I was a tweenaged fan of *NSync and the Backstreet Boys and I know how big a role a boy band (or any media marketed to girls and young women) can have on a girl’s development, both positive and negative. Of course I can enjoy all kinds of media as an adult (whether I’m technically still (ahem) in the target demographic or not) that may be problematic in one way or another, but I think special care should be taken with the messages in media, including music, that is marketed to younger demographics.
I didn’t enter the One Direction fandom until December of 2015, when after an especially long night awake with my newborn daughter I messaged our own Sage: “I’m weak and impressionable. Tell me about Harry Styles.” I’d been only vaguely aware of One Direction and had seen many in my circle of friends fall into the 1D fandom one by one over the previous months and had actually resisted because they couldn’t be that great, right? (False, Past Mary, they absolutely can and they are.) Sage was as gracious as one could have expected and immediately sent me multiple pictures of Harry cradling babies lovingly in his enormous gentle be-ringed and tattooed hands as if a sleep-deprived stay at home mom of a three year old and a newborn didn’t have enough to hormonally weep over.
Over the years One Direction has repeatedly shown respect for their mostly female fanbase that goes beyond basic media training, or even just an understanding of how their proverbial bread is buttered. In their This Is Us concert film Louis Tomlinson mentions the idea of a One Direction fan, in the future, introducing the band’s music to her daughter. Niall Horan once snapped at a paparazzo who had been yelling for fans to get out of the way, “they pay my bills, not you.” Harry Styles, when asked in an interview if he and his bandmates ever called “dibs” on girls, immediately answered that they wouldn’t because they’re not about objectifying women.
It all sounds great, but do their lyrics match up to that ideal? Are the messages in their songs ones I really will want to pass onto my daughter when she’s older? To my son? Are they messages I want to be consuming myself?
That’s what I decided to find out, by doing a close reading of all of One Direction’s lyrics that explicitly mention or are addressed to women. Why make this gendered pronoun distinction? Because regardless of how One Direction has vocally acknowledged support for their LGBTQ fans (and they have), or any speculation on the sexual orientations of the band members themselves, this is a band made up of young men that is marketed TO young women and girls. The messages they send about sex and relationships through their lyrics have been and will continue to be a formative force in many of their fans’ development. If they’re going to go the extra mile to explicitly address their songs to women (or “girl” in the majority of cases), then I think we should absolutely pay extra careful attention to what they’re saying.
Up All Night (2011)
9 songs of 18 mention women, 2 of those co-written by some/all of the boys
“Gotta Be You”
Written by: August Rigo, Steve Mac
Every time this song comes up on shuffle and I hear Liam’s excruciatingly un-ironic delivery of the “disappointed/anointed” rhyme I mash the skip button as fast as possible. The rhyme scheme isn’t the only offensive thing about these lyrics though. This song is a classic apology jam, vaguely referencing a laundry list of shit-stain-ery while in the same breath assuring “Girl” that he’ll always be there for her now because he’ll never make it without her, yadda yadda bullshit BYE.
Most problematic line: “And girl what a mess I made upon your innocence” Just imagine me gently dry heaving in the background.
Least problematic line: “Can we fall one more time? Stop the tape and rewind” She muttered grudgingly.
(Ed. Note: Harry must agree with Mary on this one, because he would change the lyrics early and often on the band’s first tour: “Wrong size shoe,” “Scooby Doo,” “It’s Kung-Fu,” and my personal fave, “Big brown poo.” Enjoy.)
Written by: Savon Kotecha, Carl Falk, Rami
“That one thing” that you’ve got/he wants/he needs is most obviously a vagina since a song about boobs would be “those two things” and a song about a butt would have way more double entendres. But when you really examine the lyrics you get a sense that the singers may be suffering from some manner of brain injury? There’s the stuttered “I don’t”s and “get out”s, plus the references to flying, Kryptonite, being frozen and rendered mute, and climbing walls, that speak to delusions of being a superhero. So maybe “that one thing” you’ve got that he needs isn’t a sex organ but actually some anti-psychotic medication. I’m not a doctor but it seems like a wise option to consider. Overall I’m more concerned than offended.
Bonus: something about the bridge’s panicked “get out, get out, get outta my head!” makes me think of this tweet and I end up cackling good-naturedly for a while until it all comes back to women being walking penis receptacles expected to interpret men’s emotions for them and then it’s not so funny anymore.
