Pardon me, but your attention, please.
The writer clears her throat.
Allows time for gasps to subside.
I say this in full confidence that we know plenty about the singer and his band of brothers. We know he didn’t feel like his creative self within the 1D enterprise. We know that he uses social media to speak freely about his thoughts and feelings, and we know that in addition to his emotional tweets, his debut album was defined by his capacity for sharing (specifically that he, a young, heterosexual male, has had plenty of sex with women).
We know that he’s dating Gigi Hadid, we know that his fashion game is tight, and we know that he’s allegedly hesitant to begin touring due to panic attacks and anxiety. Most importantly, we know that to admit the latter is super brave — and that Zayn’s tendency to live and express himself so freely is nothing short of admirable. Zayn is complex. He is trying his best. But it’s high time for us to recognize that he doesn’t need to be a part of everything — especially not any more conversations about One Direction.
Last week, his former bandmate Niall Horan released his first solo single, and the internet quickly began focusing less on the song itself and more on the reactions of Horan’s onetime musical brethren. There were claims that Zayn had snubbed Niall’s song based on the fact that, instead of tweeting his congratulations, he opted to post a “sexy selfie” on Instagram. (Which, for the record, is kind of a congratulations in itself, is it not?)
This contrived angle served to undermine not just Niall’s music, but the more important idea of Niall, Louis, Harry, and Liam as individual human beings. Look — Zayn has made it very clear that he’s no longer a part of the collective that he continues to be roped into. Arguably, he is Lisa Simpson screaming "I don’t like you, I never liked you!" at Ralph, while hearts break worldwide. Obsessing over his relationship with those guys is like asking the employees at your first after-school job what they think of your life today, despite the fact that you are now well into your career and halfway across the country. I mean, it’s cool that we once folded jeans together, but we’re all very different now.
Those differences between Niall, Zayn, Louis, Liam, and Harry couldn’t be more obvious, especially as they’ve begun branching out into the grown-ass lives they’ve begun to embrace. But for some reason, we as a society continue to ask Harry about his frenemyship with Zayn, or Zayn about his years in One Direction, or Louis about whether he talks to Zayn in general (seriously, who cares?), as though it’s the most normal thing to do.
After Geri Halliwell left the Spice Girls in May 1998 (never, ever forget), discussion of the reasons for her exit peaked around the release of her former group’s “Viva Forever” (the emotional video for which featured an animated Geri) and then “Goodbye” (which literally contained the words “goodbye my friend”). Not long after that, we all moved on to talking about more interesting things — like Halliwell’s first solo single and its video laden with imagery of a Ginger Spice funeral. It wasn’t necessary to constantly pit them against one another, because both she and her former bandmates seemed to be living their best lives separately.
For a glorious second, it looked like the same thing was going to happen with NSYNC, particularly as Justin Timberlake’s solo-career tension simmered away during his parts in “Gone.” But no: While no one on Earth bothered to ask what Joey, Lance, Chris, or JC might have thought about Justin’s big-screen debut (which was called Edison Force, and starred Kevin Spacey and LL Cool J, thank you very much), Justin was eventually tasked with answering questions about his relationship with his former bandmates. This was exactly as boring as reading about Lance Bass’s thoughts and feelings about JT’s new baby a decade later. (I mean, at least ask somebody about Joey Fatone’s turn in My Big Fat Greek Wedding — or where Chris Kirkpatrick is, like, at all.)
But while these questions about NSYNC are generally very lazy, they aren’t being used to define the former members’ entire narratives as individuals. We don’t force every episode of Donnie Wahlberg’s reality TV show into a referendum on New Kids on the Block, or judge Nick Lachey’s TV gigs by the trials and tribulations of Jeff Lachey. How tedious would that be?
By treating Zayn as his own person, we can give all past One Direction members enough breathing room to express and to challenge themselves in more creative ways. When we focus on their reactions to one another, we keep the 1D alums in a box and confine them to behaviors and actions and personas they’ve been stuck with since they were teenagers. And while that may be comforting for us (because who wouldn’t love to revel in the majesty of Midnight Memories?), it’s ultimately a lie. Nothing lasts forever.
So instead of fighting change, why not celebrate the way that Zayn is boldly exploring his own path? Or the fact that several of Niall’s former coworkers felt the need to champion him on social media (something they for sure didn’t have to do)? And then from there, let’s leave space for them to grow, to record, and to release. Hell, let’s maybe even let them spawn a few reality television shows.