“Why Am I So Obsessed?” — One Direction Fans Break Down 10 Years Of Fandom
On the band’s 10th anniversary, Directioners explain the blissful feeling of having No Control.
On March 24, 2015, Germanwings flight 9525 headed to Dusseldorf, Germany crashed into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board. Thousands around the world flooded social media to express their shock and grief, sending the hashtag #Germanwings to the No.1 trending spot on Twitter worldwide. Less than 24 hours after the crash, international sensation One Direction announced on Facebook that Zayn Malik was leaving the group after five years.
When #Germanwings was at its peak, 200,000 people tweeted about the horrific crash. The hashtag #AlwaysInOurHeartsZaynMalik, however, garnered four million.
When Nicole Santero, a sociology PhD candidate at the University of Las Vegas, asks people if they remember that fateful event, they usually say no. But, if she asks them if they remember the day Malik left the UK boy band, she’s more likely to get a resounding yes.
“I remember this light bulb turning on in my head,” Santero tells Refinery29 of the moment that initially led her to write her master’s thesis on fan culture. “How is pop culture and news surrounding a fandom — surrounding a group like One Direction — able to overshadow such a tragic, monumental world news event?”
Pinpointing an exact reason why Louis Tomlinson, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, and Harry Styles — a charismatic, rag-tag group of teenage boys with unpolished and raw talent — went from 3rd place finishers on the UK’s The X-Factor to one of the biggest bands in history practically overnight is futile. There are a myriad factors that could have led to their ascent to superstardom, but it was likely the perfect combination of talent, looks, timing, and a willingness to break the more traditional “boyband” mold. Many die-hard fans themselves can’t quite put a finger on it, but all agree that they just had that special something.
“They had this organic ability to have a good time with everything they were doing and with each other,” says 21-year-old Briana, a fan from New York. “It all just seemed like so much fun — and fun you desperately wanted to be a part of.”
It’s now been a decade to the day since One Direction was formed. The July 23 date commemorates the day X-Factor judge Simon Cowell decided to put the five teenagers together to compete as a group, despite originally auditioning as solo acts. One Direction sold over 200 million records worldwide, with over 21 billion streams across all streaming platforms, according to Sony. They’ve won nearly 200 awards all together, and were the first band in Billboard 200 history to have their first four albums debut at No.1.
But to many devoted fans looking back on the 10 years that have elapsed — certainly a winding road given the band’s peak fame quickly followed by Malik’s 2015 departure and then the band’s indefinite hiatus in early 2016 — One Direction left an indelible, emotional mark that can’t be quantified in accolades and ticket sales. 1D represents a kind of snapshot of the best parts of coming-of-age, especially for millennial fans, who literally grew up with the band.
“They brought so much goodness to my life — friends, great people, and I got to do so many cool things because of them,“ says Carolina, a 27-year-old Tampa-based fan who has been to around 20 1D tour stops and was at one point one of two volunteer leaders for Florida’s 1D street team. “That's what my friends and I have been reminiscing about lately. With One Direction, it was a sense of freedom and carelessness — that was a time when we were truly young, wild, and free.”
It was never a bad obsession. It was just a fun obsession.
For some, the “wild” part truly resonates. Even from their very first gigs in the U.S. opening for Nickelodeon-molded boy band Big Time Rush, there were signs that the group were on the precipice of stardom. Zoe, 28, drove three hours to see them play in Albany, New York after discovering the group via X-Factor clips and gifs on Tumblr.
“It was really funny, because One Direction opened and then half the arena left after they were done because nobody cared about Big Time Rush. Everyone was just there for One Direction. It was crazy,” she laughs, then sighs comically. “I feel bad.” That Albany concert was in February 2012, in a theater with a capacity of 2,844. The next month, the group came out with their first album, Up All Night. In December, the band sold out their first headlining show at New York City’s iconic Madison Square Garden in 10 minutes.
At their peak, the quintet was notoriously mobbed by fans wherever they went. When Zoe reflects on her own fervor for the band, she describes herself as a person she barely recognizes.
