If you're a regular viewer of Saturday Night Live, chances are high that you found yourself confused and aghast last weekend, when the show's musical guest turned out to be British boy-band sensation One Direction. The band members grinned their way through two songs -- one of which, incidentally, directly stole the melody from an old Backstreet Boys' hit and cunningly changed the words from "I want it that way" to "I need that one thing." Subtle, fellas. Real subtle.
debuted at No. 1 one on the Billboard 200 (they're the first UK
group in history to go straight in at No. 1 with their first album,
depressingly), the band announced a giant
North American arena tour -- for summer 2013, because it's just too
busy to do it before that. One Direction is here, ladies and gents,
and, tragically, it has zero intention of going anywhere.
United Kingdom has a long history with boy bands -- it's an artform
that never fell out of favor over there -- but not since the Spice Girls
has a British pop band exploded in America to such a sudden and
startling degree. The boy bands that have filled stadiums and set pulses
racing in the U.K. for the last two decades haven't even made the
slightest dent over here.
Do you know who Take That is? Or Boyzone? Or J.L.S.? No? Well, they're boy bands and they're all bastard huge in Britain. Take That are so big over in the U.K. that there was mass mourning when they broke up in 1996, and it made national news headlines when they reformed in 2005. Their comeback album went straight to No. 1 and they sold out a ton of huge stadiums. And truthfully, for a boy band, they're actually not that bad. See?
Still, America wanted nothing to do with Take That (except for a brief flirtation with Robbie Williams, after he had left the group, and that didn't last long at all). Yes, America has a history of ignoring British boy bands, alright. All of 'em since Wham!, pretty much. No matter how pretty they are, no matter how many records they sell in other countries. So why the hell is One Direction doing so well right now? Maybe Justin Bieber cutting off his swoopy hair and slowly turning into a lesbian has made tween-age girls just ravenous for the first pile of ridiculously over-coiffed haircuts to come along.
More likely, though, is that Simon Cowell is pulling a lot of strings behind the scenes. One Direction was formed in 2010, after all its members tried out for the seventh season of the U.K.'s X Factor and failed to get through in the male category. Pussycat Dolls' Nicole Scherzinger -- a judge on the show -- suggested sticking all the boys together so they could go through as a group, and the band was born. (We sincerely hope she's been compensated in some way for her bright idea, since she just got unceremoniously fired from the U.S. version of X Factor.)
One Direction came in third that season, signed to Simon Cowell's record label, then got picked up by Columbia over here. The band isn't doing anything particularly new or different, the five boys are typical boys-next-door by British standards (teenage boys in the U.K. have a tendency to look more polished and metrosexual than American ones... it has a lot to do with Top Shop), and, sure, they're nice kids. But so were all the other Brit boy bands before them who couldn't get one foot through America's door.
The only U.K. X Factor winner to really "conquer" America before this was Leona Lewis. But, even after her win, Cowell spent an entire year keeping her out of the public eye, grooming her image, and finding just the right songs to launch her to a U.S. audience. It worked, of course, but her R&B stylings are far better suited to the music market in this country than the straight-up pop of One Direction is.
So maybe the members of One Direction sold their souls to the devil. Maybe everyone owes Simon Cowell a whole bunch of favors. Maybe America just needs a distraction from the fact that Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block are currently parading themselves around as some sort of heinous, Frankenstein-like supergroup. Whatever the reason, One Direction are very lucky young men indeed. It's been 10 years since N*Sync broke up -- maybe the country was just ready to scream at something pretty and puerile again.