by Jane Hu
Near the end of One Direction’s final album Made In The A.M. — in a track titled “History,” no less — the band reaches a note of desperation. During the bridge, Louis Tomlinson (the band’s oldest member, at a whopping twenty-three) lists a catalogue of, for anyone even casually interested in the band, One Direction cliches:
Mini bars, expensive cars, hotel rooms, and new tattoos
And the good champagne, and private planes, but they don’t mean anything
’Cause the truth is out, I realize that without you here life is just a lie
This is not the end
This is not the end
We can make it, you know it, you know
In repetitive and increasingly imploring tones, the bridge short-circuits mid-sentence. Who are they trying to convince about making it, about not the end — the world or themselves? Fredric Jameson was right: history is what hurts. And history happens pretty quickly these days.
Released a couple of weeks ago, the title of Made In The A.M. self-consciously points to its precarious genesis. While also echoing a response to the band’s other albums, Up All Night and Midnight Memories, it occupies, perhaps a little too patly, that liminal space of daybreak — evoking everything from working overtime to waking early, sex to quietly slipping away, too late and too early. The first track opens philosophically: “Hey angel, do you know the reasons why? We look up to the sky?” And the album closes by asking: “Won’t you stay ’til the A.M.?” Hypothetical questions are a good way of framing an album that demands no response or sequel, I guess.
The desire for a second life is perhaps what allows Purpose, Justin Bieber’s latest album, also released a couple of weeks ago, to be much better than Made In The A.M. If One Direction is saying goodbye, then Purpose is making a point of rebranding. While both acts began in the realm of overearnest nineties bubblegum pop (in strikingly similar hairstyles), they have since vastly diverged. These days, One Direction is still trafficking (as it did in its previous two albums) in something like eighties rock meets Coldplay, with occasional hints of Fleetwood Mac — and, in the recent “Walking in the Wind,” Simon & Garfunkel? Bieber has always leaned toward the electronic, but Purpose has taken this tendency to its logical conclusion. ~Bieber’s new sound~ is dancehall meets tropical (sometimes borderline orientalist) house beats meets new age jazz, with periodical callbacks to his evergreen wheelhouse of R&B slow jams. It helps that Bieber is, and has always been, a better singer than the members of One Direction. Even post-puberty, his range is still pretty wack. There are points in Purpose where Bieber sounds almost indistinguishable from the boy who brought us “One Less Lonely Girl” (and “The Feeling”), but for the most part the album sounds like a sonic graduation from My World 2.0 (2010) and Believe (2012).
Boy bands remind us that promises about being first and forever are made to be broken. But the momentary thrill in believing them — because they have not yet been proven false — is a reminder that promises are not necessarily lies just because they don’t come true. Spoiler: none of the promises came true, except maybe those about mistakes. At least one thing that Purpose and Made In The A.M. share is an investment in melancholy and regret.
Never particularly gifted singers — and even worse dancers — One Direction has always known that their trump card is charisma. In their music videos and that baldly titled 3D movie One Direction: This Is Us, the band has never concealed, but has in fact flaunted, their artistic deficiencies. With shit-eating grins, they’d knowingly bust out simple, almost grandfatherly, dance moves. The result? Sheer endearment. In the music video to the extravagantly metatextual “Best Song Ever,” One Direction camps it up to charming effect.
In their exploitation of their underwhelming talent, One Direction’s overwhelming chemistry did not redefine the boy band criterion, so much as remind us of its lasting virility. From the start, One Direction winkingly played up their impetuous boyishness — and primarily by playing off of one another — to supreme effect. There have been nipple twists, ironic holiday sweaters, and romping in fields. Many of their music videos resemble a Merchant Ivory remake of an E.M. Forster novel. And let’s never forget “Larry,” the shipper’s shorthand that launched a thousand pieces of fanfic about Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. If One Direction were an academic monograph, they would be screaming for a chapter on male homosocial desire. Watching them, it’s hard to decide whether they’re singing about each other, or to some implied female viewer. After their first music video, “What Makes You Beautiful,” featuring a single anonymous girl to be shared among the five band members, the group subsequently dropped the girl entirely. You could be explicitly serenading her, but she remains outside of the frame.
