Why Do People Hate One Direction

Whilst reality TV gives a lot of ordinary people their 15 minutes of fame, in a few rare cases it manages to create lasting success for the individuals concerned. One such rare case concerns UK boy band One Direction, who after finishing a creditable third in the 2010 series of The X Factor have gone on to become one of the biggest pop groups in the world; by 2012 they were worth around $50 million to their record label, and said label’s CEO expects that figure to double over the course of this year. On top of their two albums to date, they are due to release a film in the immediate future (it might already be out- I don’t keep track), and there can be doubt that their veritable army of scarily impassioned, dedicated ‘directioners’ have propelled the five young men who make up the band to unfathomable fame and prosperity.

However, it hardly needs to be said that this wave of ultra-enthusiastic support for the band has not been universal by any stretch of the imagination. Outside of their primary market of pre-teenage girls, and particularly amongst young men*, the prevailing attitude towards One Direction swings between apathy at best to vitriolic hatred at worst. In some circles, they rank second only to Justin Beiber as objects of hatred that represent, in the eyes of these people, everything that is wrong about modern music.

Why should this be? After all, whilst people all have certain types of music they like, even a hardcore heavy metal fan would not begrudge the world the existence of, say, The Pogues, and there would, from a completely neutral perspective, seem to be little reason for the open hostility that gets directed towards One Direction’s brand of pop. It certainly doesn’t get directed towards all pop acts; just for a couple of examples, Queen were a pop group a lot of the time and have been accepted into the pantheon of musical greats, and Lady Gaga, despite (and in some ways thanks to, since they give her individuality) her various theatrics and non-universal appreciation of her music, is at least afforded some respect by the majority of the musical world.

One potential theory that at least serves as a jump-off point in investigating the general ill-feeling towards one direction might be the image and behaviour of the band themselves. Much of their success, it should be noted, comes from the image the band members present; they are all well-behaved, apparently friendly, straight-laced middle class white boys, possibly the single least offensive description imaginable and one that renders them endearing to both fans and their fans’ parents. Not only that, they are all (and I mean this in the most platonic sense possible) at least reasonably good-looking young men, adding an amorous aspect to their fans’ appeal. This is not in the mould of what one would consider your typical rock band to be (images of sweaty, skinny, partially naked men with long hair bouncing around a giant heap of amps and yelling obscenities spring to mind), and an element of some people’s dislike of the band is probably rooted in their being a bit too straight-laced. Some would argue, and I kinda agree with them, that their being relatively normal teenagers (by music industry standards at least)is probably good for them as people, but their presentation of themselves fits so into the safe normality of suburban, inoffensive living that it puts them straight in the firing line of rock music’s traditional ‘escape the system’ mentality. But that’s not enough on its own; as the antics of Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus have proved recently, pop singers often attract far more abuse when they try to play the rock ‘n’ roll bad boy(/girl) than when they stay with a ‘safer’ image.

OK, let’s tick off a few other factors. One Direction pull off that oft-hated habit in musical circles of not writing (most of) their own music, and it’s fair to say that most of the songs they do sing are pretty banal, formulaic and aimed solely at repeat-delivering the same pseudo-romantic pop ideas to their aforementioned audience of teenage girls (although a) one could think that either one of those two points partially negates the other and b) anyone who’s heard REM’s Star Me Kitten knows that writing dumb lyrics is not just the preserve of pop groups). Their habit of performing covers of more famous songs has drawn them ire from overly protective music fans who have some idea that they are ruining ‘their music’ by ‘stealing them’, but this is exactly the same logic used by opponents of gay marriage and is frankly not valid. Some dislike their manufactured, reality TV origins (all originally editioned for The X Factor as soloists, before being encouraged to re-audition as a group by a judge), which is perhaps a slightly  fairer niggle if you don’t like that sort of show than the some people’s annoyance the fact that none of them play an instrument (whilst performing that is; they include in their number a guitarist and pianist, I have discovered), but claiming that this means they have no talent is a little invalid because they are not trying to be musicians. Other people claim they have no talent because they can’t sing, but reviews of their live shows reveal that they do comprise five genuinely capable singers. The issue here is that their recorded music, the stuff that finds its way onto iPods and radios, comes sadly complete with autotune and other bits of digital trickery, making their sound unnaturally smooth and free of the blemishes that, to me at least, give music character. I profoundly dislike autotune and its ilk, if only because it shows a profound lack of respect for the performers’ skill, but even this is not, I believe, people’s biggest cause of hatred. That, I think my investigations have found, lies in the Directioners.