“It was Beatlemania,” says Zoe. “I feel all teen girls get a little obsession here and there, but nothing had ever taken a hold of me like the One Direction fandom. At some point I literally was like, ‘Who am I?’ Because I would be on all these Twitters, and I'd just be obsessed, obsessed. And I was at some point I was like, ‘Why am I so obsessed?’ Here’s the thing though: it was just fun. It was never a bad obsession. It was just a fun obsession.”
When it came to One Direction, it was this zeal that inspired Australian fan Kristen to star in a spread in Women’s Day featuring her 1D-loving family, affectionately named “One Direction's Biggest Fam Club,” and Carolina to get a tattoo of the words “Forever Young” on her arm in her favorite member Horan’s handwriting. Across the pond in Manchester, England, it led to a few moments that 22-year-old Ella Dunham now looks back on with a healthy mixture of fondness and embarrassment. “I think the first time I met them was at a book signing, and I wrote, for some reason — this is so embarrassing to me looking back because I'm not a hardcore fan anymore — I decided to write ‘Harry’ across my head, [and] ‘Zayn’ on my cheek. I also did a flash mob to raise money for Harry's mom climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and she showed up. There were all sorts of things I did.”
When it comes to boy bands or other artists that have largely young female fanbases, the “obsession” is all that critics and others tend to see. Where merch-clad, bellowing adult sports fans are “passionate,” teenage fans are “hysterical.” But One Direction never diminished their fans. Seeing them as tastemakers even aided in their success. As Styles told Rolling Stone in 2017, “How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”
Dunham is a co-founder and has helped run the 1D Updates Twitter account since October 2011. Right now, the account has about 670,000 followers, but Dunham says that at its peak, it amassed a whopping 950,000. “I work in social media and marketing,” Dunham tells Refinery29, “and literally it's set out my career. It’s so strange to think that something that I did when I was 13 became this.” The account, which won a Shorty Award for Best Fan Page, started off as a place that tipped off fans to the whereabouts of the various members.
“I think it was because I wanted to meet them myself,” Dunham confesses. “I started meeting people that knew what hotels they were staying at.” It got to the point however, that the band’s label, Syco Records (owned by Simon Cowell), had to intervene, messaging the account saying “things could get dangerous.” The account then morphed into a place where fans could get updates on what the band was doing, but purposely withheld more private information, like where they were staying. “I think some people found that disappointing, but safety, and everything. They got so big that it just wasn't viable to do that anymore.”
Today, in the age of the Beyhive, Swifties, and the all-powerful BTS ARMY, we’re used to seeing the fervor and Pentagon-level organization of fans online. But back then, Santero explains that Directioners were right on the cusp of this change in fan culture — without even knowing it. “Nowadays tons of people know how to use social media, but in 2010-2015, it was kind of still a little bit of a mystery,” Santero says. “But what was so impressive with Directioners is how they were able to learn, adapt, and navigate their way through it. I think it's so important for us to look back at the power that One Direction held, their power to influence a fandom like Directioners, and what that meant for social media culture moving forward.”
There are some fans who feel indebted to One Direction for reasons beyond supplying them with precious memories of fun fan antics. For Florida native Brittany, the love and camaraderie fostered through her 1D fandom pushed her to leave an abusive relationship when she was about 20-years-old in 2012. “My best friends and I were planning on taking a road trip to see One Direction, but when I told my boyfriend about it he became violent and threatened to break up with me if I went,” Brittany says. “Guess what, sis? I texted him a big f-you and bought my concert ticket. After seeing them live, I decided that I will never let a man, or any person for that matter, tell me what to do and how to do it. I stayed single, worked on building myself up, and every time One Direction toured, I was there enjoying my time with my friends.”
The group was on top of the world, and their fans were right there with them. And then Malik quit. Malik has since opened up about his debilitating anxiety, and how his departure was pivotal to both his career and his mental health. At the time, though, it felt like fans’ worlds had exploded. It seemed as if every media outlet, from Page Six to Time, covered the departure, which was framed as a scandalous exit. Social media flooded with sorrowful odes and tributes to 1D’s fifth member, including videos of Directioners sobbing on YouTube and Instagram. Some even alleged that nature itself was reacting sadly to the news.
