Jess Belmosto swears she saw it coming.
“There’s been a lot of drama going on involving Zayn Malik,” says the 19-year-old One Direction fan from Raynham, Mass. When the group announced last week that Malik would miss a few dates on the current world tour because of stress, she says, “my friends and I were thinking, ‘He’s not going to come back.’ “
Sure enough, on Wednesday, the English-Irish boy band posted on its Facebook page that Malik’s departure would be permanent. “I want to be a normal 22-year-old,” the singer said in his statement.
“Obviously, people are really upset,” says Billboard associate editor Jason Lipshutz, “and I think they have the right to be upset. It’s the end of an era for one of the most successful artists of the 2010s.”
According to Billboard, 1D has sold 6.49 million albums and more than 23 million downloads. They also had 2014’s top-grossing tour, pulling in $ 290 million worldwide and becoming the trade publication’s artist of the year in the process.
“There’s no real heir apparent,” says Boston-based music writer Maura Johnston. “Although who knows, perhaps there are five kids on Vine that will break out now that the first crack in the One Direction façade has emerged.”
“Any boy band goes in with the clock ticking,” says journalist Alan Light, author of Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain.
One Direction and its handlers seemed as aware of that fact as anybody, releasing albums each fall since 2011 like clockwork and announcing their next even as they broke the news about Malik.
“They’ve already put out four albums, which is a lot for any band that started in 2010, and they’ve toured seemingly nonstop during that time,” says Johnston.
Few boy bands have maintained career ascendancy beyond their fourth albums. The Backstreet Boys lost A.J. McLean to rehab for a while after 2000’s Black & Blue and didn’t release another album for four years. ‘N Sync didn’t even make it to album No.4.
“All bands are fragile things, boy bands in particular,” Light says. “There are obvious reasons for that fragility — sudden and overwhelming success at a time in the performers’ lives where they’re still growing up.”
One Direction’s fervent fan base may have contributed to the pressure, Johnston says. “We’ve all heard about the teen idols of yore who got warped by the vagaries of fame. Then add the microscope of the celebrity press and the echo chamber that is social media.”
In the eyes of One Direction fans, Malik took comments in the press and on social media personally, especially when it came to his relationship with fiancée Perrie Edwards of Little Mix.
Zayn Malik, center, is leaving behind One Direction bandmates Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan and Harry Styles. The band will continue without him, the group said. (Photo: ANDREW COWIE, AFP/Getty Images)
“Zayn’s always been the one in the group that struggled with the negative side of the fame the most,” says fan Emma Hamilton of Nashville. “It’s been hard on him. I guess it got to be too much, and he wanted to focus on making himself as happy as he could.”
Hamilton says her little sister burst into tears when they and their friends got the notification over lunch. “We knew Zayn had taken a few days off,” Hamilton says. “We were joking early today that if Zayn quit we’d have to cancel our plans for the summer.”
Belmosto, who attended three stops on the group’s last U.S. tour, had planned to buy tickets in the secondary market for this year’s stadium tour. Now, she’s not sure she will. “Who knows if they’ll even make it to the end of the tour at this point?” she says.
“It’ll be like going to an amusement park and not being able to ride the best rollercoaster,” says Hamilton, 22, who has seen the group 10 times, even flying to Dublin for two shows.
Many fans consider Malik the group’s best pure singer and the person responsible for its high harmonies. Without him, Hamilton says, “I think everyone feels like it’s Nial, Liam, Louis and Harry — but not One Direction anymore.”
For now, the group continues on its On the Road Again world tour as a four-piece, with a Wednesday night show in Jakarta, Indonesia, followed by weekend concerts in Johannesburg. Promoter Live Nation hasn’t given any indication that the tour’s North American leg, set to start July 9 in San Diego and run through Sept. 12, is in jeopardy.
“Will people demand refunds?” wonders Johnston. “How are the Zayn moments going to be dealt with in concert? Video screens? Other members picking up the slack?” The situation reminds her of the time she saw the Spice Girls in 1998 after Geri Halliwell’s departure from the group.
“There was definitely something missing,” she says. “But, then again, a lot of the communal experience was singing along with Wannabe and Say You’ll Be There and not ogling individual members.”
In its Facebook statement, One Direction said it looked forward to recording its new album and continuing on the next stages of its world tour. The language in both Malik’s and the group’s statements is respectful and friendly, with nobody burning bridges.
“If there’s a silver lining, it’s that they will continue as a quartet and release a new album later this year,” Lipshutz says. “So it’s not the end of One Direction, it’s just one of the biggest groups starting a new phase.”
Contributing: Patrick Ryan
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