I am sure that, as with most large and easily generalised groups of people, the vast majority of One Direction fans are basically OK people who happen to enjoy the music produced by the band, which is hardly a war crime. They are, it is true, predominantly squealing teenage girls which can be a touch annoying to overhear, but again this is hardly their fault. However, even a little One Direction-related digging will quickly reveal the existence of hardcore ‘Directioners’, whose almost terrifying level of deification of the band is combined with an air of self-superiority to match the worst of indie-rock hipsters and an unfortunate familiarity with the internet and its ability to help deliver anonymous and astonishingly aggressive abuse. Those fans who are not privy to every minute detail of the band members’ existences, so I gather, are readily derided and put down by this hardcore group, and anyone found publically admitting they don’t particularly like their music can expect an array of abuse ranging from mere insults of their intelligence and sexual orientation to desires for the death of them and their loved ones. The irony is of course that it is this behaviour that encourages much of the abuse received by the band and their fans, and provides one of the most significant reasons for people’s dislike of One Direction.

That and the fact that the band members care for their appearance, which apparently gives material to the homophobes.

*Actually, in researching this topic I discovered that probably the biggest source of hatred for One Direction comes from fans of The Wanted. I was going to comment on this, but then realised I have better things to do with my time than read up on another band I don’t much like.

The Consolidation of a World Power

I left my last post on the history of music at around 1969, which for many independent commentators marks the end of the era of the birth of rock music. The 60s had been a decade of a hundred stories running alongside one another in the music world, each with their own part to play in the vast tapestry of innovation. Jimi Hendrix had risen from an obscure career playing the blues circuit in New York to being an international star, and one moreover who revolutionised what the music world thought about what a guitar could and should do- even before he became an icon of the psychedelic hippie music world, his hard & heavy guitar leads, in stark contrast to the tones of early Beatles’ and 60s pop music had founded rock music’s harder edge. He in turn had borrowed from earlier pioneers, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, The Who (perhaps the first true rock band, given their wild onstage antics and heavy guitar & drumkit-based sound) and Bob Dylan (the godfather of folk rock and the blues-style guitar playing that rock turned into its harder sound), each of whom had their own special stories. However, there was a reason I focused on the story of the hippie movement in my last post- the story of a counter-culture precipitating a musical revolution was only in its first revolution, and would be repeated several times by the end of the century.

To some music nerds however, Henrix’s death aged just 27 (and after just four years of fame) in 1970 thanks to an accidental drug overdose marked the beginning of the end. The god of the guitar was dead, the beautiful voice of Janis Joplin was dead, Syd Barrett had broken up from Pink Floyd, another founding band of the psychedelic rock movement, and was being driven utterly insane by LSD (although he thankfully later managed to pull himself out of the self-destructive cycle and lived until 2006), and Floyd’s American counterparts The Velvet Underground broke up just four years later. Hell, even The Beatles went in 1970.

But that didn’t mean it was the end- far from it. Rock music might have lost some of its guiding lights, but it still carried on regardless- Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, the four biggest British bands of the time, continued to play an active role in the worldwide music scene, Zeppelin and The Who creating a huge fan rivalry. David Bowie was also continuing to show the world the mental ideas hiding beneath his endlessly crisp accent, and the rock world continued to swing along.

However, it was also during this time that a key division began to make itself firmly felt. As rock developed its harder sound during the 1960s, other bands and artists had followed The Beatles’ early direction by playing softer, more lyrical and acoustic sounds, music that was designed to be easy on the ear and played to and for mass appeal. This quickly got itself labelled ‘pop music’ (short for popular), and just as quickly this became something of a term of abuse from serious rock aficionados. Since its conception, pop has always been more the commercial enterprise, motivated less by a sense of artistic expression and experimentation and more by the promise of fame and fortune, which many consider a rather shallow ambition. But, no matter what the age, pop music has always been there, and more often than not has been topping the charts- people often talk about some age in the long distant past as being the ‘best time for music’ before returning to lambast the kind of generic, commercial consumer-generated pop that no self-respecting musician could bring himself to genuinely enjoy and claiming that ‘most music today is rubbish’. They fail to remember, of course, just how much of the same kind of stuff was around in their chosen ‘golden age’, that the world in general has chosen to forget.