“I fucking sobbed when Zayn left the group,” Brittany, whose favorite member is Malik, says. “I held a mini watch party at my house that night with some friends and we watched all of their concert DVDs and cried while we ate fried chicken and mac and cheese.”
“I felt betrayed,” Zoe says. “One day he was there, one day he was gone, and there was no explanation.”
Dunham, who through her Twitter updates account had more of an up-close view of the group dynamics, felt more conflicted about Malik’s departure. “I think most people probably didn't see it coming that he would leave, but we sensed that something was wrong. Personally, I actually thought it was a good thing, because you could see that he mentally wasn't in it. I remember even when I went to this book signing, he sat there, really quiet. His head was in his hands. [He] didn't really want to be there, and you could see that.”
The general feeling from fans is that Malik leaving was, in many ways, the beginning of the end. (The band announced five months later, in August 2015, that they’d be taking an 18-month hiatus, and still haven’t made any official plans to get back together). But according to Santero, who specifically studied the online patterns of 1D fans, the numbers say differently.
“Even after Zayn left, that wasn't the end,” Santero says. “They were still peaking, and especially when they released that last album [2015’s Made In The A.M.], they did incredibly well, and I think that if the rest of the band had stayed together, they still would have done well. A lot of my data does revolve around when “Drag Me Down” was released as a surprise single album, paired with the success of their final tour. What we saw was this increased support for 1D as a foursome, as if they were proving to people that it's okay that Zayn left. I don't think that we even saw the full potential of the fandom’s continued growth, especially with how technology, the Internet, and social media has progressed.”
While 2015 marked the end of One Direction’s progression as a unit, their growth continued individually. Tomlinson and Payne both became fathers in 2016 and 2017, and Malik is expecting a child with supermodel Gigi Hadid. Each member has released between one to two full albums, to varying degrees of success. Styles has likely seen the most solo notoriety out of the group, with his two classic pop-rock-leaning albums both topping the Billboard 200 in 2017 and 2019.
“I think anyone who was really into them in their prime is not surprised that they have carved out these solo lanes, because it was always very apparent the influences that each of them had,” Briana says. “Like maybe this person wrote this song for One Direction, and now they have this solo album that's reminiscent of that or the artists that they say inspired them the most.”
Even though the whole fandom is broken up a little bit, I think at the end of the day, growing up with One Direction was such a pivotal time for all of us.
But even though the members may be on different paths now, for the most part, many fans are happy they are finding their own disparate voices and individual personal lives. They’ve in many ways come of age, just like the fans who adored him.
“It's almost like you've seen people become an adult alongside yourself,” Dunham says. “It's hard to say you feel like you know someone, but you’ve seen everything that they've gone through. Especially with Harry’s step dad dying, and then Louis' sister and his mom. You feel like, because you have grown up with them, it's almost like you're going through it as well, or you feel this tremendous empathy for them.”
Many fans are still holding out hope that the band will reunite someday (“I think it'd be a shame if they didn't do a farewell tour, and they could make so much money out of it!” jokes Dunham). Though it’s uncertain if the group will pull a Jonas Brothers and get back together, a few members have expressed that they’re open to the idea — Payne said in May that he is “hopeful” and Louis is still wistful about the group’s time together. In the meantime, in celebration of a decade of 1D, Sony Music has set up a website immortalizing the group, which hosts an archive of the band’s music videos, artwork, TV performances, and behind-the-scenes content. For the most part, however, many Directioners have resolved that the era of One Direction as a unit will remain a glittering, warm relic of the recent past.
“Even though the whole fandom is broken up a little bit, I think at the end of the day, growing up with One Direction was such a pivotal time for all of us,” Kristen says. “It was just so uncomplicated really. My God, I'm like, Fuck, I wish I could go back to those days.”