So, you can imagine the loathsomeness with which I regard Justin Bieber. He’s just awful in every way. There’s a cynicism at play with him and his management team that’s truly despicable, that his core audience of 12-year-old girls doesn’t have very discerning tastes anyway, so why bother trying to even produce good music for him to sing. I used to work for an establishment that played his song “Baby” in in-house rotation. It was horrendous. Every 45 minutes or so, that terrible slice of craptacular pop would come on. It’s a truly horrible song, and that’s kind of stunning when you take into account people like Usher are behind it. It’s every bit as bad as “Hanging Tough” but New Kids on the Block, more junk music I’ve had to live through. (Side note: the rap Ludacris provides on “Baby” is genuinely embarrassing. “When I was 13, I had my first love. She woke up daily, don’t need no Starbucks.” Biggie and Tupac are dead, but this guy is still kicking?)
Things are getting worse now, too. Four years ago Bieber seemed terrible but harmless, like a pet hamster. Now, he’s in full celebrity meltdown mode at age 19. He’s recently been on tour in Europe, and it’s not going well. He’s showing up late for shows, getting booed by his own low expectation fans, passing out backstage, denying online he needs to be in rehab, and attacking paparazzi. This story isn’t likely to have a happy ending. Those odious pop culture vultures at TMZ are already circling and licking their chops.
So, you can imagine my surprise that I actually like One Direction, the wildly popular British singing group made up of a collection of boys. Normally, I would hate these guys, but I don’t. And, it’s kind of weirding me out. When I see or hear Justin Bieber, I want to break things. But, when I see One Direction, I just think, "Oh, look, it’s One Direction. They seem harmless, and I like them. Am I losing my edge?"
I don’t think I am and after going over it in my head, I can endorse One Direction.
For starters, they just seem like a bunch of goofy teenage kids. They don’t seem to be putting on airs or trying to come off as being cool or edgy. They seem self-aware and realize they’re not guitar-smashing, '60s-era Pete Townsend. I was at a gift shop on Hollywood Boulevard recently, and the store had a large collection of One Direction posters. In none of them did those five kids try to look like hardcore rappers. They’re wearing polos and t-shirts and hoodies, jeans and chinos. The look like the normal, albeit really well coiffed, metrosexual teenage boys you might see in any upscale suburban mall. Have you seen Justin Bieber lately? I have no idea why record labels insist on having these white kids try and sing R & B. It just doesn’t work. William Hung has more soul than Bieber. Rather than just being a kid, Bieber seems bent on showing the world how hardcore he is, and the results are preposterous. Did you see him in that spangly, oversized yellow baseball cap recently? He looks like a buffoon. He’s always looked like a tiny 14-year-old Canadian lesbian. Now, he seems to be trying to present himself as a slick, soul-singing lothario in the vein of D’Angelo, and it’s patently ridiculous. Can you imagine Bieber in a shot-for-shot recreation of D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video? Comparatively, the One Direction kids seem genuinely unaffected by what’s happening to them.
Then, there’s the matter of their music. Simon Cowell is behind One Direction (They were on the UK version of X Factor.), and the songs they’ve been given are generally well written and produced. Forty-five years ago, Brill Building maestros like Carol King and Neil Diamond were writing songs for the Monkees, and there’s a similar amount of quality craftsmanship on display with whoever is selecting One Direction’s material. The song that won me over is an acoustic ballad called “Little Things.” Like “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, you can’t deny it’s a really solid pop song. I had no idea who was performing it the first time I heard it, and it woke my up to the idea that there are some smart people managing some talented kids. Best of all, nobody thinks these kids should be singing R & B. These are straight ahead pop songs with minimal manufactured edge, and they fit the singers so much better.
Finally, there’s the bit about their movie. There’s a One Direction 3D concert movie coming out this summer. Of course, there is. But, the director is Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame. That’s a really interesting choice. Spurlock is a smart guy with a documentarian’s point of view, and he will likely make a film that’s more than just a slobbering archive for the group’s teenage fans. I’m not suggesting Morgan Spurlock was Harry Styles’ idea. But, again, the people managing these kids are making very smart and unexpected choices.
Most people love Pixar. Yes, Pixar is making movies that will largely appeal to kids. But, there’s no cynicism at Pixar, there’s no sense of just cranking out junk for a young audience that might not know the difference. Pixar is dedicated to quality, and it seems that Team One Direction has taken a page out of Pixar’s book. One Direction’s fans are largely tween and teen girls who may not have refined taste just yet. My hats off to everybody involved with One Direction for actually making some pretty decent pop music when it would be a lot easier to just give the world more Justin Bieber. It’s harder work and it shows.