In the battle of Bieber and One Direction, everyone wins.
Clayton Purdom (CP): David, defend One Direction.
David Rudin (DR): I’ll get to One Direction, I promise, but first I want to discuss Backstreet Boys and Take That, because no boy band really exists in a vacuum. We like to imagine them as such, much as we like to imagine that our parents never had sex apart from the time they conceived us. It’s nonsense, sure, but it’s nonsense as a rite of passage.
Consequently, my case for One Direction begins with the boy bands of my youth. This was a time when boy bands were big but no longer able to keep their inherent artifice under wrap. Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC both filed lawsuits against their manager, Lou Pearlman. That they shared a manager was a significant revelation, but it paled in comparison to the claim that Pearlman was getting paid as the sixth Backstreet Boy. (He was sentenced to 25 years in jail for unrelated financial shenanigans in 2008.) As these bands fell apart, they grew more interesting. They still possessed fantastic pop catalogues, but they now possessed interesting emotions, too. They were broken, not in a particularly romantic way, but rather by the vicissitudes of capitalism. The emotions and melodies of boy band songs don’t really have to match, but you do need both.
That brings us to One Direction, a boy band that exists as a direct response to the disintegration of the Backstreet Boys, *NYSNC, and Take That. Pieced together by the judges on the UK’s X Factor (a campy singing competition that exists mainly to serve as grist for the Daily Mail’s content mills), a certain amount of artifice is built into One Direction’s DNA. No, of course they aren’t lifelong friends, but they’ve become friends since meeting on the show. Sure. And management is built into the One Direction mythos: much of the wondrous fanfiction surrounding the band is based on the premise that Modest Management is preventing the boys from acting out their love for one another. One Direction isn’t exactly sentient, but they’re clawing their way out of the pop machine’s primordial ooze, and I find that interesting.
Since this is apparently a videogames site, I want to mention geometry. The best part of any boy band performance is how the members move in tight, geometrical formations like fighter jets, each taking their turns at the front. On a purely mechanical level, I find this profoundly satisfying.
It’s a lot like synchronized swimming: I don’t find it to be the pinnacle of artistic expression, but I find it interesting nonetheless. That’s basically how I feel about One Direction.
You’ll notice I have yet to mention singing, and that’s with good reason. One Direction can sing well enough. That’s about all that matters. There are a couple good ballads and pop song in their catalogue. Much like comic characters, boy bands are now vehicles for the creation of IP catalogues. The boys are not great singers, but they’ll be cashing in on these songs when they reunite in 15 years for a cruise or a tour. This aggressive adequacy is exactly what a boy band should be relied upon to provide.
Clayton, defend Justin Bieber.
CP: On the one hand, there is no defense of Justin Bieber. He is a self-evident asshole. His 2011 documentary Never Say Never, ostensibly recored during his innocent, under-18 phase, is a terrifying recording of a child grown power-sick, terrorizing his various employees with toys and faintly concealed intoxicants, and running rampant throughout the various chartered flights and airplane hangars that house him. This deposition, which I watch in its entirety several times per year, is remarkable not just for its sense of well-fed, “lawyers tryin’ to kill me” arrogance, but the way Bieber acts straight-up aggrieved about the fact that he is being questioned by a lawyer, a tendentiousness made palpable during his brief, showy display of fury when asked about one-time flame Selena Gomez. At one point he also just feigns falling asleep. His Instagram is almost exclusively pictures of him pouting at a sunset, intercut with videos of other people (paid employees) letting him cross them over on a basketball court. He is terrible at skateboarding but posts videos of barely landed nollies all the same.
But anyone who comes to a celebrity for moral virtuousness is mistaken. This is why we hate Gwyneth Paltrow and Bono; they pertain to _make us better_, and the response from the consuming populace is, generally, I’m good, go fuck yourself. We come to celebrity, rather, to enjoy some strange mix of disdain, avarice, and lust. There is plenty to disdain about Justin Bieber, certainly, and for those inclined to the private-jet lifestyle, or the little-boy-covered-in-tattoos look, he provides plenty for which to yearn. But my point is that this endless stream of hate-able News Content—the depositions and dick pics, the racist jokes and the hook-ups—actually qualifies as top-tier celebrity content, and that the other product, the music, is good, too. That’s one of the surprises of that documentary: the early viral footage of a baby Bieber as a musical prodigy, drum soloing as a 9-year-old and holding a room in thrall as a preteen. You realize, watching these videos, that those airplane hangars are his birthright, our cultural tribute to that mix of genetics that commingles once every decade or so and creates either a superstar or a flameout, or both. I’m not sure which Bieber is, and that’s part of what’s interesting about him.
