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The members of One Direction are, in fact, moving in a bunch of different directions.
Last Thursday, the group announced that Zayn Malik was headed back to the United Kingdom during the group’s world tour, missing a handful of shows due to “stress.” “The band wish him well and will continue with their performances in Manila and Jakarta,” a statement from 1D’s rep read, causing Directioners across the globe to hyperventilate, clutch their necklaces and brace for the downfall of the biggest boy band of the generation. (The breakup of Louis Tomlinson and girlfriend Eleanor Calder doesn’t directly impact the group’s future, but still, it’s bummer news during a bummer week.)
As of Monday, a rep for the group told Billboard that there was no news to report and no timetable for Malik’s return to the group to announce. There are four shows scheduled between the March 25 performance in Jakarta and a two-month break that begins on April 5 — Malik may very well show up at all of them, or none of them. The rep for the group said that rumors of the band’s impending breakup are just tabloid speculation; in reality, only a small group of people know how bad (or not bad) the situation actually is.
Yet something like this was bound to happen. The sudden absence of Malik from the group’s latest world tour may very well be the beginning of the end for One Direction’s phenomenal run of success. The only shock is that, considering all of the variables, this moment hasn’t arrived sooner.
Consider what has been expected of the five One Direction members ever since Malik, Tomlinson, Harry Styles, Liam Payne and Niall Horan were finalists on the U.K. X Factor in 2010. Since then, 1D has released four albums in four years and spent half a decade traveling the world, graduating from arenas to stadiums and tirelessly promoting their many products. There have been two concert films, a dozen music videos, countless award show performances and a flood of branded merchandise, during a stretch of time in which most kids their age are fumbling their way through college. There have been a few minor controversies — weed was smoked, Duck Dynasty stars were inappropriately praised — but nothing legacy-threatening. There’s even been marked, impressive musical progression for the group, who have won over some critics with their recent arena-rock stylings.
As a colleague reminded me today, the One Direction enterprise has seemingly operated with the intention of “beating the clock” — squeezing out every last bit of commercial content as quickly as possible before the pop culture bubble bursts and the young core of their audience moves on to other musical interests. Boy bands possess notoriously short shelf lives, either breaking up or becoming significantly less relevant after a few years of dominance. At this point, One Direction has already released more proper studio albums than *N SYNC did, and their run to start the 2010’s mirrors the Backstreet Boys‘ ubiquity during the second half of the 90’s, before that group’s popularity fell off a cliff following their 2000 album, Black and Blue.
One Direction’s entire career (guided in part by Columbia Records and Simon Cowell’s Syco Records) has included less downtime than any other musical artists working today, seemingly due to that short expiration date and the desire to capitalize on fleeting superstardom. Without that heightened time frame, One Direction could have gone the way of also-rans like The Wanted; with that never-ending promotional cycle, the boys became superstars forever existing in a pressure cooker.
Malik’s abrupt absence from One Direction is not without precedent. Jonathan Knight departed New Kids on the Block after battling panic attacks; Backstreet Boys’ A.J. McLean left the group multiple times to enter rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. Both times, the members addressed their personal issues during the tail end of spectacular runs of success — and both times, they eventually returned and performed with renewed vigor for years. Sometimes things must slow down, regardless of where a band is in its current album cycle.
It’s slightly easier for solo artists to hit the pause button when they’re struggling to keep pace. Rihanna has taken a two-year break after releasing four albums in four consecutive years, and Ellie Goulding is in the midst of an extended rest period after professing last year, “I need to sort my life out. And if I don’t do it soon, I may as well just be forever on the road, because that’s what it feels like.” Malik doesn’t have the luxury of making that declaration without inviting rampant speculation from fans who can point to four other group mates who don’t need time off due to stress. If Harry, Niall, Louis and Liam are all fine, why can’t Zayn be, too?
That’s an unfair question for a 22-year-old currently dealing with personal issues, and who clearly still has the respect of his group mates. When One Direction took the stage sans Malik in Manila on Saturday night, they didn’t introduce themselves as 1D but by their first names on stage, to prove that they were not whole. Malik may very well stride past his stress and rejoin his band mates within a week or two and have no public troubles through the tour’s conclusion on Halloween. This could all be a minor hiccup in what’s been another hugely profitable run of performances. But at some point — and the smart money is on that point being soon — more of these hiccups will occur, individual restlessness will set in, and the album-per-year streak has to be broken.
Whereas other boy band members have taken leaves of absence in the past, there’s simply no model in which One Direction is sustainable for another three to five years without a breakup or steep dropoff in popularity — the latter of which might have already started to occur. Last year’s Four was, quantitatively speaking, not as big as One Direction’s previous albums, selling 938,000 copies to date compared to the 1.5 million sold of 2013’s Midnight Memories, according to Nielsen Music. Four was also 1D’s first album not to produce a Top 10 hit on the Hot 100 chart, and as of January, no new single from Four was planned to be worked by Columbia Records.
The One Direction breakup rumors currently swirling are probably false, and stadiums are still being packed. But Malik’s sudden departure, no matter how long it lasts, is a reminder that boy bands suffer from a high mortality rate. The fact that 1D has been able to last this long without an incident like this underlines how spectacular the group’s run has been. I’m rooting for it to continue, but I fear that this type of stress will soon lead to a fracture.
This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.
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