Most problematic line: “Something’s gotta give now/Cause I’m dying just to know your name/And I need you here with me now/Cause you’ve got that one thing” Can you feel his desperation building to a fever pitch until the only thing left to do is rant at you for twenty minutes about how nice guys never get the girl? CAN YOU?
Least problematic line: If you just imagine the whole song as a kind of nouveau Broadway musical number sung by Superman to one of his arch-nemeses as they play a game of keepaway with some kind of amulet or super weapon it’s a much richer visual narrative.
Written by: Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Lindy Robbins, Toby Gad
Here we have the first track One Direction officially wrote on and also one I skip every time it pops up on shuffle. Sadly the music sounds a lot whinier than the message of this song actually is because lyrically it’s a vicious takedown of that ex who ruined your life at least once and popped up again once you’ve moved on to another relationship. When I really stopped to listen and focus on the lyrics I could hear this as a Kelly Clarkson track full of righteously spurned fury and that is a high, high compliment.
Most offensive line: “You’re impossible to resist, but I wouldn’t bet your heart on it” The song as a whole does seem to insinuate that “Girl” torpedoed their past relationship entirely on her own while he was completely faultless, which isn’t realistic, but line by line the “impossible to resist” bit – which is immediately contradicted by the second half of the phrase – is as close as this one gets to problematic.
Least offensive line: “You think I’m doing this to make you jealous/And I know that you hate to hear this, but this is not about you anymore” is about as gentle and as devastating a statement as one could hope to deliver to That Ex.
“Up All Night”
Written by: Matt Squire, Savan Kotecha
Here it is, the harmless party anthem One Direction seemed to try to duplicate a few more times in their later albums, none with the same pure optimistic and entirely non-gross results. This song is so harmless it’s not even conceited with this fictional party’s playlist; Katy Perry’s on replay, yo.
Most problematic line: I mean, if you don’t like Katy Perry it doesn’t sound like you’ll enjoy yourself.
Least problematic line: “I’m only thinking ’bout this girl I’m seeing/I hope she’ll wanna kiss me back” *weeps* PROTECT THESE CHILDREN, THEY’RE SO YOUNG.
Written by: Tom Fletcher
This is really just awful beginning to end. I have nothing else to say.
Most problematic line: “Give you this, give you that, blow a kiss, take it back, if I looked inside your brain/I would find lots of things, clothes, shoes, diamond rings, stuff that’s driving me insane”
Least problematic line: I got nothin’ guys. This is a mess. I weep for any woman who ever met Tom Fletcher.
“Everything About You”
Written by: Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Wayne Hector, Steve Robson
This is one of those songs that’s only problematic in that it’s basically meaningless. It’s a relentlessly positive moment of wide-eyed devotion made up of some very questionable grammar, but you know what? That’s fine sometimes, and definitely preferable to songs with actively damaging messages. It’s lyrical cotton candy.
Most problematic line: “It’s everything about you, you, you/Everything that you do, do, do/From the way that we touch, baby/To the way that you kiss on me” If we’re talking about “everything” the examples should really include more than just sex stuff.
Least problematic line: “Yes I like the way you smile with your eyes/Other guys see it but don’t realise that it’s my loving” Could have been one of those “she’s mine and I’ve marked her so no other male can ever gaze upon her form” lines but this reads as a much less possessive desire to be a reason this girl is happy whether she’s with him at the moment or not, with no expectation of everyone knowing she’s “his” or any such nonsense.
“Stole My Heart”
Written by: Paul Meehan, Jamie Scott
This is a soulless dead-eyed mannequin of a song. I guess if all it takes to capture your heart is a one look at a girl’s face in the middle of what sounds like a snooze of a rave, it’s not surprising that there’s little substance here. It’s doubly sad that Liam is in especially soulful voice on this track because it feels wasted.
Most problematic line: “Cause your friends, they look good but you look better” HARK, I HAVE BEEN JUDGED MOST FUCKABLE FROM THIS COHORT OF FUCKABLES, HALLELUJAH! Said no woman ever. Actually there’s a tie because “As we lay on the ground I put my arms around you and we can stay here tonight” sounds a lot like passing out in a parking lot. No thanks.
Least problematic line: “Oh, life! Come on head don’t you fail me now” If “Oh, life!” is a legit Walt Whitman reference this song takes on an entirely new level of meta depth and I demand at least three Dead Poets Society fanvids set to it within the week. Don’t fail me internet.
