Zayn

A No. 1 Review – “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles (plus other Post-1D Songs by former 1D artists)

Oh crap, I’m way behind schedule again. Time to rush through as many songs as I can again…

Introduction

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Sign of the Times is surprisingly hard to write about. It’s a very good song, but it’s good in ways that are pretty obvious. I could talk about how the song’s young tiredness fits into the current social climate but that’s already well worn ground; the song’s basically Closeronly you don’t have to say “it’s supposed to be bad” to justify it. It doesn’t help that this aspect is so foregrounded by Sign of the Times that analysing it feels like little more than pointing at the lines and going “What this says”. I could go What Do You Mean on it instead and make up a deliberately over-the-top reading which situates it within a context it’s obviously never meant to be read in, but that’s funner to do with basically adequate material that I’m desperately trying to find something interesting to say about. To do that with a song that’s already good feels like a disservice.

Luckily, there is one context in which discussing the strengths of Sign of the Times seems useful. Last year, we had the great dissolution (sorta) of One Direction. The first person to split from the group and start a solo career was Zayn, and his arrival as a solo artist was heralded (by his production team) as a brave new frontier in which the rulebook would be rewritten and a new form of pop would come to be. Of course, this was somewhat exaggerated. After one mildly interesting single, Zayn quickly settled down into a series of uninteresting shlock, none of which I can remember the names of. This culminated in a Fifty-Shades-Soundtrack duet with Taylor Swift, a song which is stunningly empty to the point of barely constituting an example of sound. To put it politely, he’s been underwhelming. The world doesn’t need a post-One-Direction Zayn.

Yet Harry Styles has been able to carve an actual space within the pop sphere in which he’s managing to do something. And say, isn’t there another One Direction member currently trying to break as a solo act as well? The blonde one… Apparently he’s called Niall? Yeah, his song hasn’t had half the impact of Harry Styles. And what about the other one: the one whose entire act has become him threatening to get naked on the internet? Where did they go wrong and where did Harry go right?

Well, that’ll be our question then. Four One Direction members making solo careers, three of whom don’t feel like they matter at all, one of whom actually managed to make something that felt important. How did Harry manage it when his mates didn’t? Let’s wildly speculate, shall we?

SEX

If you compare the works of the three relatively unimportant ones, you’ll find a shared subject which Harry avoided: sex.

I’ve talked about sex and boy bands before. In short, most boy bands are so aggressively chaste as to be impossible to read as anything but sexual, becoming a series of teases revolving a very well defined sex-shaped hole. Because this sex is defined through it’s absence, the act of projecting sexual desires onto a boy band (as all boy band audiences do, what with them being teenage girls and that) becomes a subversive and secretive act. This is then backed up by songs which focus on secrets, intimate moments and things that only the boy band and its audience members share, creating the sensation that the boy band and each individual fan has a genuine, deep connection which is unique to them. (The fact that each relationship can’t be truly unique doesn’t matter, all that matters is what the audience feels.) Because we usually define “adult” as “not for children” and define “children” as “innocent” or “non-sexual”, former Boy Band members thus have an easy way of redefining themselves as “adult” artists: they merely take the implicit sexual nature of their songs and make it explicit. Wham bam, thank you mam: they’re now people who talk about “adult” (and thus more “serious”) topics, allowing them to attract a wider, more adult audience without alienating their previous fans or without even fundamentally changing their act that much.

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Thus we had Zayn’s first song, Pillow Talk, in which the standard boyband/One Direction tropes got openly recontextualised with a sexual veneer. In it, Zayn and the listener are lovers who, for some reason, have their relationship largely frowned on by everyone around them. Their refusal to bow to societal pressures and end the relationship means that they are now pitted against the world and Zayn sees this as an all out battle, wanting sex so loud that it’ll “piss off all the neighbours” with their bed being both their “paradise and [their] war zone”. Embedded in all this is the same type of relationship that’s present in all One Direction’s music – a marginalised one in which sex is a subversive act – but the relationship is played in a much angrier way which allows these subtexts to bubble to the fore. It is also a straight rejection of the “secret” element of boy band music: Zayn is tired of having quiet sex under the covers and wants to celebrate his relationship in as violent and direct a way as possible. As such, he does, singing a boy band song with the sexual elements foregrounded in the mix. The anger in this song does at least give it an entirely different feel to boy band music, even if the mechanics under the hood are pretty much the same, and there is something satisfyingly violent about how confrontative the song actually is. You can see why it’s the second-most successful song we’ll talk about.

