Seventeen uses of the word “sick”, too many semi-colons: analysing Zayn Malik’s autobiography

The formality and reticence of Zayn: The Official Autobiography – which doesn’t once mention his former One Direction bandmates by name – jars with the singer’s handwritten lyrics and online presence.

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“I feel like there has been a lot said about me and why I left One Direction. At times it’s been difficult to get across what was going on in my head at that point in my life. I guess that’s why I’m writing this now. Not because I think I’m so great, or because the whole world needs to know about Zayn Malik, but so that, if you’re at all interested, you can understand a bit better why I did the things I did and where I’m at now. The fans deserve answers, so I’m going to try and give them. If you know anything at all about me, other than that I’m ‘that one who left 1D’, you probably know that I’m not usually one for talking. Interviews have never exactly been a talent of mine, and I tend to keep things quite private. But I’m going to show you as much as I can so that you can judge me on my own terms, not on what the press or anyone else says.”

That’s how Zayn Malik frames the act of writing his autobiography in its first chapter. It’s a funny sort of introduction, one that reminds me of the self-referential opening of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” Or maybe it’s more like The Catcher in the Rye: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, an what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. […] Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas.”

Celebrity memoirs are a very specific phenomenon – an opportunity for the author to both reject and embrace gossip narratives. By staking claim to one narrative, you can rebuff alternative rumours swimming in the press, but the stories provided are equally prime tabloid fodder. Zayn’s autobiography has been no different – red tops have scoured the book for the most scandalous details (particularly anything to do with his engagement and break up with Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards), while broadsheets and music magazines fought over the most humanising excerpts (Zayn’s thoughts on his struggles with anxiety and disordered eating).

In short, the art of the celebrity memoir is to appear revelatory while revealing nothing – at least, nothing that could potentially paint the author in a bad light. That tension can make for a strange reading experience, one of sanitised intimacy. This is particularly precarious for an artist like Zayn – whose post-boy band narrative depends on his newfound “realness”. He now sells himself on the idea that he left an overly polished pop product in order to show the world his true self. That doesn’t leave much room for censorship or media gloss. But at the same time, Zayn’s fanbase remains young, and his success as a mainstream artist still depends on a level of palatability that a no-holds-barred tell-all would probably permanently damage.

The result is peculiar, indecisive prose, full of faint praise and restraint. Take this paragraph on his motives for leaving One Direction:

“One Direction made great pop, there’s no denying that. But it’s no secret that that kind of pop music really isn’t my thing and towards the end of my time in the band, I was becoming more and more desperate to express my own style and write lyrics about stuff that I really believed in, rather than the melodies and beats that were being made for us in One Direction. What you’ve got to understand is that none of us really had much say in the music. At least, not at the start. If I suggested singing a line or a hook in a more R&B way, that would get smoothed out into a more poppy approach, because that was the music that was expected of us. Even as we matured and the other lads began to develop their sound a bit more, I found that it wasn’t in sync with my own. I stuck it out because the support and all the positive responses we were getting from our fans around the world were incredible, and I respected that it was working for my band mates. To be honest, though, it was a struggle for me, the fact that we didn’t share the same musical taste. It felt a bit like being forced into a mould I would never fit. I wanted to be in the studio singing lyrics that resonated with me, not just repeating someone else’s lines.”

He compliments his old music, his former bandmates, includes the obligatory devotion to his fans, all the while insisting it just wasn’t his thing, hesitating just short of any insults. Words like “respect” and “personally” litter this work, and the team behind the book are careful to ensure that Zayn never says a bad word about anyone. That is, except his former management, Modest – an easy target as they were infamously despised by One Direction fans for overworking the band and trying to mislead the fanbase. Zayn notes, “I have a huge amount of respect for my management now, which is a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever write.”

Genuine reflective anecdotes are few and far between in this book, and when they do appear, it reminds us of what we’re missing. “I remember my first flight,” Zayn recalls. “I was really nervous about it, and it didn’t help when the boys thought it would be hilarious to convince me that the plane would do a loop-the-loop after we took off. I nearly shit myself.” It’s a story fans have heard before (Zayn told it on Jonathan Ross) and yet it’s one of the only moments when we see Zayn’s personality shine through.

Zayn’s discussions of his anxiety, too, stand out, feeling refreshing in their honesty. “On the morning of the 2016 Capital Radio Summertime Ball, an anxiety attack hit me like a fucking freight train,” he writes. “I felt sick. I couldn’t breathe. And one thought just wouldn’t stop going around my head, over and over and over: I’ve gotta play Wembley Stadium. I’ve gotta play Wembley Stadium. On my own.”

But in general, Zayn somehow doesn’t feel like Zayn’s real voice. The formality of tone jars with the book’s photographs of Zayn’s handwritten lyrics and scribbled notes, the serious punctuation (this book contains a lot of semi-colons) doesn’t quite add up with the schoolboyish approach to capitalisation Zayn has favoured in his album artwork, or the cheeky exclamation points – often isolated by extra spaces – that pepper his Twitter feed. It’s true that people write in different styles to suit different formats and platforms, and not many would write a book and fill it with emojis and kisses. But it feels as though there are a thousand boardroom conversations behind the degree of “authenticity” that eventually emerges here. Yes, we’ll keep in plenty of uses of the work “sick” (17, to be exact), but we’ll swap out iPhone snaps for glossy, exclusive photoshoots, and we won’t mention any of the other One Direction boys by name. (He never does, not even once.)

Those narrated openings to Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye catch our attention because the characters sound so much like real people. But the more you read of Zayn, the more it carries the distinct air of crafted authenticity – like a real person in character. There is a genuine voice buried somewhere at the heart of this book – it’s just a shame it has limited opportunities to reach the page.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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