That makes Simon Cowell the Willy Wonka of this group’s success story, which goes like so: Back in 2010, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson crossed paths on the set of “The X Factor,” the British singing contest that Cowell imported to American television just last year. Each entered the ring as a solo act but the five emerged as One Direction (and finished in third place).
Two years later, the lads have racked up worldwide sales of more than 3 million for their debut album “Up All Night” and have joined Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson in the sparsely populated column of not-horrible reality singing show graduates.
Will the fame last? One Direction doesn’t seem to care too much about that. The new album’s first single, “Live While We’re Young,” is a battle cry for the YOLO generation, a giddy ode to seizing the day and “doing what we do, just pretending that we’re cool.”
Catch that? They’re just pretending that they’re cool, exuding a sly self-awareness that actually makes them seem wise and, in turn, pretty cool. The rest of the song zips along at the tempo of a fluttering heart until all five cannonball into the big, walloping chorus: “Let’s go crazy, crazy, crazy ’til we see the sun!” It’s a contagious singalong, with no one voice leading the charge, no frontman, no star. They harmonize like the world’s first socialist boy band.
Something else that sets One Direction apart from ’N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and generations of chart-topping heartthrobs before them: They appear immune to outside contemporary influences. There’s no tip-toeing toward R&B radio, no whiplashing dubstep breakdowns, no compromises.
Instead, these uptempo love songs bounce around in their own dreamy, vacuum-sealed universe, quietly snatching spare parts from rock hits that might be too old for their young fans to recognize. The intro of “Live Like We’re Young” echoes the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” while “Rock Me” is a sanitized mash of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So.”
The group’s best songs are dazzlingly efficient. “Heart Attack” finds them rebounding from a set of broken hearts in less than three minutes while “Last First Kiss” squeezes a lifelong romance into a seven-word pickup line: “Let me be your last first kiss.”
Out of 13 tracks, only “Little Things” goes sour. The boys pass an acoustic guitar around the campfire, cataloging their girlfriends’ physical hangups— “the crinkles by your eyes,” “your stomach,” “your thighs,” “the dimples in your back,” “how much you weigh” and the fact that “you still have to squeeze into your jeans.” Then, they brush everything aside in harmony, singing, “I’m in love with you and all these little things.”
Bad deja vu. “What Makes You Beautiful,” the group’s biggest hit from its debut album, offered a similarly distressing chorus: “You don’t know you’re beautiful/That’s what makes you beautiful.”
Yes, their aim feels true.
(My love transcends superficialities!)
But the subtext feels gross. (Your low self-esteem is kinda hot!)
On an album packed with songs guaranteed to make young admirers feel so good, why prey on the insecurities that make them feel so bad?
“Live While We’re Young,” “Last First Kiss”