Month: September 2013

Confessions of a 22-Year-Old Directioner (Part 3)

And finally, what you’ve all been waiting for: Part 3. (Read Part 2 and Part 1 for the full fangirl trifecta experience!)

So, the “This Is Us” movie. Sure, some scenes are cringe-inducingly forced. (Really, Morgan Spurlock, you send the boys camping in the forest in Sweden, tell them to pitch tents and build a fire, then arrange them in a beautifully-lit semi-circle and have them discuss their pasts and futures together? Really?) And when one of the moms gets a life-sized cut-out of her son for her home, that’s just weird.

Forever in the spotlight.

Forever in the spotlight.

Then Zayn buys his mom a house, and she cries as they talk on the phone, and you can tell he’d rather the camera weren’t there for that particular conversation. (#TeamZayn, and this is why.)

Then Harry tells us about his first kiss up against a tree in a field near his home (“Steamy,” he says with a lascivious wink, playing the camera for all it’s worth), and an old lady at the bakery he used to work at pinches his bum. “I’ve still got it,” says an apron-clad Harry as he sells a pastry to a customer, and his kindly former coworkers indulge him with laughs.

Then the boys practice songs together before a show and they’re actually serious about it, you can tell, they care. For a second it feels like a real documentary. These cute, talented kids didn’t finish high school and this is their only shot at improving their middle-class lives and they’re going to do it as well as they can, damn it, for as long as they can, and if that means being the crushes of a global tweenage generation, they’ll do it, and if it means being physically attacked by rabid fans, they’ll deal with it, and they’ll have fun with it. It could be much worse. They could have ended up not being friends, as Niall mentions. (But now they’re “basically brothers.” *cue exasperated eyeroll*… but then again they are basically brothers, so the cliché is forgiven.)

Then they’re onstage performing, doing that joke-y choreographed dancing they do so well (but “we don’t dance!” they insist), crooning sweetly into the mics, my 3D glasses making Harry’s lips look utterly kissable to lonely old me.

(And after the show, when the cameramen are off-duty, I in my infinite 22-year-old wisdom know just what’s going down that we don’t see onscreen: Harry’s getting trashed in a skeezy club with models, and Zayn’s sleeping with his fiancée, and Niall’s making out in a dark corner with some anonymous hot blonde. Louis and Liam I imagine as casual stoners who throw parties in their lavish London flats while hanging with their pretty girlfriends. The rest of the time they play a lot of video games.) Somehow the fact that the boys live in this weirdly liminal fantasy space, appealing both to the young and the not-still-young, staying clean and freshly-shaven for the studio execs while throwing a cheeky sidelong wink at the hot secretary, makes them all the more lovable. I do like a good bad boy.

And yes, I went home and bought their album on iTunes. I’ve been listening to it on repeat ever since. (Especially this song.)

Critics can go ahead and call One Direction (and its movie, and its music, and its brand) a capitalist invention, a trite teen sensation, a talentless product of reality TV all they want. In the end, the accusations are mostly true. That’s what what makes the 1D boys so fascinating, so irresistible. They’re a fairytale come true, 21st-century-style. (And let’s remember that the most important qualities of the princesses were always their looks. Don’t try to tell me that Cinderella impressed Prince Charming with her witty banter while twirling across the ballroom, or that Sleeping Beauty’s light snores were indicative of her compassionate character.)

Is it selling out if both sides are in on the dirty little secret?

As long as Zayn keeps staring into the camera like he’s staring into my soul, I don’t even care.

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Confessions of a 22-Year-Old Directioner (Part 2)

Buckle up kids, cuz here comes Part 2.

To recap: One Direction is a classic case of cultural co-production, thanks to its rabid fans.

But that’s not to say that the boys of One Direction have been complete non-agents in making their way to stardom. On the contrary, it’s because they are so (instinctively, one assumes) savvy to the wants and needs of their fandom that they manage to keep up the fame and hysteria. Or maybe it’s more this: their popularity has stemmed not from the music or the image so much as the boys themselves—their authentic-seeming group dynamic, the genuine quality of their friendship, the cuteness and irreverent style that was the same in their first outings on TV as it is today. They look polished and styled now, but we fans grant them that privilege. We want them to be dolled up, because they earned that right. Celebrity suits them, so we don’t begrudge it; we celebrate it. Vicarious success.

gqboys

All grown up with their own smoldering GQ covers.