And, anyway, that music: I am not about to ride hard in print for any Justin Bieber album, but his taste in singles is excellent, whether it’s his or Scooter Braun’s, the manager he shares with thinking-person’s pop-star Carly Rae Jepsen. “Baby,” which was written by The-Dream, would be a nightclub anthem if that artist had kept it for himself; “Where Are U Now,” with Diplo and Skrillex, is the best *NSYNC song since *NSYNC broke up; his latest single, “What Do You Mean?” has brought the panflute daringly back on the airwaves in an era when unironic saxophones are a cause celebre in indie circles.
David, what do you think of the new One-D album?
DR: I made a big mistake and listened to Made in the A.M. (The Deluxe Edition), which clocks in at an astonishing 17 tracks. This is six more tracks than any album needs and about 12 more tracks than this particular album needs. Let me also stipulate that this is a horrible name for an album. When you’re naming the thing after the last of a million bonus tracks, you know you’re in trouble. It may have been in the A.M. when I started with One Direction’s latest album, but it was definitely in the P.M. when I finished. Yes, that joke’s awful, but it’s the kind of joke this album deserved.
Okay, so that’s the preliminary sniping accounted for, but what about the album?
I posit that Made in the A.M. is perhaps the most-One Direction album ever. Not the best, but the most. In the absence of Zayn Malik, the band’s talented and/or brooding member, One Direction have resorted to effort as a substitute for musical skill. In this respect, they are the purest distillation of the adolescent typology boy bands are meant to represent; as anyone who has ever spent some time around a teenaged boy will tell you, this try-hard attitude is winning roughly 20% of the time. So it is with Made in the A.M., which opens well before wallowing in its own earnestness.
It all starts so promisingly. “Hey Angel” sounds like a forgotten Robbie Williams track from the late ‘90s, which is nothing to scoff at. The lyrics are complete nonsense—”I wish I could be more like you/Do you wish you could be more like me?” is not the question on which a good relationship is built—but the song is sufficiently enjoyable that I didn’t care. “Drag Me Down” and “Perfect” are both serviceable rock-inflected pop songs, if by “rock-inflected” one means “these guys really can’t dance so here are some guitars.” That is definitely what One Direction means, so I’ll stick with their definition.
Then come the ballads. So many ballads. Ballads of all shapes and sizes, so long as they are bloated. You have to hand it to One Direction: they really are trying. The decision to invest all of their energy into strained earnestness instead of peppy jaunts, however, has not paid off. One song bleeds into the next, each plaintively asking for love. I wanted to give the poor lads a prize for the effort so they’d just quit it already. Most boy bands suffer when the tempo slows, but One Direction absolutely disintegrates.
Made in the A.M. ultimately feels like a eulogy for One Direction’s teenage heartthrob phase. It starts off promisingly, before regressing to the sort of soporific balladry that the X Factor is known for. As I roused myself from an unplanned nap and listened to the album’s closing tracks, I could almost imagine the boys gracing a plinth on the X Factor’s dated set—there’s always a plinth—and singing these songs as contestants much more. Made in the A.M. isn’t a great way to go out, but at least it completes a narrative arc. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, X Factor to Made in the A.M.
Clayton, what do you think of the new Bieber album?
CP: I mean, it’s fine. I have only been listening to the Deluxe version on Spotify, which is 19 tracks and frankly exhausting. If you’ve heard the singles, you’ve heard everything worth hearing. Most of the rest plies that secret middle-ground between adult contemporary and boy-band pop: endlessly breathy vocals, occasional soft hip-hop sex tracks, a frankly baroque approach to instrumentation. (That panflute on “What Do You Mean?” finds an analogue in acoustic guitars, vibes, auto-tune, etc.; every sonic element gets its own song, with little repetition.) The only real tonal difference between a new Bieber record and, say, one by Babyface is that Big Sean shows up for Bieb.
