A Unified Theory of One Direction

When I was a university student, I majored in Art History.

“Art History?” you ask, “Well, when you’re sleeping against a statute in the park, at least you’ll recognize the sculptor.”

Rude. I don’t go around pointing out your poor life decisions.

Art History professors like to bolster their program. “Not only will you learn about art and history,” they say, “but you’ll develop new tools for seeing.” You can just hear the italics in their voice. Professors have this gift for speaking in italics that makes them seem especially compelling.

“Tools for seeing?” eager college freshman ask, completely free of verbal italics, “Like a monocle? Or x-ray vision, Or lasers with which we can perform at-home eye surgery?”

“No, nothing as practical as that. These are metaphorical tools for seeing. As in, you’ll see the world differently once you take my class. Isn’t that worth $3,000 per credit/hour?”

And since that sales pitch didn’t compel me to run right to the Registrar begging to be allowed into the mechanical engineering program, learn to see the world differently I did.

My parents paid a great deal of money for this education, and I’m bound and determined to put it to good use. Well, maybe not “good,” exactly, but definitely some.

For my first foray into armchair art historical analysis, I chose a subject near and dear to the hearts of teenage girls (and a few boys) around the world: One Direction. Together we can use my very expensive tools for seeing to unpack the carefully cultivated and curated pop star image that the One Direction Industrial Complex has worked so diligently to create.

Let’s start with some empirical  evidence: One Direction is arguably the most popular band in the world. I know this because I recently visited Dubai and for a lark decided to go skiing at the Mall of the Emirates. Unbeknownst to me, this happened to be the day that One Direction concert tickets went on sale at this mall’s Virgin Megastore. Yes, in other countries the Virgin Megastore is still a place that people actually go, not just a cavernous mausoleum to the memory of the 1990’s.

With planned attendance at over 30,000, this One Direction concert is on pace to be the largest concert in the Middle East. Since they sold 15,000 tickets while I was at the mall, it seems pretty likely they’ll hit their goal.

The craziest part is that the concert is still a year away. A lot can happen in a year. The band could break up; Niall could start doing heroin, hit rock bottom, go to rehab, get clean, relapse, and overdose himself dead in a year (I can see the NYPost headline now: 1D OD’s-#NiallHoranAin’tSmilin’NoMore-n); Harry Styles could pull a Felicity and cut his hair; etc. The road to pop stardom is fraught with peril. Despite all this uncertainty, enough people in this predominantly conservative Islamic country were willing to buy tickets to make this concert the largest of its kind. One Direction is popular (duh).

So what exactly are are these people clamoring to to buy? When we purchase 1D merch, what are we consuming? And, more importantly, why do we want it? How have the powers behind One Direction convinced us that they’re selling something we want. What have they put in the water to make teens and adults around the world schlep to the Virgin Megastore and wait in line for hours?


A note: What follows is an exercise that I would not have attempted had I not started reading the work of Anne Helen Petersen, who now works at Buzzfeed. You should definitely read this and this. However, my absolute favorite piece is this piece on post-feminist dystopia. Without a doubt it has forever changed the way I think about everything. My first introduction to AHP were her Scandals of Classic Hollywood, which my aunt loves.  This is my piss poor attempt at applying some of the concepts I learned from reading her work (in addition to some tools for seeing).


To begin to answer these questions let’s watch some 1D music videos.

First, a note: music videos are just a piece of what makes 1D what it is. I would never suggest that they represent the entirety of what makes up the rich tapestry (I mean that only semi-seriously) that is 1D. However, I like music videos because they’re a medium over which 1D and the powers behind 1D have total control. Before you say “No one even watches music videos anymore…” let me point you to the OneDirectionVevo channel on Youtube. There you’ll find that nine separate One Direction music videos that each have over 100 million views (one video even has over 500 million views). The tired, poor, huddled masses are most definitely yearning for some One Direction music videos.

Every celebrity works to cultivate a popular image. One Direction is no exception. This image is key to their success, and I would argue that the key to their image (based on watching every single one of their music videos) is twofold, and that almost all of their music videos neatly fit into one of two categories.


The Authenticity Videos  

Let’s start with an easy one.

Midnight Memories (a mere 48 million views last time I checked).