Written by: RedOne, Teddy Sky, Geo Slam, Eric Sanicola, Bilal Hajji, Achraf Jannusi
*Swallows down laughter* Okay so. This is very encouraging and nice! That’s good! It’s a very positive song about being nice and encouraging and supportive! I have just one quick question though and that is: I can’t actually feel the thing that’s like a stone on fire. Can we revisit that? Is there lighter fluid involved? Are you a pyrotechnic specialist, or, like an arson investigator, or a Geologist or something? Can we call one to discuss this? It’s a very nice song though, we don’t have to have a talk about this one.
Most problematic line: “One for me, one for you, whatcha doing?” I mean, if we’re talking about, like, cookies or cheeseburgers or checks for $100,000, I’m taking it, for sure. I’ll need more information though before I can give a definitive answer
Least problematic line: “I’ll lift you up, I’ll never stop/You know I’ll take you to another world/I’ll build you up, I’ll never stop/You know I’ll take you to another world”
“Na Na Na”
Written by: Mustapha Omer, Matt Squire, James Murray, Savan Kotecha, Iain James
It sounds like these two jerks deserve each other. Equality!
Take Me Home (2012)
12 of 20 songs mention women, 2 of those co-written by some/all of the boys
“Live While We’re Young”
Written by: Savan Kotecha, Carl Falk, Rami
I was kind of rooting for this one as a non-sexual party anthem but I guess I’m thinking of one of One Direction’s other songs with that exact profile because this ain’t it.
Most problematic line: “Hey girl it’s now or never, it’s now or never/Don’t overthink just let it go” Okay then, let’s go with never. Byeee!
Least problematic line: “Yeah, we’ll be doing what we do, just pretending that we’re cool” Any fan of One Direction understands on a painfully deep level that these nerds will never come close to actually being cool, so good on them for acknowledging it.
Written by: Albin Nedler, Kristoffer Fogelmark, Kristian Lundin, Shellback, Savan Kotecha, Carl Falk, Rami
See! It can be done! This track is both sex-positive and consent-centric, and it’s an energetic pop anthem that’s easy to dance to. The phrasing puts the “girl” in the driver’s seat of the interaction the whole way through, with only a few lines of one verse straying from the overwhelmingly empowering message (chinny-chin-chins? . . . okay). The pre-chorus and chorus make up one repeated call for clear verbal consent to what sounds like a hella joyful hook up and it’s all made even better by one of One Direction’s trademark ridiculous videos.
Most problematic line: “Oh I just wanna show you off to all of my friends/Making them drool down their chinny-chin-chins/Baby be mine tonight, mine tonight/Baby be mine tonight, yeah”
Least problematic line: “Oh, tell me, tell me, tell me how to turn your love on/You can get, get anything that you want/Baby just shout it out, shout it out/ Baby just shout it out, yeah”
Written by: Jamie Scott, John Ryan, Julian Bunetta
So let’s get this straight, Fuckboy. You came here with one girl, but then she “had to go” (godspeed, sister). And then you noticed a second girl who looked “amazing, standing alone,” which, when you combine those observations sounds like exactly why women are told never to appear Alone While Female in public. It all gets so much worse from there. It’s really depressing because this track is a JAM and I have sung and danced along to it without a second thought many times. Luckily it is pretty similar to the far superior “Kiss You.”
Most problematic line: “The one that I came with didn’t know how to move/The way that you let your hair down I can tell that you do” Girl just run. Run away right now.
Least problematic line: “Yeah, the music is so loud/I wanna be yours now/So c’mon c’mon and dance with me baby” Really, by virtue of not telling you much about the rest of the lyrics, these ones win.
“Last First Kiss”
Written by: Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Albin Nedler, Kristoffer Fogelmark, Savan Kotecha, Carl Falk, Rami
This song is, lyrically, exactly the kind of sugary sentiment I think most people expect of a boyband’s mid-tempo ballad offering and you know what? It’s good! It manages to be about a guy hoping to make a leap from friendship into romance without taking it too close to Nice Guy™ territory because there’s actually nothing presumptuous about it. He’s not expecting any particular response, not making any demands, just having a few moments of nervous expectation before making a declaration of what he wants from a relationship. It’s hopeful and respectful and romantic and maybe a little brain-meltingly sweet but this is pop music and that’s okay.
Most problematic line: There’s really nothing? Truly, really, nothing here pings my radar for yikesness
Least problematic line: “Baby tell me what to change, I’m afraid you’ll run away/If I tell you what I’ve wanted to tell you, yeah” It’s this caution and nervousness that keep any of the tone of these lyrics from becoming possessive or gross. Just all sweet pure yearning. It’s so nice I want to barf.
