Inside the Gleefully Obsessed World of One Direction Superfandom
There are a few pivotal dates imprinted in the minds of every One Direction superfan.
There’s November 13, 2010, when the British boy band performed Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” live on The X Factor (it would become their anthem). There’s June 10, 2012, the start of the band’s U.S. tour, when Louis Tomlinson leapfrogged over frontman Harry Styles on stage, at a fan’s request. There’s the time Harry “saved” a fan from being crushed while in Mexico. And when the boys performed on Saturday Night Live.
But perhaps the most important date — July 1, 2012 — happened at a show diehard fans simply call “the end.” This is how how “Directioners” have deemed the final performance of One Direction’s first U.S. tour, which culminated on a balmy Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s not actually the end, of course; the band is simply taking a six-month hiatus before the start of their 2013 tour. Still, it was inevitably a night that would go down in Directioner history.
First, there was a silly-string fight on stage. Then T-shirts were torn off. There was a rendition of Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” And, finally, as the five members of the band — Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, and Zayn Malik — prepared to say goodbye (tweeting thank-yous from their phones on stage), there were tears from the boys themselves. “I cried SO much,” says Angie Bandari, 17, who monitored the concert from a tear-stained keyboard in Glendale, California. “Harry and Zayn threw their jackets in the crowd … they danced choreography from Magic Mike and ran into the crowd! I was freaking out.”
For the thousands of fans who saw the sold-out show in person, you can imagine the teen brain implosion. And yet, for the hundreds of thousands more who watched the whole thing from home, it was enough to make the internet explode.
As the boys threw their jackets into the crowd, fans started messaging each other: “Guard them with your life!” When Harry pelvic-thrusted during his Magic Mike rendition, fans gushed that their “ovaries were exploding.” And then, when the concert ended, the excitement turned to panic:
“So many emotions,” fans cried from their Tumblr dashboards.
“EVERYTHING’S CAPS LOCK AND EVERYTHING HURTS,” one wrote.
“This is what death feels like,” another proclaimed.
Over the next 24 hours, a quarter of a million One Direction-related posts flooded Tumblr: animated GIFs of the boys’ performance, photos, poetry, letters, fans vowing to stay “up all night” for the end of the “Up All Night” tour. But make no mistake — this was not a celebration. It was more like a raucous funeral.
One girl uploaded a video of herself watching clips from the concert — because she wanted to show how emotional she was. Others posted photos of their eyes puffy from weeping. One girl blogged an image of herself in the dark, eating Nutella with a spoon (Niall once held up a jar of it during a video interview). “This is what I’ll do now,” she proclaimed. “I’ll just sit here and wait.”
For a moment, there was hope: news that the boys might be headed to New York, and a flurry of messages to other fans. Should East Coast fans get train tickets?! Who will track them down?! But then, naturally, the letdown: It wasn’t true.
“The end,” it seemed, truly felt like the end of the world.
They’ve Got That One Thing
Sure, it sounds dramatic. But for months now, following every move of One Direction has consumed the lives of millions of Directioners — with Tumblr as their home and headquarters. Each day, the One Direction fan machine functions as a kind of digital clearing house, with moment-by-moment updates but also content of its own: fan fiction, art, poetry, and everything in between. Even the slightest rumor sparks a frenzy of questions and chaos, all playing out over a variety of tags that fans update at the speed of light. If you can’t keep up, fans will tell you, you might as well just give up.
Fans’ inspiration for all of this? Four boys from small towns in the UK (and one from Ireland), who were discovered on The X Factor, manufactured by Simon Cowell, and went on to top 100 million views on YouTube, sell out two U.S. tours, and debut their first album at number one on the Billboard chart (Up All Night was Britain’s fastest-selling album of 2011). Not even the Beatles can claim that kind of instant acclaim. Incidentally, Paul McCartney says the band is “terrific” (though he warns against the Beatles comparison), and a March cover story in Billboard proclaimed that One Direction is “spearheading what could very well be the next boyband boom.” Author and music critic Steven Horowitz declares, “Not since the days of Backstreet, ‘N Sync, or 98 Degrees has a boyband crashed pop culture with such fervor.”
