Ever since One Direction lost Zayn Malik in his pursuit of a solo career, its four remaining members have been bringing heretofore unseen amounts of energy and enthusiasm to their live shows. Thanks to their dedicated fan base, that fact is readily backed up by the extensive documentation available on Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat, and whatever else the kids are using these days. (Kik? I still don’t know what Kik is.)
While that’s not to take away from their past live performances — something they’ve perfected over five years of touring at a pace that is frankly supernatural — it’s clear that they’ve been stepping out on stage ever since Malik’s departure with something to prove. Judging by their performance to a crowd of 80,000 screaming attendees at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Wednesday, they’ve more than hit their stride as a four-piece and are eager to share their hard work with their fans.
Harry Styles, long referred to as the band’s de facto frontman, gets that honorary title for a reason. Skipping, dancing, and just generally bopping across the stage like a wacky, waving, inflatable arm-flailing tube man, Styles’ onstage persona is far removed from what you might see reflected in interviews. Making it his mission to involve the crowd as much as possible, Styles, 21, likes to lead a round of call-and-response which has each side of the stadium competing to see who can scream the loudest. During that portion of the concert, he behaves like some sort of sorcerer’s apprentice testing out his craft as he lowers his arms and shushes for silence before throwing them in the air, demanding that everyone “Scream!”
He’s not all boundless enthusiasm, however; his vocals are emphatic and powerful on tracks like “Clouds,” the show’s opener, and on “No Control,” where he breaks out into a Steven Tyler-esque scream, dropping to his knees to wail out into the crowd.
Meanwhile, Niall Horan is a solid, reliable presence on stage. Guitar strapped to his chest, the band’s resident Irishman is just happy to be there. And that’s not a knock on his talent nor a backhanded comment about whether or not he deserves to be in One Direction, a chance he nearly missed — from his start on X Factor, Horan has appeared utterly unflappable and relatively untouched by the tabloid gossip that plagues his bandmates.
Furthermore, during his time spent with the band, Horan, 21, easily wins the title of most improved. It’s obvious that he’s worked hard on both his guitar-playing and his vocals — his voice having gotten throatier with age, he rivals Styles’ ability to make even their more bubblegum tracks — like “Kiss You” and “Story of My Life” — just that little bit dirtier. Onstage, he ping-pongs in between each of his bandmates, acting as the bridge that sometimes separates Styles from certain members of the band with whom he does not interact whatsoever. (I’d name names, but would rather not suffer the attack to my Twitter notifications.)
Perhaps because Louis Tomlinson has the fewest amount of solos, anytime he has the chance to sing without backup is an occasion for his biggest fans to send the shriek-o’-meter through the roof. Truly, Tomlinson’s fans are dedicated — and loud. The fact that his range is not as great as that of his bandmates is without argument and has been a point of insecurity for him throughout his career.
However, the plaintive quality to his voice lends added interest to songs that might otherwise go unnoticed. When it’s time for his solo in “18,” a hush falls over the crowd as they wait for Tomlinson to quietly and almost painfully earnestly declare that he’s “loved you since we were 18 / Long before we both felt the same thing.”
Finally, there’s Liam Payne. In a live show, Payne is One Direction’s backbone. Sharing the bulk of the lead vocals with Styles, Payne also acts as the band’s backup singer, weaving effortlessly into harmonies that add texture to solos and are noticeable even when the band is shouting at full volume in a chorus. He is also the most likely to differ from the studio recording, singing key changes and trailing falsettos that send fans screaming. Like Styles, he’s keen on ensuring every fan’s enjoyment, taking time out of each show to read out fan signs. At one point, he traverses so far across the stage to greet fans on the other end that he nearly misses his cue to join the band in belting out their first single, “What Makes You Beautiful” … at notably lower registers than when the song was released in 2011.
Evidence of Payne’s earnest support of his bandmates and his ability to lead incognito was obvious during a performance of “Fireproof,” when Tomlinson noticeably forgot some of the lyrics. Before the moment could turn leaden, Payne, 21, stepped in to distract the crowd by asking everyone how they’re doing, eliciting typical, stadium-wide screams.
When interacting with his bandmates, Tomlinson, 23, is a mischief-maker playfully terrorizing Payne not unlike a schoolboy with a crush. May we never forget that time he ripped Payne’s shirt right open at a Minneapolis concert — you know, like bros do. Their antics were comparatively subdued at the MetLife concert, but they were still fairly glued to each other’s sides. No surprise, given the bulk of the writing done by the band members themselves is done by Tomlinson and Payne who, despite having been at odds when the band formed, are now close friends.
The ever-changing permutations of friendship within One Direction are important to their female fans, reflecting these girls’ own friendships within their own friend groups. The genuine, open affection which the members of 1D show toward one another exist in a bubble independent of a world that can be filled with hostile, toxic masculinity that threatens female-dominated spaces. At a One Direction concert, however, girls can feel safe to shriek all together when Horan does his patented mid-“Better Than Words” crotch-grab and when Styles gets down on his knees for “Girl Almighty.”
There’s a positive feedback loop that exists between One Direction and its fans; the band is grateful for the support of the fans and the fans are grateful that their idols have noticed their tireless efforts. During “Don’t Forget Where You Belong,” fans held up signs that read, “Thank you for staying” — a crowd-wide effort that was clearly organized beforehand with the help of social media.
1D’s newest single — their first without Malik — is not just an upbeat anthem about staying positive in the face of adversity but a promise to their fans. “Drag Me Down” insists that the band’s members will continue on even after they take an inevitable break from a tour and recording schedule that is unsustainable for any human being to maintain forever. Following Malik’s departure, there is an increased awareness among the fan base that this, too, may someday end; as a result, songs like “You & I” and “Act My Age” take on near-religious significance when performed live despite being tonal opposites — in hindsight, they, too, have become promises to a loyal fan base.
Despite naysayers slavering for conflict or those who feel that an interest typically shared among young women is not legitimate, their live shows prove that One Direction are here to stay for as long as their fans will have them. Maybe they’re fireproof.