In five years and five albums, from their birth on the The X Factor to their hiatus following Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, One Direction – the most popular and visible boy band of the post-Backstreet era – have never had a Number One single. This week, Zayn Malik, the Ice Cube to their N.W.A, nailed it on his first try.
There’s nothing particularly special about his single, “Pillowtalk.” In fact, there are at least two or three One Direction singles I would call unequivocally better. Malik’s sex-soaked lyrics are awkward like, well, anyone’s first time: “In the bed all day, bed all day, bed all day/Fucking in and fighting on/It’s our paradise and it’s our war zone.” OK, love is a battlefield, but this is trying way too hard to sound edgy (and it ends up sounding a little creepy). And while the goth-tinged Weeknd can find the romantic absinthe glow in dark lines like “You know our love would be tragic” and “I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb,” there is nothing remotely sexy about repeating “war zone” over and over again. “Pillowtalk” is a complicated song, standing in sharp contrast to the very simple ideas of many other 2015-2016 hits – “Hello,” “Sorry,” “Work,” “Here,” “Roses,” “Don’t.” So how did Malik manage to do what 1D couldn’t?
As much as they love to break out the mason jars and do their best Mumford in the cornfields, One Direction never totally shed their image as teeny-bop pop pilferers. They followed the early Aughts pop boom, which featured bands that traded in Letterman-esque self-awareness — cf., the ‘NSync song where the hook is “This must be pop” or the Spice Girls movie where George Wendt and Mark McKinney pitch terrible ideas for a Spice Girls movie. One Direction used this as a license to burgle: a huge chunk of their singles fall back on catering to your existing familiarity with songs by the Who (“Best Song Ever”), Journey (“Steal My Girl”), The Clash (“Live Like We’re Young”) Grease (“What Makes You Beautiful”), Def Leppard (“Midnight Memories”) or the Backstreet Boys themselves (“One Thing”). At best, One Direction are a post-modern jukebox that found the meaning of feeling good, and will stay there as long as you think they should. At worst, they are a multi-million dollar karaoke machine keyed to our basest instincts.
“Pillowtalk” features none of this. In fact, the song is almost annoyingly current. It should come with Batman vs. Superman tickets and a Puppymonkeybaby mixtape drop. It seems to be filling the void of Weeknd singles since Beauty Behind the Madness‘ fourth one, “Acquainted,” failed to crest a Top 40 hill.
There’s a going narrative that Zayn is pulling his Bieber-esque move into adulthood, and this single will cement it. (Spoiler: He used “fucking” in the chorus — as a verb!) It’s an important move for teen-poppers trying to make a break for it — has any boy bander scored this big with their first solo dance? Justin Timberlake and at least two of the New Kids hovered around Number 10 for their debuts. Ricky Martin stumbled for years, Robbie Williams took a while to break in the States and multiple Jonas Brothers are still trying to figure things out.
But, oddly, “Pillowtalk” may be more important for R&B’s future. Zayn’s single proves that the watery sound of alternative-leaning R&B has way more legs than the cult of personality built around the Weekend. This is the new Americana.
By being a highly successful boy-brand who’s swagger-jacking this sound, he leap-frogs over artists like Miguel and Frank Ocean — neither of which have even had a single hit the Top 20. In fact, it seems that the biggest song in the country is barely even making a dent on R&B and hip-hop radio. Malik’s victory proves that this woozy, muddy, heartbroken, insular sound can handle a pop interloper. Once-alternative “alternative R&B” is strong enough to survive its own Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch moment. If Ocean drops that LP, it’s going to be bigger now than it would have been in 2013. Get ready for a year of ooze and aahs.