Picture

Niall’s song – Slow Hands – similarly ramps up the sex quota. Niall is in a club and flirts with a woman, looking forward to having sex with her. He mentions “sweat dripping down our dirty laundry”, tells us that “I want you bad”, and the phrase “slow hands” effectively makes you imagine hands carefully running over skin and being all sexy-like. But ultimately it’s a standard boy band narrative coated in a sexier lexis. Admittedly, there are a few cute attempts to do a few things differently: the lines “We should take this back to my place / That’s what she said right to my face” are, according to Liam, supposed to be a great reversal of social roles – “Usually that’s what the guy would say, but we flipped it that the girl would say that, and that’s what she said right to my face“. Alas, the song fails to carry on the reversal any longer than the first two lines; the entire rest of the song is the male main character carrying on as male main characters in these types of song do. And while the song is more rugged and gritty than was usual for One Direction, they still fit in exactly with the “Man talks about sex while playing acoustic guitar” trend that’s been common in the charts lately, and was still outdone by Zayn’s much more radically different techno direction. The result is a song that thinks it’s doing something new and radical, without realising that it’s doing the exact same thing as everyone else is. If it is new and radical, then it is in comparison to One Direction songs, which isn’t exactly a hard baseline to surpass.

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And then we get to Liam, the guy who literally promised to strip naked online if his fans got his song to No. 1. The song’s called “Strip That Down”. It has Liam naked on the cover. It’s about Liam meeting a woman and wanting to “strip that down” and “hit the ground”. In the chorus, he talks about how he was in “1D” but now is “free” to be the party boy that he used to be before his 1D days. It’s just so… blatant in its intentions, and its intentions are just to shout SEX and PARTY really loudly. Its intentions are so obviously bullshit too: it’s the fourth most talented member of One Direction and (co-writer) Ed Sheeran pretending to be out-of-control, sex-crazed partiers, an act which fits both of them so badly that it just becomes funny after a while. I like to compare this song to a goat. Goats are my favourite animals because they’re goofy, scruffy buggers who nevertheless love themselves. The discrepancy between how they look and how they act is obvious, yet they don’t care. And I love them because I’d love to have their self-confidence in the face of such obvious inadequacy. Strip That Down is a goat of a song. It’s incredibly easy to like, but that’s not the same as saying it actually works.

The issue with all of these songs is all that they have one basic flaw which, while not making them strictly unenjoyable, certainly stops them from being undeniably “good”. Strip That Down is way too unjustifiably over-earnest; Slow Hands is trying to be interesting but picks the least interesting ways of doing it; and Zayn’s attempt to mix sex and violence doesn’t quite work because the music itself doesn’t really sound like either. And sex forms part of all of their flaws: Strip That Down uses sex as part of it’s OTT hedonism which gets too broadly played to feel genuine, while Slow Hands and Pillow Talk use sex to be edgy while missing that fact that everyone else is talking about it too. There’s a sense here that sex is ultimately being used by them as a crutch; they want to produce something “adult”, default to discussing sex as pop music’s single “adult” topic, and then see where they should go from there. The results are rarely bad but none are the mature smash that they think they’re being.

For adult versions of pop songs, they feel very immature.

Closer

So how does Sign of the Times work?

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Firstly, it must be noted how close to the traditional boy band formula this song sticks. Harry Style speaks directly to the audience and the constant use of “We” puts Harry and the audience in a close relationship with other. He doubles down on this by defining their relationship in relation to the world around them, separating them from the rest of the world in the same way that Zayn’s Pillow Talk does. Whereas Pillow Talk purposely separates its characters from the rest of society to defy it though, Sign of the Times represents two people who feel separated from the world around them and wish to escape it. “Just stop your crying / It’s a sign of the times / We gotta get away from here / We gotta get away from here”.

