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One Direction Has A Justin Timberlake Problem

Zayn Malik’s departure has reignited the question of which member will “pull a Timberlake,” but transitioning from teen idol to pop icon is harder than the “Suit & Tie” singer made it seem.

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It has finally happened: Zayn Malik has left One Direction. His “hiatus” from the group’s On The Road Again world tour, announced last week, has turned permanent.

Fans are shocked, but the singer’s departure is hardly sudden. He’s been drifting away from the group for some time now: skipping promotional events, appearing visibly unhappy during shows, and, most tellingly, sharing photos of himself in the recording studio without his bandmates.

In his official statement, Malik claims that he’s leaving “because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.” Which may be true — he left One Direction’s tour after photos of him getting cozy with a woman who is not his fiancée surfaced online — but not fully. Of all the One Direction boys, Malik was the most eager to go at it alone. His first foray into the solo world — a feature on producer Naughty Boy’s upcoming album — was confirmed just a few weeks ago and he returned to the studio less than 48 hours after announcing his retirement from the group.

Which brings us to the obvious question: Is Zayn Malik, as the first to jump ship, positioned to become the group’s breakout star, its Justin Timberlake?

The answer, despite Malik’s extracurricular activities, is no. Not just because, as Billboard explained, “Timberlake is a born performer" with a “thirst for constant attention” and “Malik was always known as the quiet one in the group,” but because none of the One Direction boys is poised for a Timberlake-esque solo career.

There has been an assumption, perhaps aided by the fact that the boys originally auditioned for X Factor as individuals, that One Direction is just phase one; that, for at least one member, parlaying boy band success into superstardom is simply the natural order of things. But for every Justin Timberlake, there’s at least a dozen Nick Carters: talented also-rans who couldn’t quite stick the landing.

In the 12 years since Timberlake made the transition from boybander to pop icon, the fog of time — plus Beyoncé’s parallel rise from harmonizer to **flawless one — has made the evolution seem easy, inevitable even. The work required to transform both stars from teen idols to the defining pop acts of their generation has been replaced by a magical theory of pop star development where every successful group is understood to be gestating one True Superstar, a singular talent destined to ascend the Billboard charts alone.

It’s a testament to Timberlake’s success that his unlikely career arc is regarded as the rule, not the exception to it, but a closer look at his transition reveals a delicate Rube Goldberg machine of talent, image management, and luck that would be near impossible for Malik or his former bandmates to re-create today.

Justin Timberlake did not become a solo star because he’s talented. He didn’t become a solo star because because he worked with the right people or because he exploited the public’s fascination with his personal life. Justin Timberlake became a solo star because he had impeccable timing.

NSYNC went on “hiatus” at the top of their game. The group’s third and final album, Celebrity, remains one of the fastest-selling records in history — second only to its predecessor, No String Attached. The album, which went multiplatinum in less than two weeks, also generated three Top 10 hits (one of which, “Gone,” was essentially a solo single with Lance, Chris, JC, and Joey relegated to singing backup) and two sold-out tours.

The boy band bubble was bursting, but the demand for NSYNC was so high the group could have easily released another successful album or two. However, Timberlake put a stop to the group’s seemingly unstoppable momentum in the spring of 2002. After the band completed their final arena tour, they announced a “temporary hiatus” allowing Timberlake to hole up in the studio to record his solo debut.

The singer — who had been the driving creative force behind NSYNC’s Celebrity album, co-writing seven of its thirteen tracks and recruiting uber-producers The Neptunes to contribute a song — emerged just six weeks later with Justified, an organic, R&B-influenced album produced by The Neptunes and Timbaland. The record was, by and large, a triumph. Heavily influenced by Michael Jackson and sixties soul singers, Justified managed to be different enough from NSYNC’s slick boy band sound to justify the project’s existence without straying too far from the singer’s radio-ready roots.

It also, smartly, touched on his breakup with Britney Spears and established Timberlake as pop’s most eligible bachelor.

Because when Justin Timberlake finally made a break for it in 2002, he was more than just one-fifth of the world’s biggest boy band, he was also one half of music’s cutest couple. The importance of his impossibly high-profile romance with labelmate Britney Spears is hard to overstate. For years the couple attended award shows in matching outfits, exchanged expensive gifts, and lied unconvincingly about her vow of chastity to the press; incredible public displays of affection that helped cement Timberlake’s status as NSYNC’s de facto frontman. Spears was teen-pop’s prom queen and in making Timberlake her king, she elevated him from “the cute curly haired one” to “Britney Spears’ boyfriend.”

It was their breakup, however, and how he handled it, that made him a celebrity in his own right.

