One Direction’s Glorious Path From Boys To Grown-Ass Men

Will Niall and Harry’s post-teen stardom follow the Zayn playbook?

I’m sorry you guys, but One Direction is over. This isn’t news (and I’ve thrown down my theories before), but this past week, two more members set their solo sights high and embarked on their own paths, rebranding themselves as grown-ass men in charge of their destinies. Harry Styles covered AnOther Man Magazine in all of his should-be-a-model-for-Saint-Laurent glory, and Niall dropped “This Town,” his first official solo single.

Which is certainly a song that exists. But where Harry’s photo shoot blew the internet out of the water in the wake of his interviews with Paul McCartney, Chelsea Handler, and ability to rock a choker, Niall took the subtler approach. He released his song on a Thursday and announced it via tweet, keeping it humble with a simple “thank you for always being there,” and garnering support from former bandmates like Louis. Niall appealed to his fans; Harry appealed to the masses.

In terms of world domination, one approach is arguably better than the other. If you want to be taken seriously as an adult in the wake of TeenDream™ success, there’s a formula you have to follow.

1. Dramatically break from the past

There’s a difference between a break and a breakup (more on that in a second), and in order to avoid seeming like a salty, bitter former teen sensation, you’ve got to opt for the former. Harry’s AnOther Man interview is laced with appreciation for his past, and he never throws shade at the enterprise that made him. Niall, similarly, thanked his fans in the same tweet he linked his single in. Even Justin Bieber — in all his rebellious glory — has never rolled his eyes at his days of purple hoodies and flippy hair. Fandoms have built these men, so to tear them down is the fastest way to collapse.

2. But, that being said, do not break up with the past

We love a tell-all. We want to hear details, we want to get dirt, and then we want to read into those details and dirt in the spirit of Homeland, charting where it all went wrong. Except we don’t actually want that at all. When Zayn’s interview with Fader dropped late last year, it was interesting to hear him open up about his unhappiness in One Direction and why it was important for him to leave. But then it got a lot less cute when he started a Twitter beef with Louis and descended into what seemed like a shame spiral regarding his former boy-band status while slamming the notion of celebrity and the whole music industry en masse. Which are totally valid sentiments and feelings to have! But an important part about being an adult is to know when not to say the thing, especially when fans who value(d) past groups/songs/personas are listening. So what Zayn did wasn’t so much a rebrand as a twentysomething temper tantrum, the equivalent of being a first-year college student who makes fun of his high school friends between Nietzsche quotes (after taking a philosophy class).

3. Have the music to back it up

Had Bieber not followed his apology tour with the majesty of Purpose, his regrets and appearances would’ve all been a waste before he drifted off into obscurity, mainly because nobody really cares about rebrands, apologies, cool hair, or hip tattoos if the artist in question can’t pay the musical piper. So not only was Purpose a decent album in general, one of its lead singles (“Sorry” — a No. 1) played off the rhetoric J-Biebs had been spitting for more than half a year. It was smart, and it made sense, and it showed that, despite being a disaster for a little while, he was still willing to be serious about music. Which matters a lot, because he’s, you know, a musician.

And Zayn nearly followed suit. But where Bieber released jam after jam (and continues to release collaborations), Zayn’s trajectory plateaued after “Pillowtalk.” Which really sucks because it wasn’t his fault — he made the healthy/adult choice to dial down his live gigs because of anxiety. But ironically, his doing so gave everyone else more time to focus on his personal life and his online behavior and his quotes and his relationships. Meaning that after his time away, Zayn’s solo star clout has to be proven again. (Woof.)

4. Do not base rebranding on aeshetics

Alas, an important reminder that on top of filling one’s musical quota, a new haircut or fancy coat doesn’t grant a former teen artist guaranteed admission into the 2.0 Club, which Harry should take into consideration pre–solo debut. Fortunately for him, the Jonas Brothers paved the way: After time off post-Disney, Nick and Joe delved into their own worlds. Joe went on to collaborate and form DNCE, and Nick began to live his best R&B life to critical accolades — as well as acting, talking openly about his Jonas Brothers experience (sans shade), about sex, and about LGBTQ rights. Now we see him as an adult male singer who can also wear a leather jacket.

5. Be a young man

And so, welcome to Bleak Street. While the aforementioned former TeenDreams™ are in full-blown solo mode, it’s arguably a lot harder for young women. Like Harry Styles, Miley Cyrus shed her PG image with an aesthetic makeover — but she was condemned for it in the wake of “Wrecking Ball” nudity, her penchant for pot, and her affinity for “wild costumes” and shock tactics. (Even though I should mention that collaborating with Terry Richardson and singing alongside Robin Thicke is a terrible look for anybody.) But she also didn’t do anything quite as upsetting as Bieber — she never got arrested for drag racing or slagged off her fans. But she was nonetheless dragged in a way male artists are free of.

They’re also free of being tied to their personal lives until they perish. Despite Selena Gomez’s relentless tour schedule, the vulnerability behind last year’s Revival, and her transparency about her lupus and anxiety, her narrative is still woven through her ex-boyfriend’s, whereas his hinges on his own music, his own antics, and his own social media presence. Even Taylor Swift’s ex-boyfriends are mentioned to the point of exhaustion, whereas Harry is never asked about her. And recently? Ariana Grande called out Ryan Seacrest for asking about her personal life (where Seacrest has yet to cross that line with any younger male pop stars). Which is a colossal bummer.

So it’ll be interesting to see how Niall and Harry’s post-TeenDream™ stardom pans out. On one end, you can argue that Harry has already made his objectives clear by starring in a movie (and, like, a big one) before venturing into interviews about life post-1D. And on the other, you can say that Niall’s DIY move was the ultimate bid for credibility — especially since the video is defined by simplicity (and also in the spirit of someone like Shawn Mendes). The year 2017 is going to be an interesting one for the grown-ass pop star cotillion — especially since it’s been made quite clear to me that Liam is destined for solo stardom too.