Both Sign of the Times and Pillow Talk talk about environments in which their protagonists are united together but separated from the world around them. The various political readings of this in the current British contexts are plentiful and obvious. Given how opinions towards Brexit were very split in terms of age groups with the youth generally being more pro-EU and the old generally being more anti-EU, the idea of two young people set against a world dominated by older ideologies can be easily read as a potential youth reaction to the whole result of the vote. The implication drawn from this reading is that the world this generation wants to live in has been taken away from them. Harry Style’s reaction is to run away to somewhere more accepting; Zayn’s is to more aggressively impose his ideology, Brexit vote or not. [1]

At it’s core though, Harry’s approach is no different from anyone else in One Direction’s: simply wed the traditional structures of boy band music to a more “adult” topic and watch the money pour in. The difference is that the rest of One Direction’s adult topic is “sex” while Harry’s adult topic is “politics”. [2] It’s a more mature conception of what being adult entails, defining the difference between childhood and adulthood not as “sexless/sex-filled” but as “free from the world’s issues/having to deal with the world’s issues”. This sense of maturity is also filtered through the song’s lush instrumentation, referring back to the love/power ballads of the 20th century rather than the post-club tracks of now. The result is a song that sounds old, merging with the lyrics to provide the song with a genuine world-weariness that fits it perfectly.

The irony is that Harry’s song is actually very childlike in the way it tackles it’s mature topic. Harry still defines himself and the listener as young people put against an adult world. Given that Harry defines childhood as “being free from the issues of the world” and being an adult as “having to deal with them”, the song thus becomes about a desire to run away from the issues of the world and back into the world of childhood. Sign of the Times basically desires for the pre-Brexit world where Harry Styles and his 1D friends could sing happy-go-lucky pop tunes together as opposed to having to constantly justify themselves alone in an increasingly fractured landscape. In many ways, Sign of the Times is nostalgic for a world which didn’t need Sign in the Times.

Conclusions

Ultimately, Harry’s song is just the most respectable out of the bunch. It sounds older, more mature and thus its points come over as more considered and considerable. Young people can listen to it and see their issues at the world reflected; more aged people can listen to it and relate to the tiredness of it. It’s a rebellion that the Radio Two audience can enjoy. Multiple audiences get joined together and so the song gains more sales and positive reviews than the ones which are directly focused on one audience and that one only.

I have critiqued this sense of respectability before, discussing it in the post where I argued that Adele and Taylor Swift have the same act but that Adele’s is unfairly considered better purely because it’s more like operatic and adult while Swift is just silly pop for teenage girls. In that post, I argued that that position misunderstands what pop music historically is for, and has sexist/classist/ageist overtones. Here, respectability means that out of Sign of the Times and Pillow Talk, both of which explore antagonistic youth perspectives against the dominant culture, the one that’s most successful is the one which actually never directly attacks that dominant culture in any way. Like most of post-club music, Sign of the Times comes off as a rebellion workshopped to the point of ineffectiveness. As such, by the aesthetic standards of this blog, this means that Zayn’s Pillow Talk has to actually be considered the more worthy song of the two, if only because this blog is of the opinion that directly fighting against certain sections of modern society is preferable to hiding from the world within nostalgia. “Most worthy” and “the best done” don’t have to be synonyms.

That said, it is pretty much undeniable that Sign of the Times is just the better written song which achieves much more within it’s own remits. It is the one with the most layers that does the most stuff, wrapped within music which genuinely packs an emotional punch. Sign of the Times is the best of the One Direction songs because it’s a mature piece of music which a bigger proportion of the population can identify with, while everyone else in the band is producing more adolescent works aimed at kids. Sex sells; sometimes quality sells better.

 



Footnotes:

[1] I know that Pillow Talk was released about half a year before the Brexit vote, but it’s surprisingly easier to contextualise post-Brexit than it was pre-it. The debate had been going on for months when it was initially released; it just seems that Zayn tied into a series of ideas drawn from the society having the debate which have happened to become more relevant the further on we’ve got.

