Seventh grade was a difficult year. I had just started shaving my legs; I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup; I was trying to figure out whether my clothes were acceptably cute and whether I was supposed to care this much. That was the year I received One Direction’s Up All Night on CD for Christmas. I promptly fell in love.
As far as boy-band pop albums go, Up All Night is nothing special: fifteen sparkly and over-produced tracks, every one about love and relationships. The lyrics are generic and bland. The music, though, mattered much less to me than the boys themselves. I played the album on repeat until I knew each boy’s voice by heart, imagining that they were serenading me alone. I familiarized myself with all of their adorable quirks. At my all-girls school, boys were rare and exotic creatures, much sought-after but little understood. I worshipped each member of One Direction as the boyfriend that I wanted, without having to navigate the complexity of a real relationship. Of course, I fell for them. They flashed their dimples and told me how irresistible I was, and if I grew tired of them, I could simply pause the song.
The relationship between boy bands and teenage girls is a symbiotic one. Girls have immense purchasing power and a taste-making influence; they also possess the capacity for passionate, unabashed obsession. Bands need to become famous, and girls need distantly perfect boys to fantasize about until their male peers mature enough to be interesting. The Beatles started out by singing songs about holding hands, captivating teenage girls with their shaggy hair and boyish charm. NSYNC rose to the top of the charts with the support of territorial fans. The value in Up All Night is not its musical brilliance, but rather its role in fulfilling the female need for daydream material and establishing the new boy band of the 2010s.
I could certainly use daydream material in seventh grade. Up All Night was simple at a time when everything seemed complicated. Harry Styles didn’t mind my awkward gauchos phase or my frizzy hair. He thought I was beautiful just the way I was. The trite lyrics served as a blank canvas on which I built my fantasies – fantasies of being an adult, of having a boyfriend, of falling in love. In a way, my infatuation with One Direction was the first romantic experience I had. I shared the band with millions of other fans, but my relationship to the boys felt intensely personal, like they sang for only me. Those songs were my first love letters.
I’ve outgrown my love for One Direction; life has become too complicated for their crooning voices to smooth over. The boys have disbanded, and the spell is broken. But I occasionally return to Up All Night when I want to relive my middle-school days. The need for simple, glittering romance is timeless. As I put away the CD and take my place in the vast ranks of fangirls before me, I know that another set of fresh-faced boys will soon emerge to win the hearts of the next generation. And so the cycle continues.