And, of course, there are those singles. “What Do You Mean,” “Sorry” and “Where Are U Now” are among the best pop songs released in the past year, a hot streak which begs the question of trajectory. An illustrative comparison might be drawn to Justin Timberlake, who similarly burst through the machinations of the music industry to become two of the rarest things in pop culture: 1) a likable celebrity, and 2) a pop star of clearly circumscribed aesthetic taste. Bieber will never be likable, and I see no indications that he favors a banger like “Where Are U Now” over the maudlin ballad that precedes it (literally called “Life Is Worth Living”) or the by-the-numbers inspirational EDM that follows it (literally called “Children”). Which is to say that he’ll always be in thrall to his producers, who will always be determined by market research, which means his absolute ceiling is, again, Usher, who bobs and weaves through eras with single after single, and even deep-album cuts that hit like singles; and that Bieber’s basement is probably closer to someone like Ne-Yo or even Chris Brown. And look: Ne-Yo’s had a career, and will be rich until he dies, but you don’t wanna be Ne-Yo, Justin Bieber. You definitely don’t wanna be Chris Brown.
In short, I remain cautiously optimistic.
David, it’s time for closing statements.
DR: Having listened to Purpose, I’m ready to concede your broader point about Bieber’s career trajectory. Although the album is even more of a snooze-fest than Made in the A.M., it suggests that my country’s most successful export has a bright future ahead of him. I can’t say that I know what Bieber’s “circumscribed aesthetic taste” really is at this point, but his albums are certainly cohesive and have progressed in a largely linear fashion. He can hang on for the foreseeable future if he so chooses.
The most interesting thing about Purpose, however, is that it is an exercise in low-grade televangelism. Although Bieber’s theological proclamations are not particularly deep, they are more than superficial allusions. He’s trying to get at something here, which is interesting even if it is largely an artistic failure. Bieber blends macro and micro crises of faith: the call for a lover to believe in him blends seamlessly into a call for faith in the future humanity. I’m not sure the ceiling to this approach is Usher, whose occasional bouts of shamelessness effectively combat maudlin urges, but just having an approach goes a long way.
One Direction, on the other hand, will always traffic in a lower form of spirituality. They don’t implore you to believe in any higher power; for as long as they perform, there is no higher power than teenage earnestness. I can’t say with certainty that I believe in God, but I’m willing to concede that His approach to faith is more sustainable than One Direction’s. All of which is to say that I am a heathen. One Direction’s short termism suits me better. I am not headed for a transcendental moment in a couple decades, but I will enjoy the hell out of the band’s inevitable reunion tour—or, even better, reunion cruise. In fact, One Direction are the kind of band who will be better in their reunion phase than in their nominal prime. The handful of good tracks on Made in the A.M. will sound lovely in a “greatest hits” set, which is more than I can say for their current context.
So Clayton, the final word is yours. What have you learned from this merry adventure of ours?
CP: I think you hit the nail on the head with the reunion tour concept. *NSYNC were better than Backstreet Boys at the time—remember the breathless press around their “more experimental” album Celebrity?—but I would rather hear “I Want it That Way” than “Pop” right now. The same is probably true of One Direction’s “Drag Me Down” versus Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” So I think we’re both heathens: I’m rejecting a reunion tour in favor of what sounds good while I am drunk right now. (Not literally right now, but soon, probably.) I stipulate that I am over 30 years of age.
Purpose is frequently boring, but I am maybe more bored by Made in the A.M., despite the fact that it has a higher median song-quality. If I had to describe its sound in a word, that word would be “responsible.” It sounds an awful lot like Coldplay, front to back, with a slightly gooier, more motivational caramel center. Their ceiling is lower than Bieber’s—probably something like Hall & Oates—but their basement is already higher—Hanson, perhaps. I can imagine every one of Made in the A.M.’s 379 songs performed in a soccer stadium. This is a good type of music, and I am happy that it exists, though it is not for me. If I had to utter one hope for the boys of One Direction, in other words, it is that they all lead happy, productive lives hereafter, with moderately successful solo careers and an eventual world-conquering reunion tour. If I had to similarly hope for a single thing for Justin Bieber, it is that he begins using more club drugs.