[2] Zayn’s position is most accurately “Sex is politics”, though the politics is filtered through the sex rather than the other way around, the sexual elements being the ones which get foregrounded.

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The Worst UK No. 1’s of 2016 (posted April 2017)

With Rockabye covered, we’ve finally got to the end of 2016. At last, we can finally chuck the year away and leave it to fester in it’s well deserved pit. But first, time to cross some t’s and dot some i’s with the mandatory Best-Of and Worst-Of lists (posted only a quarter of the way into the year that came after it). First up is the worst list, purely because more people always prefer to read the negative stuff:



Special Mentions

‘Dancing on My Own’ – Calum Scott

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This would’ve been No. 1 on this list had it reached No. 1 in the charts: a detestable track done by an unpleasant stalker pretending to be deep and sensitive. As I’ve already said: this song wants you ‘to deeply sympathise with a potential criminal as he does the stupidest thing he could possibly do in his situation, trying to morph a self-defeating stalker into some form of tragic hero‘. As I’ve also said: ‘Fuck it‘.



The List Itself

#5: ‘Say You Won’t Let Go’ – James Arthur

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This song isn’t bad. In fact, I think it’s fine. It knows what it wants to do and it does it in a way that isn’t actively unpleasant. It is boring though. It takes every trope that every dull male artist used this year and proceeds to do nothing with them. Nothing. And unfortunately for it, there were only 11 UK No 1’s during 2016, meaning that the lower end of this list was always going to feature things I didn’t care for as opposed to things I actively hated. The No. 5 spot eventually became a choice between this song and Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself; Love Yourself does more interesting things so this got the chop. Sometimes ‘fine’ doesn’t cut it.

#4: ‘Pillow Talk’ – ZAYN

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Again, I don’t hate this song. I am disappointed by it though. It was the first single from a departing One Direction member, promising a new direction for Zayn as an icon and a new type of music primed to shake up the charts. It delivered on neither of those promises. The end result is something which wanted ‘to feel like a reinvention of the wheel‘ but was ‘little more than a wheel with the word “WHEEL” written on it‘. The world does not need a post-One-Direction Zayn and it didn’t need this.

#3: ‘One Dance’ – Drake feat. Wizkid & Kyla88
I don’t get Drake and I particularly don’t get this. It’s a miserable, confused, unsatisfying piece which apparently counts as a romantic club hit. I mean seriously, how are people enjoying this? That said, this got it’s position not due to it’s internal qualities but due to its effects on the industry as a whole. Firstly, it was No. 1 for 15 weeks. 15 weeks! Given how dull and contentless this track was, that constituted a complete pausing of the entire record industry for the whole spring. And because it was a massively successful record produced by one of the biggest names in pop, it was immediately followed by a lot of copycats. The result was the second half of 2016: a bloated, unmoving monolith of musicless tracks mumbled by an endless series of uncaring hacks. This song ruined pop music in 2016; culturally, it’s the worst thing Drake has done since “YOLO”.

#2: ‘7 Years’ – Lukas Graham

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My review of this song is a 3,000 word monolith of me trying to figure out if I like it or not. As time has gone on though, I’ve been able to come down on a firm opinion on it: it’s crap. I can appreciate it for it’s scale and grandiosity; what I can’t appreciate is how malformed the syntax is, how messy the lyrics are, and, most fatally, how awfully self-important it is. Even worse than this is Lukas Graham himself whose sense of ego wafts off him like BO from a well-worn gym sock, particularly given that he doesn’t have the writing chops to justify it. This song needs to get over itself, much like Lukas himself.

#1: ‘Stitches’ – Shawn Mendes

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The vapid whining of a nasal hack. Fuck it.


So that’s the shit dealt with, now onto the good stuff. Next time: the top 5 UK No. 1’s of 2016…

Pop Song Review: “One Call Away” by Charlie Puth

Previously on this blog: Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor released Marvin Gaye. I did not like it. Nor had I liked anything released by either artist before then.

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So Charlie Puth is back at the piano and singing another love song which is basically Rachael Platten’s Stand By You but done by a guy. You see, Puth loves someone and they’re going through a hard time but it’ll be ok because he’s there and is available to talk if they need it. He’ll be their rock; he’ll be their strength; he’ll be so strong that “Superman has nothing on him”.

