Henry Scanlan peers into the world of a One Direction show and learns some valuable lessons
Last summer, in search of a quick buck, I worked for a few days as a bartender at a series of One Direction gigs at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium. While wading through thousands of feverish fans on the first morning to get to my work station, I’d been observing the crowd with an anthropological mind set, studying their behaviour as man studies monkey. The screams, the panic, the occasional bouts of violent shoving—it all seemed strangely inhuman. I now realise this was grossly unfair; after three days of basking in reflected euphoria, I picked up my payslip with nothing but respect and admiration for these people, who I now fully recognize as fellow humans. More than this, I think most people could learn a thing or two from the starstruck social group that has reincarnated in various forms (East 17-ites, Bieberites etc) ever since Beatlemania.
First off, the energy, dedication and stamina of these fans is astonishing. These people will wait in the rain for seven hours in a fenced-off pen like battery chickens without food or drink. They’ll spend hours creating colourful plaques from papier-mâché. Their spirits can’t be crushed, and when the show starts, they don’t miss a beat. Sure, there are plenty of cameras held aloft, but only in moments of respite from shrieking and jiggling and going catatonic with joy.
Meanwhile, peer into a gig in one of the dimly lit venues of Manchester. The music will probably be good, and the band might receive a good deal of support too, but more often than not there’ll be something stopping the crowd from really letting go. Some near-palpable force is shackling the crowd from unleashing their inner spirit with reckless abandon like those hormonal younglings at One Direction shows. Sure, there’ll be a few mavericks actually enjoying themselves regardless of their surroundings, but most of us will cautiously gauge the ambience before we get carried away by, say, taking our hands out of our pockets. Now, I’m not saying this is a bad or unnatural thing. People are insecure, and obviously there isn’t quite the religious, out-of-body experience, “look I brought you some of my toe-nail clippings” kind of vibe present during Beatlemania and the like. Some might say that the terrifying outbursts of emotion hurled by young girls at boybands like East 17, 1D and Westlife might reflect a sense of desperation at the emptiness or disappointment in these teenagers’ own lives. There may be some sad truth to this, and I’m sure the poor, outnumbered security guards charged with barricading 5000 rabid youths with one meaty forearm might agree. But at least these fans aren’t embarrassed. Everything comes out—tears, joy, perhaps yesterday’s lunch—in one huge, purging sweep of unashamed, untainted emotion. Moreover, this is without the use of drugs and alcohol. I’m not sure if there have been any sociological studies linking pre-pubescent boyband fans with straight-edge hardcore punks, but there should be—they’re practically the same thing.
As for the rest of us—at least those of us who would consider ourselves to be ‘avant-garde’ in some way—well, we may not have the same level of restless anticipation and unrequited love for the bands we go to see in the Northern Quarter. But is our restraint at gigs, our often snide rejection of broad-appeal music, and hence our desire to exhibit understated ‘coolness’, really a desire to remove ourselves from what we harshly perceive to be the unwashed, crude masses of society symbolized by a One Direction crowd? Is it really a need to separate ourselves from those tasteless, faceless mobs who queue for 17 hours to see their idols just that once before resuming their unanimously pedestrian lives? Is our knee-jerk dismissal of mainstream culture—for instance, the scepticism attached to a once-loved band as soon as they gain a suspiciously vanilla fan base (Tame Impala’s ejection from the cultural elite is imminent, mark my words)—is this really just our fear of losing our grip on exclusionary coolness? Without that—without our claims to uniqueness and preferences that nobody else has—we’re relegated to ordinary cogs in the daily struggle. But to see the shared, drug-free ecstasy of a One Direction show is to appreciate the communal power of the oft-dreaded mainstream. It’s enough to eradicate any snobbishness you might be harbouring. (Hey, here’s a thought: Coldplay were actually pretty great!)
The last grand, sweeping and handily vague rhetorical question I will pose is this: are the hordes of unruly fanatics at One Direction gigs—so often unfairly frowned upon—in actual fact the most dedicated, passionate, pure, unironic and (whisper it) even punk music fans of our generation?