Nonetheless, this frustration with generic pop has frequently been a driving force for the generation of new forms of rock, in an attempt to ‘break the mould’. In the early seventies, for example, the rock world was described as tame or sterile, relatively acoustic acts beginning to claim rock status. The Rolling Stones and company weren’t new any more, there was a sense of lacking in innovation, and a sense of musical frustration began to build. This frustration was further fuelled by the ending of the 25-year old post war economic boom, and the result, musically speaking, was punk rock. In the UK, it was The Sex Pistols and The Clash, in the USA The Ramones and similar, most of whom were ‘garage bands’ with little skill (Johnny Rotten, lead singer of The Sex Pistols, has frequently admitted that he couldn’t sing in the slightest, and there was a running joke at the time on the theme of ‘Here’s three chords. Now go start a band’) but the requisite emotion, aggression and fresh thinking to make them a musical revolution. Also developed a few years earlier was heavy metal, perhaps the only rock genre to have never had a clearly defined ‘era’ despite having been there, hiding around the back and on the sidelines somewhere, for the past 40 or so years. Its development was partly fuelled by the same kind of musical frustration that sparked punk, but was also the result of a bizarre industrial accident. Working at a Birmingham metal factory in 1965 when aged 17, Black Sabbath guitarist (although they were then known as The Polka Tulk Blues Band) Tony Iommi lost the the ends of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. This was a devastating blow for a young guitarist, but Iommi compensated by easing the tension on his strings and developing two thimbles to cover his finger ends. By 1969, his string slackening had lead him to detune his guitar down a minor third from E to C#, and to include slapping the strings with his fingers as part of his performance. This detuning, matched by the band’s bassist Geezer Butler, was combined with the idea formulated whilst watching the queues for horror movie Black Sabbath that ‘if people are prepared to make money to be scared, then why don’t we write scary music?’, to create the incredibly heavy, aggressive, driving and slightly ‘out of tune’ (to conventional ears) sound of heavy metal, which was further popularised by the likes of Judas Priest, Deep Purple and Motley Crue (sorry, I can’t do the umlauts here).

Over the next few years, punk would slowly fall out of fashion, evolving into harder variations such as hardcore (which never penetrated the public consciousness but would make itself felt some years later- read on to find out how) and leaving other bands to develop it into post-punk; a pattern repeated with other genres down the decades. The 1980s was the first decade to see hip hop come to the fore,  partly in response to the newly-arrived MTV signalling the onward march of electronic, manufactured pop. Hip hop was specifically targeted at a more underground, urban circuit to these clean, commercial sounds, music based almost entirely around a beat rather than melody and allowing the songs to be messed around with, looped, scratched and repeated all for the sake of effect and atmosphere building. From hip hop was spawned rap, party, funk, disco, a new definition of the word DJ and, eventually, even dubstep. The decade also saw rock music really start to ‘get large’ with bands such as Queen and U2 filling football stadiums, paving the way for the sheer scale of modern rock acts and music festivals, and culminating, in 1985, with the huge global event that was Live Aid- not only was this a huge musical landmark, but it fundamentally changed what it meant to be a musical celebrity, and greatly influenced western attitudes to the third world.

By the late 80s and early 90s the business of counter-culture was at it again, this time with anger directed at a range of subjects from MTV tones, the boring, amelodic repetition of rap and the controversial policies of the Reagan administration that created a vast American ‘disaffected youth’ culture. This music partly formulated itself into the thoughtful lyrics and iconic sounds of bands such as REM, but in other areas found its expression and anger in the remnants of punk. Kurt Cobain in particular drew heavy inspiration from ‘hardcore’ bands (see, I said they’d show up again) such as Black Cloud, and the huge popularity of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ thrust grunge, along with many of the other genres blanketed under the title ‘alternative rock’ into the public consciousness (one of my earlier posts dealt with this, in some ways tragic, rise and fall in more detail). Once the grunge craze died down, it was once again left for other bands to formulate a new sound and scene out of the remnants of the genre, Foo Fighters being the most prominent post-grunge band around today. In the UK things went in a little different direction- this time resentment was more reserved to the staged nature of Top of the Pops and the like, The Smiths leading the way into what would soon become indie rock or Britpop. This wave of British bands, such as Oasis, Blur and Suede, pushed back the influx of grunge and developed a prominence for the genre that made the term ‘indie’ seem a bit ironic.

Nowadays, there are so many different great bands, genres and styles pushing at the forefront of the musical world that it is difficult to describe what is the defining genre of our current era. Music is a bigger business than it has ever been before, both in terms of commercial pop sound and the hard rock acts that dominate festivals such as Download and Reading, with every band there is and has ever been forming a part, be it a thread or a whole figure, of the vast musical tapestry that the last century has birthed. It is almost amusing to think that, whilst there is so much that people could and do complain about in our modern world, it’s very hard to take it out on a music world that is so vast and able to cater for every taste. It’s almost hard to see where the next counter-culture will come from, or how their musical preferences will drive the world forward once again. Ah well, we’ll just have to wait and see…

Finding its feet

My last post on the recent history of western music took us up until the Jazz Age, which although it peaked in the 1920s, continued to occupy a position as the defining music genre of its age right up until the early 1950s. Today’s post takes up this tale for another decade and a half, beginning in 1951.