Already a discrepancy has presented itself, and it’s the same one as Rachael Platten’s song: this is a slow piano ballad sung by a soppy person about how badass and powerful they are; it’s another song about strength which sounds inherently weak. First Puth’s song of mourning was devoid of sadness; then his song about sex was devoid of sexiness; now his song of strength is devoid of strength. At this point, the only constant part of Puth’s aesthetic seems to be his inability to produce work which reflects its subject matter; being unable to write tone correctly is his defining attribute.

Yet… I really like this song.

Maybe it isn’t likable as much as it’s relatable. The greatest love I never had was with a woman who moved out of the area just after we started getting close but just before we could get together. She moved away for a new job but found that that job was much tougher than she was expecting and that making new friends in the area was almost impossible. Meanwhile I was stuck in my normal life, only now I was in it without her and it seemed so much emptier than before. We both struggled. Luckily for us, we had telephones. She should ring up and complain about her job and I would sit back and listen to her. We’d laugh, moan, talk about what was on TV. She got someone to fall back on; I got a few more hours with one of the few people I cared about. It was exactly what both of us needed. So a song about a man wanting to be someone’s emotional rock by talking to them over the phone: yeah, I feel that. One Call Away could be considered old-fashioned and trite, but I feel it more than I have any song since Carly Rae Jepsen’s I Really Love You and Lunchmoney Lewis’ Bills.

The old-fashionedness of the song isn’t exactly a negative either. This song shares a lot of its DNA with the soft pop songs of Phil Collins and Lionel Richie, etc, whose music is similarly “weak” but undoubtedly romantic. And the main way these types of songs work is by being entirely unconcerned with being artistic or respectable*. I’ve complained about this before but most artists nowadays are trying way too hard for their work to be respectable with their attempts serving only to ruin the material they have. Shawn Mendes wants to sell the pain he’s in so much that he’ll happily reach for any metaphor he can, resulting a clichéd 10-car pile-up of uninspired dreck; while Ed Sheeran wants us to feel his love so much that he ends up trampling all over his song with the grace of an elephant, turning what are supposed to be off-the-cuff remarks into a series of belaboured groans; and even Zayn’s Pillow Talk, a song I pretty much like, suffers from Zayn wanting it to feel like a reinvention of the wheel when in reality it’s little more than a wheel with the word “WHEEL” written on it. Phil Collins doesn’t care though. He expresses himself how he deems fit, nevermind whether the result is respectable, zeitgeisty or not. The result is that his songs sound honest; even his crap ones (and he has a lot of them) sound fundamentally like him. This gives his work a sense of intimacy and thus a genuine sense of romance; something which is hard to achieve for artists whose works are overly workshopped and masterminded for mass appeal. When I listen to Mendes or Sheeran, I can only feel the mechanics which underlie the song’s attempts to elicit emotion; when I listen to Phil Collins, I only hear the emotion. It’s the same when I listen to One Call Away. The song’s not trying to sound cool; it’s not trying to sound bigger than it is; it’s not trying to be clever. It just is what it is. It’s honest. It’s simple. I’m able to ignore the construction of this song and just feel it because the emotion feels actually genuine.

It also helps that the song actually plays to Puth’s image. Too many people in the pop world are trying to over-reach themselves, resulting in a pop landscape of people constantly falling short of their own standards. You can see this in Puth’s last song, Marvin Gaye, which ultimately asks him, a nerdy white boy, to sell himself as a credible sex symbol comparable to one of the greatest sexual icons there’s ever been. Meanwhile See You Again asks him to deeply mourn someone he’s obviously never met before. Both just obviously ask for too much; he can’t do either. One Call Away, though, features Charlie Puth, a nerdy white boy, sitting around on the phone and trying to compare himself to the comic book character Superman. It sounds like him in a way his previous songs don’t.

