Pop usually isn’t built to last and few things in music are as brutal for younger fans as pop group break-ups.
Boybands/girlbands inspire devotion from their fans and tend to disband suddenly, often unceremoniously. With the quick turnaround of trends in the genre, pop music generally doesn’t have time to be sentimental in the way that alternative genres can be and very few group make it into their second decade; even fewer manage to stay successful for long. Other fandoms tend to be gentler. Your favourite sports team is unlikely to ever completely disappear, your favourite actor will [probably grow old with you, and your favourite book series will often come with a pre-determined end date to prepare yourself with. But pop groups are volatile short-lived things, liable to burn brightly and cool off within only a few years. Usually fans are left with just a goodbye single, accompanied with a montage of happier times, and a farewell tour. If they’re lucky, they might get a solo career or two. But if you’re a One Direction fan, you might get 5 of them.
It’s been just over a year and a half since One Direction went on hiatus which isn’t very long at all. Even in pop years, that’s less time than most artists take to put an album together. But for One Direction, a year and a half might as well be half a decade. From 2011-2015, the group got into an efficient habit of churning out music. The albums always came in November and the rest of the year would be spent with single releases, videos, and live performances. Last winter was the first time in recent years that a One Direction song wasn’t dominating the airwaves. However, casual fans might not have noticed because Zayn Malik’s ‘Pillowtalk’ was doing a pretty good job of filling that gap.
It might seem inevitable now that every member of One Direction would go on to a solo career. There was an obvious market for more material after the group’s wild success and each member came to X Factor because they hoped to find success as a solo artist. Nevertheless, what is surprising so far is that there haven’t been any major failures. Even though Louis Tomlinson’s no. 13 chart debut for ‘Back to You’ is probably a little lower than he would have liked, One Direction are the first pop group in a while to achieve a full house of hits from their members’ solo careers, putting them in the illustrious company of The Beatles and the Spice Girls. Have any of the 1D boys managed to release a song as iconic as ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ yet? No, of course they haven’t. But have any of them released anything as bad as Geri Halliwell’s ‘Look at Me’? The answer to that question is no and for that we should all be eternally grateful.
So now that we’ve had enough time to get our heads around everyone’s solo singles, it seems like as a good time as any to have a completely unbiased and fair look at where the members of the group stand. Starting in a very particular order – from worst to best*…
5. Louis Tomlinson
Ah poor Louis, he never really stood much of a chance in this list. I’ve always thought that Louis was the least likely to succeed away from One Direction and his debut single, ‘Back to You’, does very little to dispel that belief. Of course, I’m calling it his debut single because I’m assuming that we can exclude ‘Just Hold On’, his collaboration with professional cake-thrower Steve Aoki. That song technically counts as his first single – and it was a hit – but ultimately, it’s so forgettable that the only reason you’d want to remember it is for when it becomes a Pointless answer for the inevitable ‘One Direction solo singles’ round.
For the uninitiated, ‘Back to You’ is a pleasant but unmemorable electronic ballad with an incredibly awkward tempo that’s too slow to dance to but a little bit too peppy to just sit and listen to. Personally, I find that the song is much more entertaining if you imagine that it’s about a tumultuous relationship between Louis and the city of Doncaster, with Bebe Rexha acting as a personification of his beloved city. That’s the best way to make sense of the song’s video at least.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much else about ‘Back to You’ that you could really call entertaining because it doesn’t really do anything with its chance at pop stardom. I can’t decide if having someone else sing the first half of your debut single is a clever, ballsy move or if it just makes you look like you can’t be bothered with being a popstar. But what I do know is that when I try to remember ‘Back to You’, I always remember Bebe’s part, not Louis’. He seems like a nice lad though and it’s sweet that he loves Doncaster so much. Sadly, nice and sweet aren’t really what anyone looks for in a popstar anymore so he’s found himself comfortably at the bottom of this list.
4. Liam Payne
Liam’s solo career feels like a weird experiment to see what pop music would be like if you took all the joy and charm out of it. Liam and Louis were pretty much guaranteed to be at the bottom of this list; they’ve always been the Howard and Jason of One Direction, but they definitely haven’t helped themselves with these debut singles.
Everything about ‘Strip That Down’ sounds recycled, from the instrumental, which sounds like an old DJ Mustard beat, to the video, which blatantly takes most of its styling from FutureSex/LoveSounds-era Justin Timberlake. The only thing that sounds remotely contemporary about the track is the Quavo feature but even that comes in a year when he seems to be featuring on almost every hit single. If ever there was a debut single that needed the caption ‘will this do?’, this is it. But, I have to admit that ‘Strip That Down’ is effective. I hear it everywhere, playing out of cars, in shopping centres, and out of windows. I actually hear it more often than any other 1D solo track so Liam must be doing something right. Through ubiquity alone, he’s just done enough to keep himself off the bottom spot for now. But if he wants to make a career for himself, he’ll need to come up with something that’s more distinctive than this.