This is one of their more recent videos, and in it we see a number of tropes that will be repeated over and over again.

The video opens with a scene from a really weak house party. Skinny nerds are dancing, girls won’t give Niall the time of day, there’s even a guy in a tie! It’s the visual language of lameness.

LHP collage

Then the hijacking begins. The current record screeches to a halt and the video’s audio is hijacked by the song Midnight Memories.  The boys of 1D ditch the party and stage an impromptu coup at a local kebab joint. They jump over the counter and playfully turn the establishment upside down.

Harry jumps the counter and Niall bites doner right off the vertical rotisserie to riotous applause

Harry jumps the counter and Niall bites doner right off the vertical rotisserie to riotous applause

The hi-jinks continue as the boys swipe the hoverarounds from a gang of old ladies and race them through the streets. The old ladies are too busy swooning to care that they’ve just been denuded of their means of transport.

scooter collage

The boys raise the stakes in the next scene. While Niall distracts a police officer (by signing an autograph), the others hijack his police boat and cruise around London. Oh no boys! You’re in trouble now. But they don’t care because this is “what the night is for. Midnight Memories.”

However, all the figures of authority, be they police, old ladies, or kebab shop proprietors, are pretty okay with how amok these boys have run. There doesn’t seem to be any real harm done to anyone, and there certainly aren’t any repercussions. That’s the implicit signal to us that these boys aren’t dangerous.

All of that exists to say “Look at how spontaneous and fun we are, but we’re also totally harmless. We just love shenanigans, we’d never do anything really bad.”

Looking past the physical actions of the boys, the video itself is complicit  in propagating the overall atmosphere of rakish charm. It’s is mostly shot up close, which gives you (the viewer) the impression that you’re right there with them; in their rowdy crowd. You have the inside scoop, you really know them because you’re there too. As we’ll see in other videos that sense that the viewer is getting to know the boys of One Direction is going to be a theme in many of their videos.

Kiss You (a modest 223 million views, last time I checked)

Isn’t that just the most fun? It begins with Zayn on a motorcycle cruising down a scenic highway,


and then, Oh Snap, Harry pops up behind Zayn. Harry, were you there the whole time?


Zayn don’t take your eyes off the road. That’s not safe! Huh, whaaa? Psych ! — the camera pulls back in the next scene and we can see that they’re just filming a video in front of a rear projection screen.

highway 3

The entire video is of them making a video that replicates famous scenes from other movies. It has scenes from Jailhouse Rock , To Catch a Thief, Ski Party,  South Pacific, James Bond, the Beatles, Blue Hawaii, and probably a few others.

scene collage

But it doesn’t really matter if you match the scenes with their specific pop culture ancestors. These scenes have been floating around in the cultural ether for decades and the casual viewer will have the sense to pick up that these are references, probably to the One Direction equivalents of the past. And that they look like their having a super fun time while they’re at it. Case in point – nipple tweak.

nipple tweak

Some of that playful homoerotic behavior that 1D has become famous for

By juxtaposing themselves with some of the great teen idols and iconic movies scenes in history, 1D sets itself up as the heir to that kingdom of pop stardom. However, by pulling back the camera and letting you see the the guts, it gives you the impression that what you’re seening is en-plein-air candidness, when it’s actually anything but.

All the tomfoolery is carefully choreographed. Those cameras that seem to be filming the boys are actually props. The real camera is the one filming the camera filming the boys. The “behind-the-scenes” aesthetic is, in fact the scene. Meta, right? It’s a kind of sleight of hand; it takes a lot of work to look that casual. It’s the music video equivalent of Abercrombie & Fitch selling pre-ripped jeans; the wearer seems rugged without ever having to actually work on a farm. It’s the trappings of some ideal without that actual something. Not all that glitters is gold.

Have I beat that horse dead enough yet? Yes? Good.

Best Song Ever (252 million views at last count)

This video is really interesting because it takes some of the techniques from the last video and flips them on their head, but still serves the same purpose. Where Kiss You references the past to elevate the status of One Direction into the pantheon of pop culture, this video uses direct references to other boy bands to differentiate 1D from their boy band brethren, but still to elevate their status.