The appeal of One Direction is not a new formula: boyish good looks, talent, charm, and simple, romantic pop lyrics that make teen girls swoon. “What girl doesn’t want to hear that she’s beautiful?” says Manika, an 18-year-old pop singer who opened for the boys on their recent tour. Hence their hit single,”What Makes You Beautiful.” With a median age of 19, the band is young enough to appeal to tweens — and do they ever — yet old enough to appeal to their mothers, too. One fan recently wrote about using her mother’s computer to save a shirtless photo of Harry, only to find that her mother had already saved the exact same photo (it was in a folder titled “for mom”). Plus, they’re British: For U.S. fans, it all adds to the exotic charm. “They do really catchy, really good, mindless pop music,” says Horowitz. “They came at the right time, and they struck all the right notes.”
One Direction owe much of their success to Cowell. And, with Cowell as Svengali, it’s no doubt these boys are meticulously produced, coifed, molded, schooled, clean-shaven, and styled like a set of adorably British Abercrombie dolls, down to every last strand of shaggy hair. But there’s a down-to-earth quality that inspires fans, again and again, to describe the band as “real” — the kind of boys they go to school with, not as untouchable as a Justin Beiber, nor as artificial as a Lady Gaga.
On stage and off, One Direction interacts with their fans. (When a girl threw her cell phone on stage at a recent show, the boys jokingly dialed the girl’s mom.) They are spontaneous and immature. (In Fort Lauderdale, a fan made a replica of a giant U-shaped magnet with cats sewn onto each end — you know, because Harry is a “pussy magnet” — and Harry wore it around his neck.) They also make mistakes: They swear at fans. There were rumored to be drunk at an awards shows. They grab each other inappropriately. And yet, for a generation of teens raised on the Disney Channel and Katy Perry, they are refreshingly normal.
“I love how they don’t have choreographed dance moves, and they just pick on each other and have fun,” said one teenage fan, who got to see the Florida show in person. “Like, Harry kept changing the words to the songs and I was dying of laughter. In ‘Gotta Be You’ he changed the words to ‘big brown poo.’ He’s so dumb, but so adorable.”
Perhaps most importantly, the boys document their private lives in the public sphere — tweeting to their fans, uploading photos, engaging in a way that, to boy bands of generations past, would have been inconceivable. A quarter million tweets go out to the band each day. “I would have loved to have the tools that these guys have,” says Jeff Timmons, one of the founding members of 98 Degrees. “They can get up close and personal with their fans.”
Ships and Feels, Directioners on the Real
A loyal fanbase is not unique to One Direction, of course — “Beliebers,” “Little Monsters,” even Rihanna fans surely insist they would prevail in a fan battle. No doubt the crying, the fainting, the stalking, the flash-mobbing, none of it is new. Nor are the bras thrown on stage, the shirts torn off, the phone numbers given out, the hospitalizations, or even the girls found hiding in a garbage bin. But close to 500,000 Tumblr blogs bearing this one band’s name? Six million related posts just since their tour was announced in late May? It’s the kind of fandom usually associated with Star Trek or Harry Potter, not bubblegum pop music. “There is a whole culture and vernacular with this particular boy band that is unlike any in the history of the boy-band fandom,” says Marcelle Karp, cofounder of Bust magazine and mother of 11-year-old Directioner Ruby.
You see, a Directioner does not just treat this fandom like a hobby — it is a religion, complete with its own language (“feels” is short for intense feelings for the band; “Narnia” is what fans call anything that is not Britain), responsibilities (a duty to update other fans at all times), and code of conduct that will shun the weak and reward the worthy. A real fan doesn’t like to share her fandom with the world, and so Tumblr has become a kind of naively secret journal, a place to document it all, in company with other people who understand. (Fans refer to it as “the fourth wall.”) The ultimate sin — and one that could get you bullied out of the fan base (or worse, labeled a “Directionator”) — would be to be perceived as not supporting the band.