3. Zayn Malik
In terms of music alone, you might expect Zayn to be higher on this list; you could even argue that he should be number one on it. Zayn has the biggest post-1D hit so far with ‘Pillowtalk’, racking up over 700 million YouTube views, and he marginally has the best reviewed 1D album. The public generally seem to like Zayn but personally, I’ve never cared much for his solo career or his reinvention as a mopey R&B idol.
In One Direction, Zayn always seemed like the edgy one; presumably because he had the nicest hair and got to wear the coolest clothes, and on Mind of Mine, he is defiantly edgy – with a moody electro-R&B sound and a difficulty with knowing where capital letters should go. The problem is that Zayn’s edginess is largely what suffocates and kills his solo tracks. I’m sure the lad is enjoying his newfound freedom but he definitely does look like he is. There’s no sense of inspiration or joy in Zayn’s music and as a vocalist and a pop personality, he’s disappointingly uncharismatic. Listening to his music feels like being stuck in the world’s worst DMC with someone you’ve never met before and when it’s over I have very little desire to return to it.
He’s managed to create a decent impression of much more exciting and interesting artists like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean but it’s an impression nonetheless. However, because ‘Like I Would’ is still a banger and other people seem to like him so much, he’s done enough to get himself to the middle spot on this list.
2. Niall Horan
I’ve always liked Niall because he manages to seem like the friendliest member of One Direction but still looks like the only one who could hold his own in a fight. He might not have been one of the obvious stars in the group but with his first two singles, his solo career has been enjoyable. He’s also the only member who’s been a tmrw cover star – which obviously gives him some bonus points. In fact, if this ranking was just down to how much I like each member, Niall could have featured at the top of this list.
However, it hasn’t exactly been plain sailing for the boy from Ireland. His first single, ‘This Town’, was saccharine and indistinctive; you could hear songs like it at open mic nights around the country, but returning to it now, I can admit that it is somewhat charming with its simplicity. Thankfully, this year’s ‘Slow Hands’ has done a complete 180 on his sound and seems to have helped Niall find his footing as a solo artist. While ‘This Town’ was sweet and boyish, ‘Slow Hands’ is a bluesy pop-rock song that’s tailor-made to make mums feel all hot and bothered. It’s surprisingly sexy for a song that has hook about sweaty laundry but crucially, it’s not so sexy that you wouldn’t be able to play it on Radio 2. It’s unlikely to make Niall the most exciting pop star in the country but songs like ‘Slow Hands’ will set him up for a lengthy career as a dependable and likeable artist. As long as there are years when Paolo Nutini isn’t releasing an album, they’ll be room for artists like him. I doubt Niall will ever attract much hype around his music but he may end up surpassing his fellow 1D members in the long run. His work over the past year has marked him out as One Direction’s dark horse.
1. Harry Styles
If you had asked people before One Direction broke up which member would have the most successful solo career, I’d have assumed that most people would have said Harry. But even though he’s the easiest choice to top this list, the ease with which he has risen to the top of the pack has still been incredibly impressive. Ignoring the buzz surrounding Zayn’s solo album, Harry spent the first year after One Direction getting to grips with a life away from the spotlight. The debut album he finally released in May wisely ignored current trends in pop and drew heavily from 70s rock, winning him praise from many who would have never listened to a One Direction album before. Although much of the hype that surrounded the album might have been ridiculously overblown; the result was much closer to Robbie Williams than it was to David Bowie, Harry has conducted himself in a way that has been smart, classy and stylish.
It might sometimes feel like he’s playing fancy dress as a rock star but there’s definitely a sense that he has come closest out of any in the group to artistry with his solo music. His songs feel more timeless than Liam and Louis’, he has a more charismatic swagger than Niall, and unlike Zayn, he doesn’t feel the need to disown the music that made him famous. If you wanted a blueprint for how to embark on a successful solo career, Harry Styles is almost the perfect example. With the music video to ‘Sign of the Times’, he’s crafted an instant classic that will be remembered in ‘2017 Year in Review’ montages for its audacity alone. With his role in Dunkirk, he’s proven that his talents extend beyond music. Only time will tell if he becomes the icon that many want him to be but right now, he’s the only member who can convincingly deliver a line about someone having ‘an accent thicker than sauerkraut sauce’. So honestly I don’t really care if you like Harry Styles’ music or not, that achievement alone should be enough to put him at the top of this list.
*the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of tmrw or other writers for tmrw – everyone is entitled to their own opinion on One Direction, even if they’re wrong…
Words by Conrad Duncan