The end of One Direction: why I’ll miss the fans more than the remarkably average boys

The boys that make up One Direction may be stunningly mediocre, but the fans are extraordinary.

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It’s 7.30am on a grey Thursday in White City. A long line of brightly dressed girls loiter on an unglamorous stretch of pavement. Middle-aged women raise embarrassed eyebrows at each other. Twenty-somethings, like me, scroll through their phones. Teenagers gather in circles, whispering feverishly. A twelve-year-old with her mother clutches a fake ID, aching with anxiety. Women young and old have hauled themselves to BBC Television Centre to stand before five figures of human perfection. 

Like dolls, the One Direction boys are at once flawless and utterly quotidian. Plucked almost at random from the churning conveyor belt of delusional teenagers queueing on their own sad bit of pavement for a shot at stardom, they were irresistibly normal: youthful but average-looking, as charming as most confident 16-year-olds, and passably talented. As their fame snowballed, they worked hard to maintain this image of normal boys in unusual circumstances: unexceptional but for a few key exceptions, unremarkable yet constantly remarked upon, extra/ordinary. And the thing that exalts them above their own mediocrity is utterly outside of their control.

It was while I was waiting in line for several hours to see a three-minute long prerecord of One Direction’s single for Comic Relief that I first had to admit to myself that any irony to my Directioner status had long disappeared. I had convinced myself that I was too smart, too alternative, and too, well, grown up to be genuinely invested in the band. Yes, I had founded a “One Direction Impersonation Society” at university, but that was a ridiculous stunt to get a “team” photo with my best friends. Sure, I photoshopped love hearts over their pictures and recorded bad covers of their songs with my housemates, but who doesn’t spend their Saturday nights that way? And yes, I impulsively spent over £100 of my maintenance grant for nosebleed seats at the O2, but eBay just does that to you, right?

The best thing about One Direction, even better than Harry’s knowing smile, than Niall’s adorable cluelessness, than Liam’s fatherly worry, is their fans. They know it, the fans themselves know it, and their record label definitely knows it. The girls that flood stadiums and snap selfies and break records are artists in every sense, working with a temptingly blank canvas. They find beauty in the everyday, create meaningful connections across miles, make myths out of mortals. Wordsworth writes that the artist, “in spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs... binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society”. I can’t think of a better description of the work of One Direction fangirls.

Perhaps One Direction don’t inherently deserve their role as muse to so many. A central tenet of being a fan of anything is to eventually understand that the object of your desire had less concrete value than the parts of yourself it prodded awake. I would be embarrassed, now, of some of the songs and TV shows and poems and people I worshipped when I was twelve, but I don’t regret the feeling I got at the time, or the enthusiasm they gave me for sheer enthusiasm. They taught me that delight in culture, what Wordsworth would call “excitement in coexistence with an overbalance of pleasure” and the goal of all art, is meaningful in its own right. Directioners get this: like Wordsworth’s Poet, they are the band’s rock of defence; its upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with them relationship and love.

One Direction fans are fiercely intelligent. From day one, they engineered the band’s success on their own terms: demonstrating their appetite for the boys’ music on social media sealed the original record deal; calling out the band’s management for tweeting from their accounts forced a closer relationship between the boys as individuals and their fans; downloading specific songs multiple times ensured they would get radio play and a place in the charts. When One Direction unequivocally thank their fans for their success, it goes beyond the usual media-approved cliché, because it is unavoidably, undeniably true. One Direction is a towering monument to the power of teenage girls. It is a phenomenon so much greater than the four or five mediocre men that constitute it.

When I arrived at my first One Direction concert – that last minute eBay buy that occurred after a bad day and several hours of “One Direction Funniest Moments” videos on YouTube – I was kind of disappointed. My sister and I experienced the most exercise we’d had in years climbing a never-ending spiral of Escher stairs, getting further and further away from the stage as we got closer to our row. From my seat, I could barely make out the support band at all, let alone discern a cheeky smile or tortured gaze. It felt embarrassing to stand up and dance as the band performed in Greenwich, when I was basically in Grove Park.

But then One Direction took to the stage. The gleeful screams transcended sound: one shared bolt of pure emotion. Tears streamed shamelessly down faces to my left and right. Girls yelled out names with pride, as though they could bend the rules of physics through sheer love and their favourite would hear only them. Every single girl knew every single word. You don’t go to a One Direction concert to see the boys. You go to a One Direction concert to be a fan. Here, all sense of time, of place, even self dissolves into a sparkling nirvana of virgin devotion.

Despite myself, I left the concert feeling inexplicably sad. It happens when I watch too many videos of their grinning faces, or see old audition tapes. It happened when Zayn left, and when Louis became a dad. Because part of the aching joy of a One Direction concert lies in the knowledge that this band is transient. That every girl in the stadium will grow up, and probably find a truly normal partner who doesn’t sing to 70,000 people every night. That the boys will get to old for this. And then, they’ll die. We’re all going to die. 

As soon as One Direction began, it suggested its own end. Their album titles hint at a knowledge that fun has a time limit: Up All Night, Take Me Home, Midnight Memories (even Four, fans insist, points prophetically toward the number of members the band was soon to be reduced to). Songs like “Live While We’re Young”, “Midnight Memories”, “Night Changes”, and “Act My Age”, view the world through a haze of preemptive nostalgia. The boys looking forward to themselves looking back, something they do for real in their movie This is Us.

Niall: I think when we look back at this like, no matter what we do after this, nothing will ever, ever beat this

Louis: But isn’t that scary, though? The best times of your life are now. That’s crazy. [...] What’s mad is that one day, we won’t be doing this.

Harry: We’ll always be part of each other growing up. I’m just glad that we did it, like, from the start how we wanted to do it

Niall: There have been so many bands that have come and gone and no one really talks about them any more. I would like to be, like, remembered.

Louis: Do you know what, it would be amazing to be remembered like, as a mum telling a daughter, “The boyband of my time, One Direction, they just had fun. They were just normal guys. But terrible, terrible dancers.”

Now, of course, inevitably, the end of One Direction is closer than ever. For me, it’s impossible to think about One Direction without thinking about youth, and aging, and, therefore, death. It’s woven into the very fabric of their bittersweet appeal. As the writer Samantha Hunt put it in a love letter to One Direction for New York Magazine, “It comes down to the simple truth of the band’s name. In five years, five boys have become five men. And one direction is, of course, the only choice they, we, get.”

Back in 2013, the Comic Relief recording marked a new phase of my obsession. My friend and I ran past children to secure a place at the very front. When the boys walked out, I was so stunned by our proximity to these seemingly real, solid humans, I found myself reaching out to touch them. Giddy with this revelation, my friend unhooked her bra and threw it directly into Harry’s face: the boys finished their song throwing the offending item between them in mock disgust. When an irritated producer came on stage to sputter out phrases like “keep your underwear on” and “family show”, informing us that the song would have to be recorded again, the scream was deafening. As the music began over again, it felt like they could perform the same song forever. “I wanna hold you wanna hold you tight / Get teenage kicks right through the night.” I remembered that Louis was already 21.

It’s hard to imagine Harry, Louis, Liam, Niall and Zayn as real, breathing people that cry and poop and think about the weather. But if I try really hard, I’m glad that they’re getting a break. They’ve performed 325 headline shows to more than 75 million fans and recorded 79 songs, all in less than five years. They need to slow down before they burn out. I’m sad that the golden years of One Direction are ending, but, of course, what I’ll really miss is not the boys, but the fans: and they don’t seem to be going anywhere just yet.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.