The couple broke up in March 2002, but didn’t talk about it in the press until months later. The pair confirmed the end of their romance in dueling cover stories that summer. Their statements were pleasantly vague and peppered with well-wishes. That is, until Timberlake had an album to promote. Then the truth, or at least his version of it, came out.

He revealed not only that Spears had forced him to end things by doing something “very bad,” but also that their courtship had hardly been the chaste love affair they had always maintained it was. In a radio interview he admitted to going down on the “...Baby One More Time” singer during their relationship, a crass admission he defended to Rolling Stone by saying, “They were promising me spins on the radio, so I was just pimping spins.”

This masterful tabloid profiteering reached its peak when the singer released his second single, “Cry Me A River.” The song directly addressed the “very bad” thing Spears did head on, insinuating that the pop star cheated. A scandalous intimation that the video, which features a Spears lookalike, goes to great pains to make as overt as possible.

Unsurprisingly, “Cry Me A River” was the album’s biggest hit.


Unfortunately for Zayn Malik and his former bandmates, the stars simply aren’t aligning.

In the five years they’ve been together One Direction have released more music than NSYNC did in seven and have managed to play almost as many shows. While Malik’s exit will undoubtedly handicap the group going forward, One Direction’s relentless schedule suggests their corporate overlords never intended them to go out on top. The strategy appears to be: Maximize every profitable second of fame, sanity and solo careers be damned.

The result of this approach is a tired band whose popularity was beginning to wane even before its second most popular member decided to walk.

One Direction’s last album, Four didn’t sell as well as the group’s former two outings and neither of the album’s singles cracked the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. The group appeared lethargic on stage and rumors of discontent have circulated for months. If the group’s fifth album, expected later this year, fails to reverse this trend it will hardly be Malik’s fault.

This is obviously bad news for any member of One Direction interested in launching a solo career. As the band’s fanbase shrinks, so does the potential built-in audience for independent projects. Whether by luck or design, putting a stop to NSYNC while demand was still high helped Justin Timberlake ensure the largest possible audience for his debut. Which, even in his best-case scenario, was still just a fraction of NSYNC’s.

Putting aside the fact that the timing is bad and won’t be getting any better, no one member seems to have the right combination of talent and tabloid appeal required to truly make a go if it. Not even heartthrob Harry Styles.

It’s easy to see why Styles is widely believed to be the member most likely to “pull a Timberlake” — he’s handsome, charismatic, and has been known to date some of the world’s most famous women — but being comfortable in the spotlight isn’t enough. He’s far too willing to just show up, hit his marks, and let other people drive the narrative.

Case in point: Haylor. Proximity to music’s reigning queen may have boosted his profile, but failing to capitalize on his love affair with Taylor Swift was a huge mistake. While he was busy being chivalrous she was making accented jabs at awards shows and writing an entire album about the rise and fall of their short romance. More alarming still: The one song he did write about the relationship, he gave away to labelmates Alex & Sierra. Complacency does not a superstar make.

Then there’s the small issue of music. Justin Timberlake didn’t become Justin Timberlake on the strength of Justney fascination alone. Quality, forward-sounding pop music has always been the foundation of his success.

Styles is credited as a writer on 16 One Direction tunes and two songs for other artists: “I Love You,” the aforementioned Haylor song, and Ariana Grande’s “Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart.” His One Direction songs, all written with the group’s army of hitmakers, are largely indistinguishable from the rest of the group’s catalog. His extracurricular songs, however, are both sappy piano ballads that are, to put it bluntly, pretty bad. Neither Grande’s vocal gymnastics nor his attempt at Swiftian references can save them. Worse than being bad, they’re boring. Pop can accommodate kitsch — see: “SexyBack” — but it cannot abide boring.

While Styles’ solo prospects are grim, things are worse for the other four.

Malik, despite his dramatic exit and Naughty Boy connection, is an introvert who could hardly bring himself to speak at concerts. The singer, by his own admission, couldn’t handle the demands of being one of the biggest acts in the world and bailed.

Niall Horan, the adorable blonde muppet with the guitar, has the second largest Twitter following and an actual musical talent, but the band has been around for five years and it’s unlikely that someone outside of the fandom would recognize his name.

Ditto Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne.

Of course, that’s the brilliant thing about groups – the whole is frequently greater than the sum of its parts. The emphasis on which member could potentially be the Next Big Thing negates the enormously successful enterprise they’ve already created. Especially when One Direction’s appeal was never predicated on perfect harmonies or elaborately choreographed dance routines, but the boys’ camaraderie. Everything from their name (a reference to their shared ambitions) to their antics-filled videos served to underscore the notion that they were lads first and band second.

It’s a formula that guaranteed all attempts to go solo would be a reminder of how much more fun things are when you have a little help from your friends.


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