Compare to, say, Lady Gaga—the ultimate performance artist, whose image is pure artifice. Or Miley Cyrus, grasping for publicity as publicly as possible. Justin Timberlake, who grew up into a talented and respected artist (and whose personal life seems just as airbrushed as his public appearances). Similarly, Beyonce, who can be revered as all that is holy, but never truly related to (I mean, NO ONE looks that good without makeup). Katy Perry cuts candy-sweet hits like clockwork, yet you get the sense she’s more a vehicle for Top-40 moneymakers than a person. Rihanna is real—and clearly doesn’t give a fuck. (Critically “good” artists also often fall into that category.) Bieber’s outgrown his fans. I could go into Kanye, Jay-Z, Macklemore, or any current radio mainstays, but I think you get the point: stars are often too contrived or too disconnected, too artificial or too wholly individual, too poised or too eccentric, to tap into the very sincere and voracious cravings of the tweenagers.

I’m not trying to say that One Direction is perfect… although let’s be real: that is the way my bias falls. I’m just trying to say that they happen to occupy a space that isn’t easy for most performers today to fit: they’re just as relatable as a tween could want, just as “normal”—but the stardust of celebrity and talent, and the glamour of the success and glory they’ve achieved, makes them all the more attractive. Who can resist a rockstar, after all?

Especially when that rockstar is only up there rocking out because you supported him and made him big?

Especially when that rockstar could totally be in your math class. (I like to think that Harry bears a striking resemblance to my personal high school crush—who, as it happens, was my freshman Physics lab partner.)

More interestingly, they’re just enough older than their fans that they’re always pushing the envelope. Their tattoos are transgressive (and ever-increasing). Lyrics like “Tonight let’s get some / and live while we’re young” or “I wanna stay up all night / and do it all with you” are blatant sexual innuendos. Frankly, One Direction is safe sex for tweens. They’re the awakening. The pictures and videos of the boys are as intimate as the girls are getting with anybody, and that intimacy is sacred. When Harry “dated” Taylor Swift, a million girls cried into their pillows, and were secretly pleased when they broke up because Taylor “wasn’t sexual enough” for Harry. Rumors abound of some of the boys being gay—with each other, with others—and their undeniably homoerotic, chummy, affectionate on-screen (and candid) play only serves to complicate and validate those rumors. (I have to think that the gender & sexual identity mashups in the Best Song Ever video are a kind of inside-joke reflection on all that talk.)

harryzayn

True bromance.

Not that this bothers most of the fans, who may call themselves “Mrs. Styles” in their Twitter handles, but support the Harry-Louis relationship rumors. I’ve done my share of comment-trawling, and frankly, most girls seem to think there’s enough love to go around, no matter who’s dating who. There’s a lot of defense of the boys’ decisions. It’s sweet, really.

Meanwhile, Zayn got engaged to fellow X-Factor alum and girl band member Perrie Edwards just last month. Mini-Mick-Jagger Harry’s been snapped hitting up Le Bain nightclub in NYC and going on dates with It-girl-cum-British-model Cara Delevingne, while in interviews his half-joking bandmates make him out to be a ladykiller. In a bad mood, cherubic Niall was filmed in an airport saying something about “c*nts.” The boys don’t hide the fact that they’re growing up (and getting wilder) any more than they hide their dimples.

Alas, besides the gratuitous shirtless shots and some flashes of boxer briefs, the “This Is Us” movie washes out all that fun, complicated dirt. The sense is that Simon Cowell doesn’t want to get in trouble with the moms. There isn’t a single mention of girls (or boys), sexuality, drinking, drugs, or even the tattoos that they’re constantly collecting while on tour. In short, all the stuff that makes One Direction “edgy” by squeaky-clean boy band standards (and, to be frank, makes the guys seem like the real 20-year-old dudes I know, who make the occasional bad decision) is sanitized out of the official cut, save for the lecherous lyrics. Bummer for me, but I guess that’s a calculated move to keep the most lucrative portion of the fan base around.

That is, 1D might be growing up in their free time, but there’s always a new cohort of middleschoolers to add to the expanding fandom, and Niall’s got plenty of baby-faced years left—I mean, he just got his braces off!

READY FOR MORE? GOOD, BECAUSE Part 3 IS ON ITS WAY!

Confessions of a 22-Year-Old Directioner (Part 1)

Guys, I’m a One Direction fan. There, I said it.

I went alone to their movie, “This Is Us.” I didn’t tell anyone (except for Facebook, of course) that I was going. Hell, I could barely look in the eye of the girl checking tickets.

And you know what? I loved that movie, every single minute of the ridiculous 3D extravaganza of it. I smiled for two hours. I laughed. I sighed. (I didn’t cry, because the story of One Direction is a story of happiness & puppies & sunshine & butterflies & daisies, so there was nothing to cry about.) ((Except when Zayn almost cried, because, Zayn!! but I digress.))