Written by: Alexander Gowers, Blue Bear, Ed Sheeran
Honestly this one is tough because so little of it is structured coherently. Which is not necessarily a dig, just . . . it’s very hard to parse a narrative or specific meaning line by line here. That said I can’t see anything gross so as far as I’m concerned we can all plaintively sing along with this one to our hearts’ contents.
Most problematic line: “I can make your tears fall down like the showers that are British” I’m offended on behalf of every sentence ever diagrammed. Stop this.
(Ed Note: Louis thinks it’s offensive too.)
Least problematic line: “And I can lend you broken parts that might fit like this/And I will give you all my heart so we can start it all over again” I’m a sucker for a “broken parts” line, what can I say?
“They Don’t Know About Us”
Written by: Tommy Lee James, Tommy P. Gregersen, Tebey and Peter Wallevik
So there’s something to be said, especially when you’re just starting to explore romantic relationships, for listening to the perspectives and advice of people you trust. If everybody you love and trust is telling you the person you’re with is a douche-canoe, or that they’re worried the relationship appears to be progressing very fast, or any number of other concerns, then taking a step back to evaluate for yourself is a good idea. Given that this song is all about a guy telling a girl that nobody else “gets” their relationship and that if they knew how much it means to HIM that then they would “just be jealous” . . . well, those could be red flags if he’s truly trying to keep other people’s opinions and influence out of his way. I’m gonna give this one a big yellow light and keep moving.
Most problematic line: “They don’t know about the things we do/They don’t know about the ‘I love you’s/But I bet you if they only knew/They would just be jealous of us” If a woman or man has to explain that they love their significant other when their actions don’t show it, something is wrong.
Least problematic line: “They don’t know what we do best/That’s between me and you, our little secret” All that said, and assuming everything is healthy and happy etc, yes please do feel free be discreet about your sex life if that’s what works for you.
“She’s Not Afraid”
Written by: Tim Woods, John Ryan, Jamie Scott, Julian Bunetta
Welcome to how women feel when dudes say whatever they think we want to hear to get us in bed. I mean kudos for not vilifying her for it, but just because she doesn’t want to have the kind of relationship you want to have doesn’t mean she’s “afraid of love.” You are not the end-all be-all of love in her life. You cannot “save” her with your love. You are a slam piece and if that’s what you want, great! If not, say goodbye and mean it because clearly this girl is committed to doing her thing.
Most problematic line: “What about all the things we say talking on the phone so late?/I can’t let her get away from me, oh/When I say that I can’t do it no more/She’s back in my door” To be entirely fair, if she’s being intentionally misleading about what she wants, that is of course a problem.
Least problematic line: “Maybe she’s just trying to test me, wanna see how hard I’m going to work/Wanna see if I can really tell how much she’s worth, what you’re worth” Again, bless them for not making this an angry accusatory bitchfest and turning that critical eye on themselves instead of judging her. A+ extra kudos for that.
“Loved You First”
Written by: Tim Woods, Tommy Lee James, Tebey, John Ryan, Julian Bunetta
Behold: the ballad of the Nice Guy™.
Most problematic line: “Cause I was the only one who loved you from the start” *SIRENS BLARE* IMMEDIATELY GET AWAY FROM ANYBODY WHO TELLS YOU THIS.
Least problematic line: “Had my chances/Could have been where he is standing/That’s what hurt the most, girl I came so close” The only legitimate cause for sorrow at someone you love being in a relationship with someone else is that maybe you really just didn’t tell them how you felt.
Written by: Shellback, Savan Kotecha, Carl Falk, Rami
Dropping an *N Sync reference cannot save you when you: open with the incredibly creepy line, “You’re so pretty when you cry” and then go on about how 1) her main value to you lies in her appearance, 2) you’re mostly sad because you know she won’t fuck you tonight, 3) your shitty friends told you she’s literally not worth even this feeble show of humanity and you haven’t ruled out that they’re right, 4) you have absolutely no clue what you could have possibly done wrong.
Most problematic line: All of it? I’m gonna go with all of it.
Least problematic line: “Now you’re tearing up my heart, tearing up my heart/You’re tearing up my heart”
“Still the One”
Written by: Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Savan Kotecha, Carl Falk, Rami
This song is what happens when the guy from “Loved You First” goes from whiner to stalker.
