The post-Zayn era is officially upon us.
Sure, One Direction, the hugely popular British boy band, has been playing concerts for months as a four-piece following the headline-generating departure of Zayn Malik, who said in March that he needed "some private time out of the spotlight." But when I saw the group recently at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego — the first North American date of a world tour that began before Malik split — what struck me was how little the show was doing to acknowledge the band's fresh configuration.
None of One Direction's remaining members said a word about their former mate, and none of the music or staging seemed to have been updated in Malik's absence. The performance felt like one of those doctored family photos from which somebody's ex-husband has been crudely chopped.
You get a clearer picture of tomorrow's One Direction from the band's new single, "Drag Me Down," which appeared online late last week and, according to Spotify, set a record for the most streams in a single day on that service with more than 4.75 million. (It vaulted instantly to No. 1 on Apple Music too.) And despite those impressive statistics, the future looks surprisingly modest.
The first taste from the group's fifth studio album, promised in November, "Drag Me Down" breaks from One Direction's established tradition of splashy introductions; it's decidedly smaller-scaled than "Steal My Girl," the swaggering lead cut from last year's "Four," or the mock-heroic "Best Song Ever," from 2013's "Midnight Memories."
Sonically, we're basically talking about a midtempo pop-rock jam with springy guitars that recall the Police (or, if we're being less charitable, the band Magic! in its 2014 hit "Rude"). Lyrically, "Drag Me Down" starts out as velvety word soup -- "I got a river for a soul, and baby you're a boat," sings Harry Styles -- before solidifying into an ode to a steadfast lover who "stood by me when no one else was ever behind me."
Those qualities nod to other established 1D traditions: knowing rips from other artists' songs (such as "Best Song Ever's" near-duplication of the synth riff from "Baba O'Riley" by the Who) and lyrics that fans might plausibly conclude are really about them. But in the past, One Direction flexed those elements with a winning audacity: "Stockholm Syndrome," for instance, gets downright kinky in its winking description of being tied down by a shadowy hostage-taker.
And there was something almost confrontational about the warm soft-rock textures of tracks like "Night Changes" and "Fireproof," as though Styles and his bandmates were baiting anti-teen-pop types convinced that a boy band couldn't possibly sound so much like the vaunted Fleetwood Mac. (Sorry, grumps: This boy band can.)
The grown-up vibe of "Drag Me Down," in contrast, carries no such charge; it's more or less what you'd expect from a band of four good-looking white guys in the age of Coldplay and Imagine Dragons, down to the vaguely EDM-ish pre-chorus. In a statement, One Direction's label said the song "showcases a more mature One Direction sound," and perhaps that's the only play available to a formerly baby-faced group with at least one member, Louis Tomlinson, reportedly set to become a father.
Still, it's easy to wonder if some of the trademark excitement in One Direction's music slipped out along with Malik, who for years seemed to serve as this outfit's JC Chasez to Styles' Justin Timberlake. Does Malik have a record in him as appealingly freaky as Chasez's "Schizophrenic," which that 'N Sync member released in 2004? Soon we'll find out: Last week, just days before "Drag Me Down" appeared, Malik announced on Twitter that he'd signed a solo deal with which he intends to "show you who i really am." (So much for that longed-for private time.)
Then again, maybe we're better off looking for thrills now from One Direction's proteges in 5 Seconds of Summer. Opening-act veterans of several 1D tours, these carefully scrappy pop-punk guys broke out last year with a self-titled debut full of crunchy guitars and bad-boy come-ons like the one in their biggest hit: "You look so perfect standing there in my American Apparel underwear."
Yet nothing about 5 Seconds of Summer led me to expect the Australian band to return, as it did in mid-July, with "She's Kinda Hot," a delightfully insolent fist-pumper that outdoes "Drag Me Down" in nearly every way. It's funnier, catchier and more shameless in its cribbing (in this case of the central riff from Weezer's "Pork and Beans").
Watch out, Harry: These kids are coming for you.