Yes, it was a two hour propaganda piece, a commercial for the band and their pop-rock-hit-machine music. But damn it if they aren’t adorable. And damn it if their music isn’t insanely, foot-tappingly catchy. And double-damn it if that movie isn’t a pretty piece of entertainment, all told.

How, you might be asking, did it come to this? How did a (fairly) normal, (seemingly) smart Yale-educated young adult end up as a self-identified Directioner? (In my defense, it is the “best fandom in the world” according to the boys, so at least I chose a high-caliber group.)

I’ve been puzzling this out myself quite a bit over the past few weeks, ever since my 1D fever set in, and frankly I think we’re giving the group less credit than they deserve. Here are reasons that everyone should be a 1D fan:

(1) They’re like the boys in high school with the big personalities who you always wanted to hang around with but were too shy to talk to except when you had to be lab partners in class. (What, this didn’t happen to you too?)

(2) They’re hot in a skinny-British-boys-with-tattoos way. And there’s a different look for each of your different moods, from slightly angsty to happy-go-lucky!

(3) Their voices are not bad at all, and each of them are different. (Harry = husky rocker; Zayn = R&B crooner; Liam = musical theater; etc.)

(4) Did I mention they’re adorable?

(5) And they totally ham it up for the camera.

(6) And, as the movie makes pretty clear, they’re not entitled Hollywood brats—they’re just dudes who would’ve ended up as a firefighter or a factory worker (Liam) or selling croissants out of the local bakery (Harry) if fame and fate (in the form of Simon Cowell) hadn’t stepped in.

(7) BONUS: great British accents (and an Irish accent, in Niall’s case). And who DOESN’T love a British accent?

OK, so I admit, all of that is pretty superficial. But there’s more.

(8) One Direction is a band that is a properly contemporary product, is completely self-aware of this fact, and fully cooperates with the conditions of its creation. (#culturecriticSWOON, right?!)

Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson all auditioned individually for the UK’s popular “X Factor” reality TV show in 2010, a singing competition kind of like “American Idol” (including the Simon Cowell component). They were all cut fairly early on—and then Simon, using some kind of sixth sense of celebrity, brought them all back on the show as a single unit; as that nineties throwback, the classic five-piece boy band.

Irresistible, right?

What pretty punims!

Subconsciously, Simon was tapping into something pretty profound: teenagers (as explained in my previous post) work well as groups. The social dynamic of a teenage band plays well off of itself, feeding its own cultural field. And in the perfect feedback loop, a generation of tweenage girls fell in reality-TV-era love. (What is the TV screen but a porous barrier after all, and one that we are now used to crossing with ease?) They took to professing their love in the best, loudest, and most lasting way they knew how: via Twitter and social feeds. Internet, meet tween culture and its stupendously powerful hive mentality. If teenagers are bad at individuality, tweens are even worse; and fueled by the reinforcing mechanism of the interwebs, the excessive, all-encompassing fandom of One Direction became nothing short of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And the direction of One Direction (don’t mind the pun) was, similarly, outlined by the fans that made the band… before the band could even really make itself. It was the girls who voted One Direction through the competition, even though the group ultimately came in third in the show. Most third-place finalists in reality TV fame competitions fall into anonymity just as quickly as they rose to insta-fame. But One Direction was a brand, not a name. And it had loyal customers—loyal customers who had inextricably tied their identities to the success of the boys, to the message of a modern-day boy band, to the image and sound of the group. They hadn’t even released a single, but they were already a guaranteed success.

It was these fans who made One Direction’s continued existence inevitable, and the continuity of their look and sound similarly predetermined. More than any other age group, these girls had access to and free time for imagining the One Direction world they wanted to build and live in. They had the emotional vulnerability to fall for five perfectly-proportioned British almost-boyfriends (I mean, have you met tween boys lately? They aren’t exactly heartthrobs), who existed just out of reach on the other side of their active Twitter handles and outtake videos.

In other words, this is a classic case of cultural co-production. The product is the world’s first billion-dollar boy band.

(Case in point: this epic fragrance ad, below, which is basically everything you need to know about 1D and their fan base, condensed into one minute of nonsensical but strangely alluring pseudo-sexual imagery):

STAY TUNED FOR Part 2 AND Part 3—because I literally cannot stop with the 1D lovin’!!!

Our stories go in every direction

“Imagine truth as a chain of great mountains, their tops way up in the clouds. Writers explore these truths, always looking out for new paths up these peaks.”

“So the stories are paths?” Pasquale asked.

“No,” Alvis said. “Stories are bulls. Writers come of age full of vigor, and they feel the need to drive the old stories from the herd. One bull rules the herd awhile but then loses his vigor and the young bulls take over.”

