When the five teenagers of One Direction, each one dreaming of becoming a solo recording artist, first entered a studio as a band, their insecurities bubbled to the surface. But instead of skimming them off for the sake of clarity or posturing, these doubts and worries made their way into every pore of every track on their debut record, Up All Night, which was released five years ago this month.
You can hear the rowdy public rhetoric about their inevitable status as reality-TV flashes in the pan in the hesitance of Louis Tomlinson and Niall Horan’s voices, always relegated to Auto-Tuned pre-choruses while their more vocally proficient bandmate, Liam Payne, launched nearly every track from a confident spot on the starting lineup. You can hear, in Harry Styles’s standout ballad “Same Mistakes,” the overwhelming criticism to which he was subjected after his disappointing solo in the band’s first public performance of the debut single “What Makes You Beautiful.” You can hear, in Zayn Malik’s ecstatic falsetto wails — the go-to reference point in the 2010s against claims that boy-band members can’t really sing — the desperate desire for this record (and this band) to connect across genre lines outside the requisite pop audience. You can hear, in the jarring swings from pop-perfect radio bait (“What Makes You Beautiful”; “One Thing”; “Up All Night”) to desperate party anthems (“Everything About You”; “Na Na Na”; “Stole My Heart”), the sound of teenagers fighting a war against what they think they should want for themselves.
It’s no surprise these kids of the early ’90s connected so thoroughly with Wheatus’s earworm “Teenage Dirtbag” that they covered it during their 123-date Take Me Home tour in 2013. Their own songs from this era perfectly complement that 2000 hit’s theme of being passive spectators in the romantic Olympics, watching beautiful (but insecure) people from afar, frozen in space and in spite of themselves. Their subsequent records — Take Me Home (2012), Midnight Memories (2013), Four (2014), and Made in the A.M. (2015) — would blend together, like amateur watercolors, the clashing hues of regret, desire, fame, and forgiveness. But the place where they began was unsure and prepubescent, the embodiment of teen insecurity.
If Up All Night were a sitcom (oh wait), its characters would be navel-gazing and watching life from afar, muttering to themselves all the things they wanted to say if only the music weren’t so loud or the words didn’t get caught in their throat. It’s a catalogue of all the times a person has been hurt, before there are too many examples to count. Even the misplaced banger “Stole My Heart” includes a signature melismatic Zayn refrain where he decides there’s something he wants to say but ... it fades out before he can work out what that is. (The reality — that he kept to himself any unhappiness about being in 1D until after he abruptly left the band in March 2015 — suggests there was more than just one romantic idea weighing on him at the time.)
It’s impossible for us to view the first year of One Direction — the music they made, the things they said, the clothes they wore, and the way they interacted — without the frost of nostalgia getting in the way. The things that changed between then and now have retroactively altered everything; hindsight tells us that their first album was a clumsy and confused jumping-off point for a band that had more to offer once it grew into itself, ventured beyond prescribed pop roles, and discovered ’70s folk rock and designer jeans. Listening to that record now is like reminiscing about being a freshman when you’re at your school reunion.
One common criticism of One Direction and bands like them is that they don’t write their own music — a claim that holds up when it comes to this record. Professional Swedish songwriters like Savan Kotecha, Rami, and Carl Falk were responsible for the bulk of the lyrics on Up All Night, projecting onto the band ideas of what it means to be a teen in love, like parents dressing their kids in too-big shoes they’ll eventually grow into. But while the words about being unsure of your desires, hesitating over speaking, and worrying about being left behind might not have belonged to the boys who recorded them, it’s clear now that they work in support of the idea that this band was never really in control. It was five people who never exactly wanted to be in a band, five acquiescent bodies for the suits who affixed barcodes to their words and relationships. Back then, saying yes to the people who were there to put words in your mouth was an obvious route to take when you weren’t sure what you wanted — or were allowed — to say.