The singer Zayn Malik’s sudden departure from his band, One Direction, has major implications not just for his four former bandmates but also for the bottom line of Simon Cowell’s Syco entertainment colossus. It’s a decision that, if it leads to the end of the band, will cost record executives dearly. And it’s a move that would have been unthinkable in the era before social media.
Malik had ascribed his absence from recent One Direction concerts to “stress,” widely perceived as the result of online scrutiny of his purportedly troubled relationship with singer Perrie Edwards. One Direction is a particularly interesting crucible for online fandom: Its very nature as a (formerly) five-strong outfit of young male singers ends up encouraging fans to pick their favorites over all others. Summarily, the world of One Direction fans on social media is an unpredictable maelstrom even when all members of the band are experiencing relative calm in their personal lives. The whiff of trouble around Malik led to defenses and condemnations too many to count from the band’s young-girl fanbase, most of which included Malik’s Twitter handle, so that he could see them.
Of course, this sort of discourse is nothing new. But the degree to which the stars are exposed to it is. Justin Timberlake broke up with Britney Spears abruptly in 2002, and if fans were heartbroken, he had far fewer opportunities to find out about it; he eventually dealt with the breakup in song (“Cry Me a River”), when he was ready. There were no opportunities, indeed, in the Backstreet Boys/’N Sync rivalry, for fans of one or the other to vent spleen in a public way. Had there been, in the early part of the 2000s, fan and anti-fan accounts on social media, any of the singers in either band could well have been forgiven for feeling “stress.”
The phenomenon of being a teen idol is one that’s been with us for more than half a century; it isn’t going anywhere soon. But contemporary stars beloved by young people are dealing with an endless stream of commentary from fans who are at a tender age that encourages both high passion and little emotional modulation.
Teen stars have generally flamed out once the public tires of them, but Malik quitting One Direction puts forward a subtle alteration. A segment of his public detested his perceived behavior and wasn’t shy about saying so, to the point where it was preferable for him to walk away. Fans didn’t grow tired of him—they were excited by him. But sometimes, quiet is better—a quiet only obtainable by shedding the ever-increasing obligations of the contemporary celebrity.