Alternately, young Bieber — a one-boy show — compensated by involving crowds of girls to offset his aggressive boyishness. Featured rappers — Ludacris, Sean Kingston, Big Sean, Drake, Nicki Minaj — also did plenty of work in framing J.B. as the relatively complacent, totally cute, boy pop star with a soft edge. For years, Bieber’s catchphrase was, after all, “swaggy.” Oh, and I will never get over Bieber’s face in “Beauty and a Beat” when he’s grinding in a pool next to Nicki Minaj.
Bieber’s manufactured harmlessness was amplified by the facade that the boy didn’t really know, at least sexually, what he was doing. Dating the babyfaced Disney-alum Selena Gomez — who was also an older woman — likely helped with that for awhile as well. Following their break up (which seemed appropriately torturous for someone who was nineteen), Bieber faced a series of misdemeanors which were appropriately volcanic for someone of his age and his public profile. There was the DUI, pot, Xanax, throwing eggs at his Calabasas neighbor’s house, a physical altercation with a minivan driver in Stratford, Ontario, after Bieber hit the minivan, and the excruciating n-word parody of “One Less Lonely Girl.” None of it was close to cute. Luckily for Bieber, cute was becoming less and less of a relevant category in which he could define himself.
Purpose allows Bieber to reposition himself as someone who is truly sorry. He’s not saying goodbye to his franchise — just what it once represented. Produced in the sobering aftermath of a series of scandals, Purpose offers the public a daylight contrition. Bieber’s recessive stance in the album is perhaps illustrated most clearly in the music video to the album’s single “Sorry,” in which we get, yes, a crowd of girls. But this time: no Bieber.
The effect is illuminating in more ways than one, and no less because these visibly liberated female dancers nonetheless offer a placard of forgiveness to the sorry singer himself. On multiple tracks in the album, Bieber closes out songs with a literal spoken apology. These speech acts attempt to relinquish him from guilt and function in the confessional mode: I am aware, so it is okay. Against piano accompaniment, we hear Bieber say at the end of the album’s title track:
I don’t know if this is wrong, because someone else is telling me that it’s wrong. But I feel this so let me just like try my best not to let this happen again. We weren’t necessarily put in the best position to make the best decisions. You can’t be hard on yourself for it, these are the cards you were given so you have to understand that’s not who you are.
The power of confession as a displacement of responsibility is even clearer in the outro to “All In It,” in which Bieber directly appeals to God, who “never disappoints. So I just get my recognition from him, and give him recognition.” These spoken outros — full of orchestrated stutters and rhetorical flourishes (who is the plural “we” here?) — work overtime to dissipate Bieber’s agency in his own actions. They are also implicit apologies; they assume the listener already knows what he’s sorry for. If we can argue that Purpose makes up for Bieber’s imperfect history by being musically exceptional, the lyrical logic of the album — in which we hear Bieber belabour over and over on his past mistakes — ultimately counteracts any impulse to let bygones be bygones. And Bieber should know: The yardstick with which we forgive our artists for being shitheads is long.
In the case of One Direction, however, music can’t redeem them in their last act; it doesn’t even sound like they care if it does or not. After five years of making a lot of promises to girls — and to each other — the band sounds appropriately tired in Made In The A.M. Though, as if clinging to the last lees of adolescence, you feel them periodically trying to rally over the course of the album. In tracks like “Never Enough” and “Temporary Fix,” they evoke the ongoing nostalgia of eighties rock, having entirely given up trying to work in the heterogeneous synth-pop of 2015 where One Direction’s previous pure boypop innocence really no longer fits. Though as per the classic evolution of, well, growing up, maybe the whole point is that we can only believe in such jubilant carefreeness for so long.
Though Bieber might strike listeners as more fatigued, more repentant, this does not mean that One Direction denies musing wistful. “Perfect,” the second single from Made In The A.M., makes this literal. It is a bald acknowledgment of the precariousness underwriting their lives. And insofar as One Direction promises that this instability is a kind of perfection, it is one that becomes self-damning: And if you like cameras flashing every time we go out, oh, yeah / And if you’re looking for someone to write your breakup songs about / Baby, I’m perfect.
As Made In The A.M. aimlessly recedes from its listeners, it plays with our expectations. Are we letting them go — or are they leaving us first? The theater of farewell is encapsulated in “Love You Goodbye” (One Direction’s only song about break-up sex?), as the band repeatedly asks,
Why you’re wearing that to walk out of my life?
Oh, even though it’s over you should stay tonight
If tomorrow you won’t be mine
Won’t you give it to me one last time?
Oh, baby, let me love you goodbye
It’s a goodbye that protests a little too much.