty clear that One Direction were the missing piece of the boy band puzzle.
At the time of One Direction’s birth, The Wanted — a boy band of the exact same structure; four English lads and an Irishman — had burst onto the scene with their breakout hit “Glad You Came,” which was released just two months before “What Makes You Beautiful.” But with subsequent releases, One Direction’s success skyrocketed, whereas The Wanted plateaued. So what gave 1D so much more staying power than another group of five attractive British boys who also made radio-friendly music?
For one, Up All Night delivered the same kind of super-sweet yet arena-filling pop vibe that ’90s groups did. That’s not to say that The Wanted didn’t, but their sound was certainly of a more mature nature — since most of The Wanted’s members were in their 20s when the group broke through, as opposed to One Direction’s teenage status. For its debut single, One Direction dropped what may be their most quintessential bubblegum love song with “What Makes You Beautiful,” an anthemic serenade to a crush that includes puppy-love lyrics like “Baby you light up my world like nobody else/ The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed.” And following the epic lead-off single on Up All Night, hits such as “Kiss You,” “Best Song Ever,” “Steal My Girl” and “Drag Me Down” brought the same feel-good blueprint that makes them all as irresistible as their first outing, even if the sound had evolved.
Second, their look was exactly what you’d imagine for a millennial boy band: The quaffed hairdos, the perfect pearly white smiles, the preppy schoolboy style and, above everything, the accents. Their facade was just as squeaky-clean as their songs (well, other than a handful of tattoos the boys got over the span of their career), making them even more parent-approved. Plus, they each had such a defining personality both in the way they looked and acted: the blond, blue-eyed good boy (Niall Horan); the mop-topped charmer (Harry Styles); the smiley goofball (Louis Tomlinson); the soft-spoken gentleman (Liam Payne); and the tall, dark and handsome “bad boy” (Zayn Malik). Their structure was reminiscent of that of *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys, which was enticing for nostalgic fans of that era. There wasn’t really a particular “favorite” member or boy you could dismissively refer to as “that other one”; their differing looks and personalities made for an all-encompassing widespread appeal.
But perhaps most importantly, they arrived at the right time within the pop landscape. Their wholesome sound came at a time when Justin Bieber‘s poppy goodness was transitioning to R&B, making their bouncy tunes even more desirable. Believe was released just four months after Up All Night‘s American release, and while it did have some serious jams, the innocence of “Baby” and “One Less Lonely Girl” was replaced by steamier vibes like that of “Boyfriend,” along with features from Drake, Big Sean and Nicki Minaj. Sure, One Direction’s subsequent albums weren’t quite as sticky-sweet as Up All Night, but they never truly steered away from the immediate melodies and family-friendly lyrics they brought from the start.
Between the sound that their five voices created, their poster-perfect look, and dwindling Bieber, the stars were perfectly aligned for One Direction. But perhaps the most important thing about their success was that they weren’t going to let their window of opportunity pass, releasing one album per year in the proceeding four, from 2012-2015 — all but one of which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (their final album Made in the A.M., was bested by Bieber’s Purpose, which came out the same day).
With all of the post-Up All Night success in store, One Direction’s debut was the killer introduction that U.S. audiences needed: The album spent a total of 104 weeks on the Billboard 200 (23 of those in the top 10) and sold 2.1 million copies in the U.S. to date, according to Nielsen Music, making it the best-selling of all five One Direction LPs. Moreover, “What Makes You Beautiful” has sold nearly 4.9 million copies as of June 2016, essentially proving to not just be their breakout, but their career-defining song.
How times have changed since the golden 1D days, with Zayn Malik’s early departure resulting in a foursome until the group went on a hiatus at the end of 2015 — and not to mention almost every member has already released or teased solo material. With Harry Styles becoming the next member to release solo material on Friday, it’s seemingly becoming less and less likely that we’ll be seeing One Direction come together again anytime soon.
But while picturing a world without One Direction is devastating, they really haven’t gone anywhere. All five members are still dominating headlines with what they’re up to, even if it’s not music-related (remember the earth-shattering news that Niall Horan dyed his hair brown?). Think of One Direction as a launch pad — of rather massive size — for Styles, Horan, Payne, Tomlinson and Malik, who will just now be making music as individuals as opposed to together.
Overall, there’s no contesting that One Direction revived what the boy band world had lost. There will never be another One Direction, but the legendary success the 1D boys had in just five years proved that, even when the boy band landscape seems desolate, it is certainly not empty.