“Stories are bulls?”

“Nope.” Alvis Bender took a drink. “Stories are nations, empires. They can last as long as ancient Rome or as short as the Third Reich. Story-nations rise and decline. Governments change, trends rise, and they go on conquering their neighbors. Like the Roman Empire, the epic poem stretched for centuries, as far as the world. The novel rose with the British Empire, but wait… what is that rising in America? Film?”

Pasquale grinned. “And if I ask if stories are empires, you’ll say—”

“Stories are people. I’m a story, you’re a story… your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we’re less alone.”

—Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

On teenagers (& the field of cultural agency)

The other day I went to get a smoothie at a popular downtown smoothie bar in Santa Barbara. I (stupidly) went during lunchtime on a weekday. School around here has just started, and the place was packed with teenagers from the nearby high school.

Five years ago I would have thought that these kids—long-legged super-tan girls in their tiny cut-off shorts and Converse, guys in their skinny jeans and tanks and sun-bleached hair—were totally cool. They would have intimidated me, even as I was one of them (minus the long legs; I’ve always been short).

They still intimidate me.

What is it about adolescence that remains mysterious and foreign, even once we’ve gone through it? I knew I was like them once; I wore my eyeliner like that, talked in those shrill tones, clustered just as they did in a giggling group of five, each girl so careful of the way she stood. What changed about me? When, exactly, did I grow up? And why do teenagers now seem like an impenetrable and opaque species, their motives and thoughts distinct from anything I can now imagine, yet everything they do so clearly dictated by a group dynamic, each one of them hardly distinguishable from the rest? More importantly, would I have ever actually worn shorts that tiny at their age?

These are questions for the ages. I often wonder if I had been born at a different time how different I, too, would be—how much place and technology and fashion and cultural assimilation play into my personality, and how much of it is something I developed for myself. Or maybe everything we call “Self” is a reaction to the outside force of culture; nothing, after all, can be created in a void. I don’t know. I don’t feel like delving into the nature-nurture debate today.

Instead I was looking for the easy way out: a good quote to illustrate and theorize my thoughts. So I flipped open my boy Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production and landed by chance on this gem:

“It would be futile to search for the ultimate foundation of this ‘fundamental norm’ [‘cultural legitimacy’] within the field itself, since it resides in structures governed by powers other than the culturally legitimate; consequently, the functions objectively assigned to each category of producer and its products by its position in the field are always duplicated by the external functions objectively fulfilled through the accomplishment of its internal functions.”

Lost? That’s fine. Breaking it down, we have “teenagers these days” = the “fundamental norm” that creates “cultural legitimacy” within the field of adolescence —in other words, they are the producers and, simultaneously, the product of the field that they are positioned to act within, their functions both limited and dictated by their very identity as teenagers. (That is, they accomplish the “internal function” of “being teenagers” by fulfilling the “external function” of “looking like teenagers.”)

That was fun!

No, really, it explains a lot. The opacity of adolescents is a cultural identity production/performance—a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. Teenagers seem weird to those of us who are no longer teens because we are, well, no longer teens. We no longer live and act in their field of cultural production. Comparing myself to the girls in the smoothie shop isn’t comparing apples to apples, or even apples to oranges. It’s apples to, I don’t know, stuffed animals. Different fields, different categories, different purposes, different everything. And difference, we know, is scary. That’s what’s so intimidating.

The lesson being: we move ceaselessly through invisible but all-powerful fields of cultural constructs as we age, changing and growing as we move from one to the next, shedding selves and taking up new ones to fit the space we enter into. Sometimes we fit comfortably; sometimes it’s a squeeze. Either way, it’s not always under our control. (At least not until we get older, have access to a broader variety of fields, and can choose where we want to situate ourselves. Teenagers in small towns don’t generally have that luxury.)

Not that I’m excusing the teenagers for anything. I will never tolerate up-talking.

The journalist’s vice

“I looked for the large in the small, the macro in the micro, the figure in the carpet, and if some big truths passed by, I hope some significant small ones got caught. If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger. It is, I think, the journalist’s vice to believe that all history can instantly be reduced to experience: (‘Pierre, an out-of-work pipe fitter in the suburb of Boulougne, is typical of the new class of chômeurs…’) just as it is the scholar’s vice to believe that all experience can be reduced to history (‘The new world capitalist order produced a new class of chômeurs, of whom Pierre, a pipe fitter, was a typical case…’). … The essayist dreams of being a prism, through which other light passes, and fears ending up merely as a mirror, showing the same old face. He has only his Self to show and only himself to blame if it doesn’t show up well.”

—Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon