Here’s something I never thought I would ever say: a One Direction song is brilliant. Yes, brilliant. I have been a bit of a naysayer about the band, more against their rabid, over-zealous, cultish fans than the band itself, but I have no choice to admit that one of their songs is a brilliant example of self-reflexivity of public image. Which track am I talking about? Technically, it’s not one of their original songs; it’s their cover of “One Way or Another/Teenage Kicks”, the former originally by Blondie and the latter by The Undertones. Whether or not this was a PR move or their own sly smarts, choosing the former song in particular, what can be described as a Stalker Anthem of sorts, and blending it with the angst and sensuality of the latter track makes for one of the most interesting tracks I’ve ever heard. Did I mention that the cover is actually pretty damn great?
Truth be told, I am totally apathetic about One Direction. I find them to be pleasantly bland, somewhat attractive (I admit that I am a Niall girl), and fine for their main demographic. I was actually aware of them when they were on the X Factor, but primarily because two of my closest friends are Directioners. Their music is catchy enough, if not very original. I do find their public image, not the Disney chaste starts we are used to when it comes to boy bands, kind of strange, but they’re “fine”. What gets to me is their obsessive fans. The people who get in arguments over which one is better, and become vicious like dogs when you say anything negative about them. It’s weird and cultish to me.
However annoying this may be, the only thing distinguishing Directioners and Beatlemaniacs from the 1960s is the ubiquity of social media. Nothing else between the ways the two fandoms, as it were, function is different. I’m ready for my crucifixion, but One Direction isn’t totally unlike the Beatles. Both had pretty powerful managers/archeologists (Brian Epstein and Simon Cowell), both are UK based, and both can get their fans into a wild tizzy. Take a look at some clips from the 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night and you will see fans crying, the tears streaming down their face like Niagara Falls. (The film will become more relevant as I go on.) If the Beatles existed today, instead of One Direction, there would be no difference, at least in terms of fan reaction.
And it isn’t like One Direction doesn’t know this. It’s not like Liam, Niall, Harry, Zayn, and Louis aren’t fully aware of what they’re doing. You have no further to look than a recent British GQ cover story (one which garnered some truly absurd reactions from fans) to see the self-awareness in their act. It may not be Lady Gaga style self-awareness, but the cheeky comment from Zayn “They will build statues of us” definitely recalls a Mr. John Lennon saying, “We are bigger than Jesus”. So, it’s interesting that the group is so aware of how much power they have. They aren’t modest per se, nor are they totally cocky about it (of course, the GQ story published covers to gain traffic and sales). And, as aforementioned, the fans they have, predominantly female, are serious about their adoration for the group.
These are fans that know everything about each member of One Direction. They know that Niall is “the shy one” (apparently, each one fits into an archetype, which is, in the history of boy bands, nothing new), what kind of animals the boys like, they have tracked them from their X Factor days. They even go so far as to speculate on the band members’ sexual orientations (something that really confounds me). Depending on whom you talk to, they’ll know exactly what country the boys are that day on their tour. To me, that’s borderline “stalkerish”. But, that kind of mentality allowed the boys to pull the perfect punch, both with regard to the song choice itself and its application to social media.
On February 17th, 2013, One Direction released the single “One Way or Another (Teenage Kicks), a cover mash up of the Blondie/Undertones track. Along with the single, they released an ostensibly uninteresting video of the boys out and about in Ghana, Tokyo, London, New York City, and, of course, 10 Downing Street. It’s a plain, dull, boring video with the boys goofing around and wearing red clown noses (the video/track was released as a Comic Relief single, with all proceeds going to the foundation). But, what seems to have gone unnoticed by everyone (as far as I can tell) is that the song, and the video were a subversive little take on their own celebrity status and their own legion of fans.
The song’s foundation is “One Way or Another”, which was released by Blondie in 1979. Written by Debbie Harry and Nigel Harrison, Harry said that the song was inspired by one of her ex-boyfriends who stalked her, meaning that the song was from the perspective of the ex. “Teenage Kicks”, on the other hand, was released by the new wave band The Undertones in 1977 and became their trademark songs. Essentially about the desire and randiness of its persona, it seems ill fit lyrically to go with a song about stalking. But, if you read their mash up as a commentary on fan culture, then it actually works.
Fandom is a dangerous thing, with opposing fandoms sparking gang wars that remind one of West Side Story. But it’s a very strange passion that a large group of people share, however health or unhealthy It may be. No stranger to encountering fans, One Direction turns the table on them with the track, arguing that they will find the fans one way or another. It’s ironic the determination and the hard beat with which the song is imbued. Never has the former song felt so full of live, verve, and power. The striking beat of rhythm of the song shares the same delirious desire of the band’s admirers. Back to A Hard Day’s Night: The opening shots, which are perhaps the most famous from the film, have the Beatles running through the streets after playing live, trying to escape droves of fans. It’s like a tidal wave of admirers are after them. The Fab Four, though, is hard put to find a safe place to find. This was at the height of the Beatles’ fame, and this is pretty much where One Direction is now. (It’s a real surprise that no one has thought to use that iconography for this music video. Given the chance, I would like to direct it.)
The inclusion of “Teenage Kicks” is interesting, as it is more amorous than it is stalkerish. But, as with any community of fans, there will be talk of marriage proposals. With One Direction, it’s a little different than most boy bands though. They don’t have the G-rated act or persona most other acts have. They’re dirtier, they think they’re edgier, and they tend to be more overt in their sexual expressiveness when they give interviews or are seen behind the scenes. (There are some odd signs that have been seen at concert, which that cannot be published in trade magazines.) Such sexually ardent pining from “Teenage Kicks” is like a sarcastic, sardonic reciprocation to their groupies. “Teenage Kicks”, like Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”, is just a thinly veiled request for sex. While the Beatles were upfront about their politics (later in their career) and their drug use, One Direction is allowed, to some extent, the freedom of some revelation of their sexual discretion. And it certainly works as the “audience surrogate voice”.
On the surface, the music video for the video is incredibly bland. Yes, yes, it’s cute to see the really good, fairly charming dynamic and chemistry between the group members, but it isn’t terribly interesting. Unless… I mentioned before that there are some fans that are so intensely into One Direction, Directioners whose life is dedicated to the band, that they are aware of the location that the band is in on a pretty day to day basis. Thinking about that and the song obviously creates some connections in one’s head. The video, though, is nothing more than location, location, location. Where the boys are, what they’re doing when they aren’t performing. From the rural Ghana to the inherently metropolitan New York City, it’s like all five of them are winking at the audience, saying, “We know you know where we are.” They seem to take pleasure in that fact, they are aware of their star power. Not only that, the song worked as more of a promotional teaser than their previous singles had in terms of the way the band had teased it through Twitter.
Looking at One Direction and their fans, it’s like taking P. David Marshall’s statement that celebrities are “icons of democracy and democratic will” and notching up to 11. What modern celebrities have come to represent is the attainable desire. And to these fans, it seems more than plausible to, one way or another, meet them and win them. There’s also the commodification of celebrity which ties into the way the boys’ used the song. It may not be totally fair to vilify the fans of this group, despite the fact that their object of desire and focus becomes sort of like an ideology, but it’s nonetheless interesting to observe, examine and consider how music fandoms operate within culture and how bands respond to that within their own artistic medium. Through the pulsating guitars, the Na Na Nas, the claps, and pounding drums, you can’t deny that their cover is one hell of a kick.