Over the weekend, Directioners were treated to quite the surprise: In an interview with The Guardian, Louis Tomlinson decided to stop being polite and start getting real.
“You know I didn’t sing a single solo on the X Factor,” he mused. “A lot of people can take the piss out of that. But when you actually think about how that feels, standing onstage every single week, thinking: What have I really done to contribute here? Sing a lower harmony that you can’t really hear in the mix?”
Ultimately, the feature is as heartbreaking as it is interesting, especially since Louis’s post-Direction narrative has been largely defined by fatherhood, the loss of his mother, and a recent scuffle with the paparazzi. Sure, he and Steve Aoki released a single, “Just Hold On,” in March, but compared to the trajectories of his comrades, his independent career has remained largely low-key. I mean, hi: Zayn morphed into a solo star with a burgeoning fashion career, Harry’s self-titled debut is a hit, Niall’s “Slow Hands” topped a Billboard chart, and Liam just released a track condemning his boy-band past.
But then there’s Louis. Pulling the most grown-ass move of all.
It’s important not to look at Tomlinson’s interview as an extension of “tell-all” culture. Unlike Liam forsaking his legacy or Zayn making it clear how little he ever related to the band, Louis used his platform not to dismiss 1D, but to address the impact it had on him. To admit to feelings of displacement and to acknowledge one’s insecurities within a cultural hurricane requires a phenomenal amount of analysis and self-awareness. Those things are nearly impossible for anybody to fake, let alone if you’re Louis, who’s always worn his emotions on his sleeve. (Remember that in the wake of Zayn’s departure, only Louis engaged with him on Twitter, while the rest of his bandmates looked the other way.)
The feature deals primarily with Louis’s humanness and the struggles we have in common with him. It's not a sweeping, Cameron Crowe–penned Rolling Stone profile peppered with references to the famous people who are now his peers. Instead, it finds Louis trapped in a world of comparison, spurred to create post-Direction music by a need to feel relevant — and chain-smoking. The cigarettes might not seem controversial, particularly for an ex-boy-bander embracing (or performing) adulthood, but it says a lot in context: This is an emotionally charged and mentally draining interview, and while Louis knows he shouldn’t be smoking, it’s a way of taking control of something while speaking candidly about all the things he couldn't.
So in short, Louis is flawed. He is a person defined by complexities and contradictions. And while inherently we know that every pop star and/or human is complicated and messy, we’re rarely reminded of it in a first-person capacity. We hardly ever hear an artist we love admit how lost they’ve felt or how difficult their realities were or how they’re still not sure where they belong. But when we do, it’s refreshing because it’s real. To abandon pretense is the most grown-up thing of all.
And this isn’t to say that Harry, Niall, Zayn, and Liam aren’t adults, or that they haven’t endured their share of pain or upset, or that they don’t know what it’s like to be insecure. But what sets Louis apart has been his willingness to make those things as legitimate as the traits we’ve seen define his public self in the past. It would’ve been easy for him to put turmoil and sadness and fear in the background, painting them as things he used to feel (but not anymore). Instead, he embraced them and gave anybody reading permission to embrace them too. Because growing up isn’t leaving vulnerability behind or downplaying difficult emotions when they don’t fit your new narrative. Instead, it’s coming to the realization that you are stronger for admitting who you were, who you are, and that you’re not quite sure who you will be in the future. It is the acknowledgment that we’re all just a bunch of beautiful disasters. Which Louis Tomlinson has figured out.