By this time, a few artists (Goree Carter and Jimmy Preston, for example) had experimented with mixing the various ‘black’ music genres (country and western, R&B and a little gospel being the main ones) to create a new, free rocking sound. However, by the 50s radio, which had been another major force for the spread of jazz, had risen to prominence enough to become a true feature of US life, so when Cleveland DJ Alan Freed first started playing R&B intentionally to a multiracial audience even his small listenership were able to make the event a significant one. Not only that, but the adolescents of the 50s were the first generation to have the free time and disposable income to control their own lives, making them a key consumer market and allowing them to latch onto and fund whatever was new and ‘cool’ to them. They were the first teenagers. These humble beginnings, spreading ‘black’ musical experiments to the masses, would later become the genre that Freed himself would coin a name for- rock and roll.

Rock and roll might have originally been named by Freed, and might have found its first star in Bill Haley (the guy wrote ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in 1955), but it became the riotous, unstoppable musical express train that it was thanks to a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, who walked into Sun Records in 1953 to record a song for personal use. His name was Elvis Presley.

’53 might have been Presley’s first recording experience, but his was not a smooth road. In eighth grade music he is reported to have only got a C and be told that he couldn’t sing, a claim that was repeated when he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet in January 1954. However, in June of that year he recorded a 1946 blues hit ‘That’s All Right’, totally altering what had been a lovelorn lament of a song into a riotous celebration. He, Winfield Moore and Bill Black (the guitarist and bassist he was recording with) had created a new, exciting, free-flowing sound based around Presley’s unique singing style. Three days later, the song aired on local radio for the first time and calls flooded in demanding to know who the new singer was. Many were even more surprised when they found out that it was a straight laced white boy playing what was previously thought of as ‘black music’.

Completely unintentionally, Elvis had rewritten the rulebook about modern music- now you didn’t have to be black, you didn’t have to play the seedy venues, you didn’t have to play slow, old, or boring music, you didn’t have to be ‘good’ by classical standards, and, most important, your real skill was your showmanship. Whilst his two co-performers in the early days were both natural showmen, Presley was a nervous performer to start with and his legs would shake during instrumental sections- the sight of a handsome young man wiggling his legs in wide-cut trousers proving somewhat hysterical for female sections of the audience, and worked the crowd into a frenzy that no previous performer had managed.

Elvis’ later career speaks for itself, but he lost his focus on writing music in around 1960 as, along with the death of Buddy Holly, the golden years of rock ‘n’ roll ended. However, the 50s had thrown up another new innovation into the mix- the electric guitar. Presley and his competitors had used them in their later performances, since they were lighter and easier to manoeuvre on stage and produced a better, louder sound for recorded tracks, but they wouldn’t come to their own until ‘the golden age of rock’ hit in the mid 60s.

By then, rock n roll had softened and mellowed, descending into lighter tunes that were the ancestors of modern pop music (something I’m not sure we should be too thankful to Elvis for), and British acts had begun to be the trailblazers. British acts tended towards a harder sound, and Cliff Richard enjoyed a period of tremendous success in the USA, but even then the passage of rock had eased off slightly. It wasn’t new any more, and people were basically content to carry on listening- there wasn’t much consumer demand for a new sound. But then, the baby boomers hit. The post-war goodwill in the late 40s and early 1950s had resulted in a spike in the birth rate of the developed world, and by around 1963 that generation had began to grow up. A second wave of teenagers hit the world, all desperate to escape the dreary boredom of their parents’ existence and form their own culture, with their own clothing, film interests, and, most importantly, music. The stage was set for something new to revolutionise the world of music, and the product that did was made in Britain.

Numerous bands from all over the country made up the British rock scene of the early 1960s, but the most prolific area was Liverpool. There rock and roll once again underwent a fusion with subgenres such as doo wop, and (again) R&B, formulating itself into another new sound, this time centred around a driving, rhythmic beat based upon the electric guitar and drum kit. These beats formed a key part of the catchy, bouncy, memorable melodies that would become the staple of ‘beat’ music. This had taken over the British music scene by 1963, but by 1964 a British song had made number 1 in the US charts. It was called ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and was written by four Liverpudlians who called themselves The Beatles.

To this day, the Beatles are the most successful musicians ever (sorry fellow Queen fans- it’s true). Their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 set a new record for an American TV audience (over 70 million)- a show they only did because Sullivan’s plane had been forced to circle Heathrow Airport in the middle of the night so that this band he’d never heard of could land first and wade their way through their screaming fans. Sullivan decided then and there he wanted to interview them. Along with other British acts such as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, beat took the US by storm- but they were only the first. The Beatles’ first and greatest legacy was the structure of a rock band; all band members wrote their own songs based on the drums & electric guitar. All that was left was for acts like the Stones to cement singer/lead guitarist/bassist/drummer as the classic combination and the formula was written. The music world was about to explode; again

And this story looks like taking quite a few more posts to tell…