It’s even internally consistent. My main complaint about Stand By Me is that Rachael Platten tries to portray herself as someone who can fight against her enemies and protect someone else from harm; this doesn’t work though because she doesn’t sound like she could fight anything. Charlie Puth isn’t fighting anyone though; the fight’s already happened and Puth’s lover has lost. Charlie’s role is thus entirely supportive here; he doesn’t sound strong but he doesn’t need to because his strength doesn’t come from his resilience and muscles. Indeed, that’s the whole point of this song to me: what we’re told are weak characteristics for a man to have are actually the strongest and most useful attributes he has, hence the “Superman” line which might sound corny (because it is) but which says some really great things gender-identity-wise. The character in this song just works; he feels like a real person. More than that, he feels like the type of person I’d like to be. Charlie Puth isn’t just likable in this song; he’s a genuine male role model.

Everything just works for me here without any of the usual mistakes that every other pop song seems willing to make. For one song, me and Puth are entirely in sync. It took him a few attempts but he’s finally released a love song which I actually find romantic. I know: the sky is falling; cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria; etc. The next thing you’ll tell me, Meghan Trainor’s released a song I really like.

Well, about that…

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* Phil Collins’ weak and sappy songs were considered weak and sappy, even when they were in the charts.

Revisiting “Pillow Talk” by Zayn Malik

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I don’t like going back and editing my work after it’s been posted; I’ll correct spelling errors and syntactical issues as much as I can but I prefer to leave the larger stuff alone. You’ve made the statement; now you have to stand by it. But I’m highly tempted to edit my review of Zayn Malik’s Pillow Talk, honestly because I’m not convinced it’s correct.

I agree with it up until the middle of Section II: boy band music does work through quasi-subversive sexual repression, and Zayn Malik uses Pillow Talk to talk quite openly about this effect. But the idea that Zayn discusses this so as to ruin the effect and stop it from working, thus allowing his audience to move onto new things, doesn’t seem to truly hold water. I don’t believe it.

The issue for me is that the song’s written in the present tense. Zayn isn’t talking about the past where you used to fuck each other senseless while his four friends watched, he’s talking about the present where you’re fucking each other in a private location with no-one else around. Furthermore, while the song isn’t in future tense, the implication seems to be that you two will keep fucking like this long into the future – many people will disapprove of this but you’re happy so who cares? As such, this song doesn’t seem to be deconstructing the use of sex in boy band music as much as it’s admitting that this use happens while hoping to use it itself sometime in the near future. Which, of course, is not half as interesting or progressive a message as I originally prescribed the song with having.

This does fix one of my major issues with Pillow Talk though. I previously complained that Pillow Talk promised a new vision of pop without actually delivering one. If seen as a grand denouncement of Zayn’s previous work designed to ready the public for a entirely new type of pop, then Pillow Talk is crap because very little in it can truly be considered that interesting or new. When you adjust your view of what it’s trying to do though, it turns out that the song does have a distinct vision; it’s just that the the vision is “Exactly the same as the old stuff, only slightly more honest about what it’s doing and done in a somewhat more artsy way”. Which, actually, sounds a fair enough vision to me. It’s not quite the pop cultural revolution that it could’ve been (and was sold to us as) but for what it is, it works quite well.

Since my original review, I’ve had to scale back my views of what this song was doing, but in doing so I’ve found that it’s not as flawed as I first thought. It’s just a shame that the album it came from was largely underwhelming and that the other single from it has largely disappeared without a trace. Zayn’s work is good but ultimately underwhelming; it started well enough but I doubt the pop world’s going to be truly troubled by it anytime soon.

A No. 1 Review – “Pillow Talk” by Zayn Malik

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I

Boy bands don’t write about sex, they write about relationships. The Jonas Brothers, One Direction, N*Sync, etc: they’re squeaky clean poster boys who present themselves as safe gentlemen (occasionally with a “dangerous” edge) who want to hold your hand in secret and very little else. This happens largely because we think that sex isn’t the type of thing that little girls should be preoccupied with. Even when bands like Five Days of Summer talk about their girlfriends being in nothing but their underwear, they’re more concerned with the specific brand of underwear than what their girlfriends actually look like.

