Zayn Malik’s exit from One Direction may be a bigger blow to the group than anyone anticipated. The singer says he quit the superstar five-piece with hopes of living life as a “normal 22-year-old,” and the boy band insists they’ll continue on without him. “We’re looking forward to recording the new album and seeing all the fans on the next stage of the world tour,” the group’s remaining members said in a collective statement following Wednesday’s teen-pop bombshell. But can they count on the same success minus one Zayn? It’s questionable.
Since 2010, One Direction have remained the world’s top pop group. All four of their albums have debuted at the top of the Billboard 200, making them the first to notch that achievement in the chart’s history. In 2014, their Where We Are tour broke $200 million in ticket sales. Their music videos have gained hundreds of millions of views on YouTube and Vevo, with latest single “Night Changes” closing in quickly on the 100-million mark since its release in late November.
But pop history — and the group’s own sales figures — demonstrate how difficult it is to maintain that dominance. As the band’s sound has matured, moving from dance pop to folk rock, sales have been falling. Last year’s Four opened with 387,000 first-week albums sold, compared to Midnight Memories‘ 546,000 in 2013.
While boy bands of the past 20 years from New Kids on the Block to ‘N Sync have emphasized choreography and showmanship, One Direction chose another path, focusing instead on their voices, allowing each member to show off his distinct abilities. But this means losing Malik will be a huge blow to the structure of the band’s sound — he carried some of the biggest notes and harmonies on singles like the massive “You & I.” (Though the singer has not indicated any plans to pursue a solo career yet, Malik’s vocal talent and confirmed songwriting partnership with U.K. artist Naughty Boy may have him primed for future success.)
Even before Malik’s announcement, the clock was ticking for One Direction, who are constantly facing challenges from newer, younger talents. Pop groups have never been noted for longevity: fans outgrow the sound, excitement wanes, members get weary of the grind. And while a rock band might be able to replace a member and soldier on (see R.E.M., Journey, everyone on this list), it’s nearly impossible for a boy band to do the same since a large part of the group’s success depends on personalities and the appeal of the collective. Boy bands are comprised of archetypes who have reeled in a diverse set of fans who not only love specific members but are fixated on a member’s contribution and relationship to the group as a whole. In many ways, One Direction’s own beginnings on a reality show and social media-fueled rise have made fans feel extra close to the group — and allowed Directioners to pick apart and carefully monitor their every move.
Many contemporary boy bands have ultimately petered out with less of a bang. By the release of 1994’s Face the Music, New Kids on the Block had been hit with accusations of lip-synching and tried to shift their sound to a more hip-hop aesthetic. Backstreet Boys hit a lull following 2000’s Black & Blue. In 2002, Nick Carter released his first solo album, though he never technically quit the group. The following year, A.J. McLean entered rehab. When the band returned with new music in 2005, demand was notably softer since the bubblegum explosion of the late Nineties and early millennium had died out. ‘N Sync went on a full-band hiatus at their height in early 2002 with little notice; Justin Timberlake’s debut solo album came out by the end of that year and effectively ended any possibility of reuniting the band. Malik’s announcement is even reminiscent of Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell’s exit from the Spice Girls at the height of their success. (She had similarly cited fatigue, and the four remaining members toured and even released a third album without her — before embarking on a hiatus.) While BSB and New Kids still tour and release music, their appeal now is mainly nostalgic (and their audiences have 401(k) plans).
Earlier teen pop phenomena like the Monkees and the Jackson 5 were not only radio hit machines but TV personalities. In 1970 alone, the Jackson 5 released three albums, including the legendary ABC. While Michael and Jermaine Jackson embarked on successful careers while still a part of the group, the Jackson 5 began dipping lower and lower on the charts by 1971 when Maybe Tomorrow failed to crack the top five. In the late Sixties, the Monkees released nine albums in less than five years. After members Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith quit in 1969 and 1970 respectively, the band subsequently went on hiatus following the release of Changes.
As One Direction power on through their latest (and annual) trek, their ability to maintain the attention of devastated fans will be tested in the short term. And if pop culture history is any indication, fans will have something to look forward to around 2025: a massive reunion tour.