The video takes place in a generic Hollywood office where the boys are taking a meeting about their next music video (A video about making a music video? Where have we seen that before?), and each boy plays an a caricature of someone in “the industry” in addition to themselves — Louis and Niall as loathesome excecutives, Zayn as a hot female secretary, Harry as a nerdy peon, Liam as an ostensibly gay choreographer, etc.

In this video the boys explicitly reject the idea that the industry can create their image. Upon sitting down for the meeting,the boys are introduced to the choreographer (played ferociously by Liam in cutoffs) who tries to wow them with what will be their new “big dance number,” to no avail. “We’d never do that,” Louis says decisively.

Next the boys are shown a series of mock-ups for the style of their video — each is clearly rip off of famous album covers from boy bands past.

bb collage

Our fivesome is incredulous. “Absolutely not,” Harry says. “We’d never wear that,” Louis agrees. Rejecting these styles is a stand in for rejecting the system that created these styles. It’s a way of saying, “These styles were concocted in a focus group and used by groups that are the product of the Hollywood machine, and we’re not like that. We’re the real McCoy.”

In fact, the idea that they could ever have their image manufactured by Hollywood is so offensive that it sends them into a blind rage.

hollywood sign

Louis is actually destroying a photo of the Hollywood sign. Could it be any less subtle?

In between scenes of destruction, we’re treated to snip-its of “found footage” of the boys on tour.  We see them eating snacks, smiling, riding skateboards, and waving to fans. It ostensibly reveals what they’re really like. These are the true personalities that they are fighting to share with us.

REJECTING IMAGE CREATION IS THE IMAGE THEY’RE CREATING. In other words, the 1D you see is the 1D you get. They are authentic. They are the locally grown, farm-raised, organic kale of boy bands.

Except, remember that 1D was created  by Simon Cowell on the X-Factor. If there is an industry machine  greater than that, I can’t think of one.

Then the video ends with that big dance number that they swore they’d never do.

big dance number

Story of My Life ( 232 million views, last I checked)

I almost didn’t include this video in this post because the tone is slightly different, but it’s my absolute favorite. It’s just a nonstop barrage of blue collar exploitation. It’s amazingly manipulative.

It begins with the boys developing photos by hand in what can only be described as the worst darkroom in history. The lighting in that room  is going to ruin those photos. Also, are these boys even old enough to remember film? It turns out that the reason they’re developing photos manually is because these are old photos of their families. The people in these photos slowly turn into the  present day versions of themselves, while the sets stay exactly the same. Young Zayn and his sister are sitting in a bedroom, then *poof* the Zayn of today is sitting with the sister of today in that very same bedroom. This theme is repeated for all the boys.

Let’s be clear. The people in these photos do not look rich. They definitely give off a working class vibe, and that vibe intentionally distracts/mitigates the fact that the truth is that these boys are internationally famous multi-millionaires.

Also, in Louis’ family, they eat lots of carrots.

louis carrots

Unlike the other videos we’ve looked at, the tone of this one is very different. Darkroom photo development = serious, somber, and solemn. It’s meant to demonstrate that these boys can care about something besides horseplay and roughhousing, and that something is family (i.e. their roots). This video powerfully suggests that these boys wouldn’t be who they are if they hadn’t grown up in the (read: blue collar) circumstances displayed in those photographs. As the the boys look wistfully at these old photographs, we become aware of their own awareness of their humble beginnings and meant to believe that they treasure those memories.

Also we become aware that Harry Styles looks just like his mother.

harry mom

The purpose of this video is to give these boys, teenagers who were manufactured by the professionals behind the X-Factor, something that they don’t have, but absolutely need if they want anyone find them credible: a history.

One Way or Another (202 million views)

This video is just the icing on the cake. This is the first video that, at least to me, feels like a complete fraud.

The premise, explained in the first few minutes, is that the boys are going to make a cheap video themselves using some of their candid tour footage and donate the money they save to charity. The point of this allegedly homespun video is to point a spotlight on their generosity.

nial african

Adorable African children are the must have accessory this season

This video is a pastiche of all the elements we’ve discussed with the other videos. The footage all reads like it was filmed with a handi-cam and shows the boys harmlessly goofing off in no fewer than four distinct locations. The stripped down choreography and shaky camera work give the video an impromptu and off-the-cuff feel, but the scenes themselves reveal that there had to be tons of pre-planning and work off camera. How do we know that this video can’t be as as spontaneous as it seems?

