When Zayn Malik left One Direction, I asked myself a similar question to the one Harry Styles asked while portraying Mick Jagger on Saturday Night Live: “Why would anyone in a successful band go solo? That is insane.” The line was clever and ironic, and it made me realize that going solo has benefitted a lot of musicians in the past. However, Harry Styles’ new single “Sign of the Times” makes me rethink who from One Direction will make it big.
As a former One Direction fangirl, I was just as upset as everyone else when Malik left the band. I kept looking for a reason as to what went wrong. What sign of Malik’s misery had I missed during all the livestreams and TV interviews? The songs were catchy and the albums were gradually drifting away from the group’s signature bubblegum pop. Why did he leave?
And that’s when I found my answer.
“Sign of the Times” could never be a hit single if it were sung by One Direction. The music isn’t fast paced, the chorus isn’t catchy and the lyrics aren’t about unrequited love. It’s soulful and raw – and it also helps that Styles has been blessed with killer vocals every One Direction fan can spot from a mile away.
Not only is the song so different from the band’s music, it’s different from everything else on the radio. According to Billboard’s Andrew Unterberger, Styles’ song embodies “the memories of British rock history.” He was inspired by ‘70s rock music icons like David Bowie and the Beatles, which isn’t a genre often played on the radio. Disagree with me if you want, but almost every chart-topping song was made to be played on the radio or danced to at a club. It can be tiring if everything that you’re listening to all sounds the same, though.
That’s why “Sign of the Times” is one successful solo debut. Styles left One Direction’s signature cheesy, sappy love songs for a song with a powerful meaning. (Just imagine what the rest of his album will sound like!) In an interview with Rolling Stone, Styles emphasized making music that was personal, taking inspiration from his life experiences: “I wanted to write my stories, things that happened to me. The number-one thing was I wanted to be honest. I hadn’t done that before.”
Listening to “Sign of the Times” and Styles’ departure from pop music made me think of the other band members and their solo careers. Malik released his single “PILLOWTALK” roughly a year after leaving the band. If you’d never listened to One Direction or didn’t know that Malik was a member of the boy band, his musical transformation wouldn’t be so obvious. But for a fan like me, listening to this song was a shocking experience. I understand that the songs are roughly five years apart, but how could someone go from singing “What Makes You Beautiful” to “LIKE I WOULD?” (Also, what is with the weird capitalization for his song titles?)
The songs are polar opposites. When Malik left One Direction, he left everything about it behind. One Direction was aware that the majority of its fans were teenage girls, so the band’s lyrics and image were very clean. “PILLOWTALK” is proof that wasn’t the image Malik wanted.
Keeping up the clean-cut boy band image restrained Zayn from being the artist he really wanted to be, as he said in multiple interviews after he left One Direction. I mean, he, and all the other members of One Direction, auditioned for The X Factor individually. Who knows if that was the music he wanted to create when he was 17 years old?
The first member of the remaining four to go solo was Niall Horan. Horan’s single “This Town” didn’t surprise me like Malik’s did, and that’s because it sounded just like a One Direction song. Unlike Malik and Styles, Horan stuck to his roots: the sound that gave him the career he has today.
However, Horan didn’t stick with One Direction’s catchy pop sound. It sounds most similar to “Little Things,” a sweet, stripped-down ballad that involves just the members’ voices and an acoustic guitar. “Little Things” stands out among the rest of the songs on One Direction’s second album Take Me Home, because the album consists entirely of upbeat tunes. “This Town” reminds me of when One Direction was just starting out and of how much they’ve grown.
Let me just say this about Louis Tomlinson. I had no idea he released a song, let alone an EDM song. I don’t know if it’s because it wasn’t publicized that well, but I stumbled upon the song while listening to Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart, and was instantly caught off guard – more by the fact that Louis had released a song under my radar than the song itself.
However, I was surprised that Tomlinson decided to take an EDM route. This is also my least favorite song, just because I’m not a fan of electronic or house music. Tomlinson’s voice sounded better when it wasn’t autotuned, and the lyrics sound like they were meant to have a deeper meaning, which isn’t apparent in the song. “Just Hold On” does have the catchiness of a typical One Direction song, but the beat, not the lyrics, will be what people remember the most.
It’s interesting that each member adopted a different style after going solo. I expected all the members to stick with the catchy, upbeat styles of pop music, so hearing separate genres was refreshing. Harry Styles was my favorite member, and he continues to be my favorite. I have so much confidence in his self-titled debut album that it’s the first album I’ve ever pre-ordered. That’s right, not even One Direction’s albums could persuade me into buying before listening.
The only member who has yet to release a single is Liam Payne. Maybe he’ll go country? Become a rapper? The former sounds more unlikely (because I’ve never heard of a British country singer) but for now, all we can do is wait.