One year ago, Zayn Malik left One Direction, and he’s celebrating the anniversary by choosing that date — March 25th — to drop his solo debut, Mind of Mine, surely just coincidence. Last fall, when 1D dropped their next album, Made in the A.M., he celebrated their release date with his big Fader interview calling them “generic as fuck” and announcing he left to make “real music.” There’s never been a boy-band split like this one. Usually they’re almost cartoonishly amicable, but Zayn seems to keep going out of his way to drop a little pissy tone into every petty detail. He can’t approach a microphone without explaining how he never wanted to be in the group, or he wanted to quit from the start, or he refused to even listen to their last album, or how they never let him talk in interviews. In his new NME interview, he says, “I tried to have contact but nobody’s reached out. So … whatever.”
Zayn’s latest (and best) solo hit has the quintessential boy-band title “BeFoUr,” which is a great moment in the history of human subtlety. It evokes TRL-era titles like Nick Lachey’s SoulO, Jessica Simpson’s ReJoyce and 2Gether’s classic “U + Me = Us (Calculus).” But of course, 1D’s final album with Zayn was Four, back in the days BeFoUr he quit, leaving only FoUr of them to Be2Gether until their recent hi8Us. Also the capitalized letters spell BFU, which possibly means he’s sending a Big Fuck You to whoever he’s singing about. If only the song gave any clues about who that might be. “Can’t tune my chords into your songs”? “Say what you wanna say/Shame you won’t say it to my face”? You’re so Zayn, you probably think this shade is about you?
This isn’t how boy-band breakups are supposed to go. When somebody like Kevin Richardson leaves a group like the Backstreet Boys, everybody’s all “hey buddy, you’re still my fire, my one desire, we’re just not sharing a dressing room anymore, except in our hearts,” and everybody smiles because they want it that way. Justin outgrew NSync as smoothly as Beyoncé emerged from Destiny’s Child; he just drew attention to the point where it seemed vaguely insulting to the others to pretend they were still a group. (Though when Justin brought the other guys in NSync onstage with him for the first time in years at his MTV Video Music Awards lifetime-achievement performance, he scooted them out of there even faster than Beyoncé did with Destiny’s Child at the Super Bowl.) A song like “BeFoUr” is like if Justin kicked off his solo reign with “Cry Me a River,” except instead of breaking up with a Britney clone in the video, he sang to models who looked like JC, Lance, Joey and/or Chris. (Actually, he probably could have hired the real Chris cheaper.)
The massive boy-band explosion of the late Nineties coincided with the explosion of ex-boy-banders making solo comebacks — Ricky Martin from Menudo, Robbie Williams from Take That, Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre from the New Kids on the Block. But none of those guys felt obliged to renounce their old bandmates. Robbie Williams made history’s noisiest boy-band exit until now — overnight he went from Take That to getting debauched at Glastonbury and wandering onstage with Oasis and eating drinking and shagging himself into a hairy rock & roll animal. Yet then he transformed right back into a pop smoothie, which was one of the many charming things about him (not that there’s ever been anything non-charming about Robbie Williams).
Former boy-band-ers complain bitterly about their managers, their labels, the whole industry that chews them up and steals their money and ships them off to rehab — but not each other. Part of any long-running boy band is the sense of fellow victims suffering the same tribulations together at the hands of the pop machine — whether that’s the Backstreet Boys calling their album Black and Blue or 1D’s last album where they sing, “You and me were raised in the same part of town, got these scars on the same ground.” When George Michael renounced Wham! (“what a kick, just a buddy and me”) in “Freedom ’90,” burning his leather jacket in the video, he railed against the record industry, the photographers, the boys at MTV, the audience — practically everybody except the other guy in Wham! Maybe George had already forgotten his name. (Ridgeley. Andrew Ridgeley. Released a solo album once.)
But boy bands had it easier back then; even as the most spied-on people on earth, they got shielded with more privacy, mostly because there were fewer methods invented for spying on them. But it’s also because today’s pop fans are so sophisticated and informed that their elaborate conspiracy theories and/or exegetical commentaries run way ahead of the actual band members — the idea of a boy-band fan base as an interpretive community has never been such an upfront part of the phenomenon. These days, it’s hard for them to do anything in a discreet way. Only time will tell if it’s possible for them to give peace a chance.