A Directioner can identify the place and time that any photo of the band was taken. They know which interviews an animated GIF comes from, and they analyze these interviews with the diligence of Biblical scholars (or conspiracy theorists). Directioners speak in British accents and use British slang in their blog posts (“favorite” becomes “favourite”; the “boys” are “lads”). They create elaborate images of how they picture their backyard gardens — if they were to live with any of the boys — and detailed outfits for imaginary occasions. (“Disneyland with Harry” calls for pale coral lipstick and skinny jeans; a “movie date with Niall” requires a fishtail braid and Converse). They also “ship” different combinations of band members — that is, they celebrate fictional romances between them, which many believe are real (see “Larry Stylinson,” code for the perceived amour between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles). The ships can lead to erotic fan fiction, a plethora of GIFs, and video mashups of every wink, glance, or touch the boys have ever shared.
If it sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. And in order to keep up with it all — in a space where news becomes “old news” in an instant — fans must go to extremes. Girls describe hacking school firewalls, missing tests, even avoiding summer camp, all for fear they might miss some minor tidbit of news. One fan described balancing her laptop on the edge of the bathtub, so she could refresh the page while she was taking a shower. When it was rumored that the boys would film an episode of Ellen, a fan posted: “MISSING THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE BOYS BEING ON ELLEN TAUGHT ME SOMETHING: THAT IM NEVER LEAVING MY LAPTOP AND HAVING A LIFE EVER. AGAIN.” To be clear: it wasn’t the show this fan had missed, but the alleged announcement of the show (which may have not been an announcement at all).
“It can be hectic — I don’t even know how to say it,” says 13-year-old Madison Delgado, from Rancho Cucamonga, California., who celebrated her one-year One Direction anniversary last month. “Every day last summer, I’d stay in my room, and just go on Tumblr Tumblr Tumblr, all day. Every day, I was up till 5am. Sometimes it’s kind of like homework.”
And what if teen fans were unable to access their social media channels for a day?
“Suicide,” says Jenna, from a fan chatroom on Tinychat.
“I’D DIE,” proclaims her friend, Katie.
“I’D ROLL UP INTO A BALL, CRY MY EYES OUT AND DIE,” says Kaitlin.
‘This Fandom Can Survive Anything’
If that’s the reaction spawned from a day without Tumblr, you can imagine how the end of the band’s first tour (even for just a six-month break) could strike fans with the fear of God. In a matter of moments, the nonstop excitement, the daily “Where are the boys today?!” frenzy, the concert tweets, the videos — “everything that made Directioners’ days run,” as one fan aptly put it — were suddenly over. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time, since school was out for the summer.
“Tonight I will go over all of their auditions, video diaries, interviews, and watch A Year in the Making [a documentary about the band],” one fan wrote, the night after the final show. “I will reblog every photo of them. I will just sit here and let the precious memories flow through my Directioner head.”
And then, the dreaded question: “What are we supposed to do after that?”
“I have to admit I cried a little,” says Madison. “It’s been six months, almost a year, of them touring. There’s just so many things … the release of the DVD, them coming here, two tours, the release of the CD, and millions and millions of pictures. We’d gotten pretty used to it.”
Fans took to Tinychat to discuss their post-partum/post-concert depression, and how to make it to the other side.
“I just bought Dare to Dream, so I have that, and my friend has the tour DVD so we always have that to watch,” says Angie, 17. “And we’re constantly rearranging our posters, so for us, it won’t really feel like a long six months.”
In the end, perhaps it would give fans a moment to relax — no longer forced to obsess over every post, or stay up all night because they think one of the boys might do a Twitvid. Maybe a few would even venture (gasp!) into the out-of-doors.
“In a way, it’s sort of a relief,” says Joy Lapitan, 21, from Windomar, California. “I’m not too worried that something is going on that I’m missing out on, or wishing I was at a certain concert. It’s good to have a little break.”
And just in case you were wondering: Nobody has any doubts that the fandom will stick around.
“This fandom can survive anything, and I mean it,” says Emma Zaninovic, 17. “This is the craziest fandom I’ve ever been in. We’re going to suffer, but we’ll survive.”