I would like to blame Paul Rudd (sorry–Dan Charles) for my past six months of non-stop One Direction jamming in my car, at work, and at virtually every other possible opportunity.
Prior to their Saturday Night Live appearance in December, when I discovered that they were not bad at all at singing or at looking nice, I used to be very anti-One Direction.
I had no right to hate–am I not, after all, a child of the 90’s, still unashamed to sing along to every word of every Hanson, N’Sync, and Backstreet Boys song? You’re damn right I am. And so from a combination of rekindling my love of all boy bands, a fun SNL sketch and performance, and the margarita-induced decision to rent This Is Us from Redbox, my soft spot for One Direction was born and nurtured.
My love of One Direction’s fun and catchy music, however, does not make me deaf to the questionable lyrics and themes of some of their songs. Sure, there are plenty of 90’s boy band songs that, listening to them now, make me wonder why my mother didn’t ban me, in elementary school, from listening to them ever again (“Digital Getdown,” anyone?). But, in a crass reflection of and total assimilation with a society that caters to heterosexual male demands and fantasies, some of these One Direction songs crossed some “Blurred Lines.” In order from least to most distressingly conformist to these notions, let’s take a look at five songs on One Direction’s most recent album, Midnight Memories (2013).
5. “Happily,” written by Savan Kotecha, Carl Falk, and Harry Styles
This is not the only One Direction song that boldly advocates for the subject of the song to leave his or her current significant other for the singer. Sure, for all we know, this could be a mutual agreement and it’s not the idea of infidelity that is off-putting in this context, but rather the repetition of lines like, “I know you wanna leave.” It’s a very politely packaged power trip, focused not on the points of view of both parties involved, but on the jealousy of whomever’s point of view this is coming from (“You don’t understand, you don’t understand/What you do to me when you hold his hand”). The writer(s) evidently feels entitled to the person addressed in the song, whether or not said person is actually interested in leaving his or her partner. The song may seem relatively harmless, but it fits in with such an enormously common trope in pop culture of ‘guy pines over girl he can’t have, girl eventually feels bad for pining guy, in the end pining guy will get what he wants.’
4. “Does He Know,” written by Julian Bunetta, John Ryan, Jamie Scott, Louis Tomlinson, and Liam Payne
It sure took a whole lot of people to write what is essentially just a worse version of “Happily.” We have, shockingly once more, the girl (this time it’s definitely a girl) as the focus of the song, already in a relationship with another guy. Any given member of One Direction is obviously into this girl, and perceives all of her actions (emphasis here on actions, not actual words) as clues to her interest in him and indications that she will leave her boyfriend for this given member of One Direction. Actually, before there are any references to this girl’s actions, all we’ve got is, “Does he know you’re out and I want you so bad?/Tonight you’re mine, baby.” Entitled Man Logic follows: I want you, so I get you. So we’re off to a bad start, assuming ownership of and entitlement to this girl whose intentions we are 100% unaware of. All we do know of her is what we’re told: “I catch your eye then you turn away/But there’s no hiding the smile on your face,” and later on, “He’ll never know/The way you lie when you look at me/So keep trying but you know I see/All the little things that make you who you are.” So the song has assumed it knows what her smile means, and that–what’s that? She’s said something? Oh, thank goodness, we finally know what she’s thinking!–of course, she must be lying if she says otherwise. And don’t worry: by knowing all those little things about her, he is certainly qualified to interpret her facial expressions and even her words in whatever way benefits him. Great balance of awful and endearing, boys.
3. “Little Black Dress,” written by Julian Bunetta, John Ryan, Theodore Geiger, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne
Let’s set the stage for this song. We’re in the club, the music’s loud, everyone’s dancing, and then, whoa, hold up! Did you see that!? “Little black dress just walked into the room!” It’s just, this dress, struttin’ around. “Makin’ heads turn, can’t stop lookin’ at you.” Wow, that must be some dress, y’all. “Little black dress, did you come here alone?” asks the button-down shirt. “Little black dress, who you doin’ it for?” asks the designer t-shirt. “Little black dress, I can’t take anymore,” laments the pair of jeans. Some other article of clothing says, “I wanna see the way you move for me, baby!” but, wait a minute, dresses don’t move! Not unless… not unless… they’re on a HUMAN BEING! IMAGINE THAT. THERE’S A HUMAN WEARING THAT LITTLE BLACK DRESS! So that’s how it was moving all along!?
Was there no one along this whole song-writing process who thought, “Hm, are we identifying a woman only by her dress, which is a totally inanimate object? Have we just dehumanized a woman and then, on top of that, implied that she came here just to make us notice her and that she is to blame for all of our sexual frustration and that because of this we deserve to take her home?” No? Not even you, Teddy Geiger?