When was the last time that an international superstar was able to do the hokey pokey in Times Square without being mobbed by legions of screaming fans?

harry hokey pokey

Or gyrate on a tourist bus as it passes by Big Ben?

nial double decker

Or cross a Tokyo street, while wearing a Peter Pan collar?


Or (my favorite) walk up to 10 Downing St and group hug the Prime Minister?

david cameron

Maybe its true that they filmed the footage for this video while on tour, but when you look at the video you start to realize how much scheduling needed to take place months in advance, how many takes they must have needed to film, and how much editing had to take place after the fact. Harry introduced this video as having been done “instead of spending a load of money…we decided to make it ourselves.”  This is a big production dressed in the trappings of frugality. As Dolly Parton famously said, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.

This video is meant to keep up the appearance of  fun guys who are low maintenance with good hearts and, most importantly, that all of those qualities underscore their authenticity and their accessibility. Their laid back nonchalance belies the fact that they’re the world’s biggest pop stars.


All these videos portray the boys of One Direction in a uniformly positive and one dimensional light. I’m sure the boys are as rich and nuanced in real life as you and I are, but there’s also a chance that we might not like them as much. At the very least, a realistic portrait would be unable to deny their X-Factor origins or the massive wealth they’ve acquired, which is completely ignored in their music videos. I’ve spent the last 3,000 or so words trying to point out all the ways that these videos lie to you, but would you have noticed if someone hadn’t pointed them out to you? It took me several viewings of each before I could successfully pick them apart. There is no doubt that they credibly sell a favorable view of the boys and establish a (false) sense of authenticity.

The I Love You Videos 

Way back at the top of this post I mentioned that I believed One Direction’s music videos fell into two categories. We just discussed five of the authenticity videos. In a nutshell, these are the videos that throw a smoke screen over their celebrity. These are the videos that make One Direction seem accessible and relatable. They establish the boy’s credibility and authenticity. When they say they’re just regular guys, we believe it because these videos successfully demonstrate it in a way that makes us believe it even if there’s evidence to the contrary.

Establishing authenticity is important because in order for the second category of video to be effective, we already need to believe that these boys are earnest.  I call the other category of video the I Love You videos, and we don’t even need to watch a single one. They’re all basically the same.  The songs tend to be slower in tempo (but not always) and have no specific plot other than having the boys look into the camera singing, with pained expressions, about how much they love you. The songs are almost always about “you,” as in there isn’t a specific woman like Billie Jean, Roxanne, or Sweet Caroline that serves as the object of the singer’s affection. There is no visual or aural separation, interruption, or distraction between  you and them.

harry turtleneck

There is nothing in the world between you and Harry

One Direction’s I Love You videos employee “The Gaze,” to wonderful effect. The concept of The Gaze is used to “describe the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. The psychological effect is … that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object. This concept is bound with [the] theory of the mirror stage, in which a child encountering a mirror realizes that he or she has an external appearance … [The] effect can similarly be produced by any conceivable object such as a chair or a television screen. This is not to say that the object behaves optically as a mirror; instead it means that the awareness of any object can induce an awareness of also being an object.” Thanks Wikipedia

When Harry looks out at you from the screen you become the object of his gaze and as a result you lose some of your autonomy. He uses that control to tell you that you’re perfect and the sole object of his affection. Its a haymaker right to the babymaker.

The I Love You videos can only be successful if we already believe what One Direction says. In order for you to believe that someone loves you, you need to have a history together built on trust and credibility. Thanks to the Authenticity videos we already believe that we know them and understand their values system,  so we also believe them when they stare at us through screen and sing “that’s what makes you beautiful.”


All of what I’ve said is pretty surface level analysis, but that’s sort of the point of visual analysis — to look at what’s on the surface. Their music videos are created, like everything they do, in service of their image. They serve as an iconographic tent pole in the entire One Direction operation. We don’t really know anything about what the members of One Direction are really like, but they want us to think that we do. I can’t say definitively that these super chill, laid back goofball bros (with perfect hair) who love you and their moms aren’t what they appear to be. Maybe they are, but I can say that I don’t know many super chill, laid back, goofball bros (with perfect hair) that have a multi-million dollar media empire predicated on reinforcing that image.


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