Of course, this repression makes all boy band songs entirely about sex. Their audience still sexualise boy band members and fantasize about them (of course they do, they’re teenage girls) but now it’s entirely disconnected to the music itself and thus becomes a subversive act, carrying with it an exciting thrill because it’s exactly the thing they’re told they shouldn’t be doing. Now the listeners and the band truly do have a secret between them and thus have the personal bond, strengthening the idea that the band and the listener have a relationship that’s important. As such, when One Direction sing about how they and their audience go on “secret rendezvous”, they’re actually talking about the very act of listening to One Direction songs themselves*. Listening to your favourite boy band is a sexual experience in itself.**

This effect does provide former boy band members with an easy way of separating themselves from their past work though: just make your first song directly about sex instead of defining it by it’s lack and bam, job done. This is what Justin Timberlake did in his first song post-N*Sync: “Just be limber […] You will know the difference when I touch you […] Funny how a few words turn into sex“. And, of course, this is what Zayn Malik does in his first solo song, Pillow Talk.

II

I mean, it’s there in the title: Pillow Talk, the period after sex. Indeed, it’s interesting that Malik has set his song immediately post-sex: you and Malik have just slept together (doing so when you listened to him during his One Direction days) and now this song is about the two of you talking about it retrospect, moving away from the sexual action itself and getting into the nitty-gritty of what that sex meant to each other.

And what was that sex according to Malik? Well, it was a subversive act. “So we’ll piss off the neighbours / In the place that feels the tears / […] Yeah, reckless behavior”. By listening to each other, you were breaking the rules and that confliction (between the “paradise” of sexual release and the “war zone” of modern gender politics) was what made the experience so satisfying, so important.

Basically, Malick spends this song explaining how his previous ones worked. But why? Well, to stop them from working.

As said before, the sexual trill of listening to a boy band is meant to be a secret; that’s what makes the songs so meaningful to the listener. But this song reveals the secret; as such, it’s a secret no more and so the thrill of listening to the music is gone. The secret is dead, and so is the boy band. Now Malik and his audience can finally move onto other things and produce new work which is listened to in a different way**.

III

The only problem is that there isn’t really that much showing what this new work might be like. There are clues that his work will be more “adult”, what with it’s respectful piano music, the conscious use of swear words and movement from relationships to sex. But if this is the new direction that Malik’s going in, then it’s a deeply unsatisfying one because this direction can barely be considered “new”. The piano work has shades of Adele, John Little, Jamie Lawson, Sam Smith and even, God forbid, Charlie Puth. It’s rawer than those artists, yes, but even that rawer direction shares a lot of it’s themes and techniques with modern-era Justin Beiber, keeping Malik tied directly to another artist predominately known for being a teenage heart-throb. Lastly, the song’s use of swear words and sexual allusions sound to me to be what immature people think mature work is like; i.e. stuffed with sex and rude words. As such, if Zayne Malik is going in new, edgy direction leading us towards his new vision of pop, then his plan is flawed because his vision for pop doesn’t actually appear to be that original at all, nor does it seem to be particularly cohesive.

Not that I’m uninterested in where he goes next. If this song is about him deconstructing the world so as to make room for the music he wants to make, then it’s highly possible that his new vision for pop music will be revealed in the next song as opposed to this one. As it stands, Pillow Talk is a surprisingly interesting and ambitious song which Malik genuinely couldn’t have made within the limitations of One Direction. Even if time does prove it to be failure, at least he tried. It’s certainly better than One Direction’s History at any rate.

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* At one point, I do have to write an essay about how all of One Direction’s songs are metafictional works about the relationship between the band and the listener themselves; this theme has a tendency to come up.

**Of course, this works to normalise the idea that female sexual desire should be kept secret and shouldn’t be shown in polite society – little girls are taught that the most important feature of sex is the idea that it’s secret and that by voicing this desire, they make their sexual experiences less worthwhile – but still.

*** This can also be read in a feminist way, removing the idea that female desire that should be kept secret and instead arguing that it should be fully indulged in, whether other people like it or not. I think Malik himself is more focused on the metafictional properties of his song though, the Little-Mix-esque feminist reclamation being little more than a very welcome side effect.