2. “Why Don’t We Go There,” written by Steve Robson, Claude Kelly, Wayne Hector, Louis Tomlinson
This song easily could have been much less abrasive and demanding if they stuck with its pretty tame, hinting title. “Hey, why don’t we go there?” Except I don’t think this song is about a road trip, and that it’s probably about sex (duh?). Still, “Hey, why don’t we have sex?” is a pretty all right proposition, because it gives the opportunity for either agreement or refusal based on the respondent’s wishes. Except then there’s some pressure attempting to sway the response toward agreement. The lyrics ask the person being propositioned to “give in tonight/Just let me set you free/We’ll touch the other side/Just give me the key” (because the road trip theme must remain intact, of course). The chorus mostly rings with that title suggestion, but the second verse is cause for cringing. “Say the word, say the word, but don’t say no,” it starts. This at least acknowledges that words are necessary for consent: “Please say yes. Don’t say no.” It’s unclear, though, whether a “no” would be obliged.
1. “Little White Lies,” written by Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Julian Bunetta, Ed Drewett, John Ryan, and Wayne Hector
Before I get into how much I literally cannot even with the contents of this song, I need to point out that the worst worst worst thing about this song is that the two band members responsible for most of the band’s writing contributions, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson, have gone from having minimal input, listed last as contributors on the preceding songs, to having evidently the most input out of anyone else on this song. So they’ve been taught throughout the writing of their previous two albums and the rest of this one about the subject matter that sells, and they have really driven that home in this one, churning out some really unfortunate material.
Let’s begin with the whole premise of the song, which harps on those “lies” that women tell, like saying no when they obviously mean yes (“But you, you don’t tell the truth/No you, you like playing games”). This whole song is obsessed with those “lies,” wrapped up in deciphering what this girl could possibly mean by what she says. It moves on to accusing that her “eyes keep saying things/They say of what we do/When it’s only me and you/I can’t concentrate.” So while the song, especially in the chorus, at a surface listen might sound like the singer is totally wrapped up in the presence of this girl, a direct read of the lyrics reveals that all he’s wrapped up in is the supposed mixed signals he’s getting from this girl. “If this room was burning/I wouldn’t even notice/’Cause you’ve been taking up my mind/With your little white lies, little white lies,” goes the first half of the chorus. So you can see it’s not the girl who’s taking up his mind, it’s her “lies,” which, in case my tone has not been clear, are probably not lies.
But hang on, there’s more (in which the song will definitely not be redeemed)! In a bold, ‘Outta our way, Robin Thicke!’ move, One Direction has planted the good girl/bad girl seed, chorusing, “You say you’re a good girl/But I know you would girl.” There are many layers to this problem. It reinforces the shame that girls–far more often than boys–are taught to associate with having sex by implying that “a good girl” would not, while a bad girl “would.” In the second line, the singer assumes that the girl “would,” despite her having said otherwise. The “But” at the beginning of the second line implies that this is the opposite of good–bad–and ends up placing shame on her for obliging to the thing that he wanted her to do anyway. Say whaaaaaaaat!?
Although the song closes with a couple of repetitions of this chorus, it’s not before interjecting one last blatant disregard for the girl’s boundaries: “Now you wanna make some rules now/Cool, then we’ll watch them break tonight.” Like I said, I literally cannot even.
I don’t mean to pick only on One Direction, because they are, of course, not the only mainstream artist with troubling messages in their music. As I’ve been enjoying all of their songs that aren’t cringe-inducing, however, they’re just an example of having to grapple with the bad decisions that either the band members themselves have made or the other writers have made on the band’s behalf. Even if 100% of the worst lyrics in all One Direction songs were written solely by someone other than Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles, Niall Horan, and Zayn Malik, the five of them certainly aren’t without fault because I really, really wish they would have had the good sense to veto such appalling songs.
On the other hand, no individual artist can be completely to blame as they’re pushed through a music industry that capitalizes on catchy music over respectful lyrics and motifs. As a society we’ve become overwhelmingly numb to that, which certainly doesn’t help to weaken the popularity of these types of songs. A young boy band of 20- to 22-year olds full of energy and dimples and endless reassurances to girls that they really are beautiful can’t be anything but harmless, can they? We paint boy bands as innocent artists even when they’re far from it, for whatever reasons, and I’m not sure if this is a cause or a symptom of young girls being the largest demographic in their audiences.
It makes me angry that these are the types of songs that sell in huge numbers, whether by One Direction or anyone else. The people other than the band members themselves listed as writers on these songs also write for dozens upon dozens of different internationally popular performers. I refer to “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke quite a bit, and I wonder why that’s the song that most people call up when talking about systemic sexism in pop culture (as I mentioned in my last piece) when a group of young men just a little more than half his age have resorted to eerily similar tactics. It makes me angry that this is not a source of outrage and question among the parents of One Direction’s largely young, female fan base. It makes me angry that the media swarmed a leaked video of members Louis and Zayn smoking what might actually have been a legal amount of weed in Peru and called this a corruption of their “squeaky clean image,” as if condoning and encouraging disrespect toward women and nonconsensual sex hadn’t done that already.