Most problematic line: “You might have moved on, but girl, you should know/That I know you’re still the one/I know it’s saying too much but I will never give up”
Least problematic line: “I was so stupid for letting you go” When you read these lyrics all together you notice things like how many of these songs whining about failed relationships include a line about knowing he’s done something stupid and that really resonates with me.
“Truly Madly Deeply”
Written by: Toby Gad, Lindy Robbins, Trevor Dahl
This is mostly inoffensive, save for the general air of barely-concealed panic while the protagonist watches his new girlfriend sleep and contemplates whether he should wake her up to alert her that he maybe needs to take these concerns to a licensed therapist to learn some cognitive behavioral techniques to help combat obsessive thoughts. (Don’t wake her up, bro. Especially with granola in bed.)
Most problematic line: “Should I put coffee and granola on a tray in bed” Oh my god NO, think about the CRUMBS, child!
Least problematic line: “Truly madly deeply I am foolishly completely falling” For better or worse, a Savage Garden reference will never go amiss with me.
Written by: Savan Kotecha, Rami, Carl Falk
There’s so little content here and so much repetition that the one yikes-y line makes a big impression.
Most problematic line: “But baby you’ve got me moving too fast cause I know you wanna be bad/And girl when you’re looking like that I can’t hold back”
Midnight Memories (2013)
7 of 18 songs mention women, 6 of those co-written by some/all of the boys
“Best Song Ever”
Written by: Julian Bunetta, Ed Drewett, John Ryan, Wayne Hector
Even if this song weren’t about Zayn in drag as a sexy secretary (with whom Harry has more chemistry than any woman on Earth, quite frankly), it would still be perfect. Zero problems, four stars, blessed be.
Most problematic line: I assume all the girls named Georgia Rose will get tired of being asked if their fathers are dentists but we all have our crosses to bear.
Least problematic line: “I said ‘can I take you home with me?’/She said ‘never in your wildest dreams’/And we danced all night to the best song ever” Literally the chorus is preceded each time by a SOUND AND FINAL rejection of sex, and they go on to keep happily dancing the night away? This is the kind of pop fantasy I can get behind.
“Story of My Life”
Written by: Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Zayn Malik, John Ryan, Jamie Scott, Julian Bunetta
I want this artsy-sounding tragic-adjacent nonsensical mess to be less problematic and yet . . . it just is. Dude goes through a breakup and proceeds to burn his way through every other relationship he has, mistreating and disappointing women because of his own heartache, and this is the story of his life. I still can’t resist singing along even though it doesn’t form many coherent thoughts (“The ground beneath my feet is open wide/The way that I’ve been holding on so tight/With nothing in between” in . . . between . . . what? What are you holding on to? What does that have to do with the ground and also later fire beneath your feet? Are you playing The Floor Is Lava?) because the music is so good. The lyrics are even sadder when you look at the video, which is all about the boys’ relationships with their families (and in which, it has to be said, they all look fantastic) set to four minutes of lyrical navel gazing about emotional dysfunction.
Most problematic line: “The story of my life, I give her hope/I spend her love until she’s broke inside/The story of my life” Please, tell me more about how everything is about you.
Least problematic line: There’s nothing truly problematic with these lines in a feminist sense but they make no goddamn sense: “Written on these walls are the colors that I can’t change” But why not “Painted on these walls”? Or “the stories that I can’t change”? Can somebody go back in time and write these questions on big signs and take them to every concert until I get an answer?
“Leave my heart open but it stays right here in its cage” “Although I am broken my heart is untamed still” I THOUGHT IT WAS IN A CAGE. THAT IS A VERY REAL DEFINITION OF BEING “TAMED.” DID IT GET OUT? IS THE HEART, ITSELF, STILL OPEN? WHAT THE SHIT ARE YOU SAYING. I know I’m being harsh, but the band helped write this song and I appreciate and value them all as people very much and feel great affection for them, and that’s why this drives me up a wall. You’re better than this my loves.
Written by: Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Jamie Scott, John Ryan, Julian Bunetta
This song is either about a guy who is looking for a partner in some major codependency or (with the exception of the “speak a different language” line) a time-traveling stalker’s love letter to the Princess of Wales. The latter is so much more entertaining than the former, so I encourage you all to journey with me to the world where One Direction’s collective ideal woman is Diana: Duchess, Countess, Princess, tragically taken from this earth when the eldest of them was just seven years old. Picture it: Harry makes a vision board of coordinating Prince and Princess outfits including a lot of florals and scarves. Louis has a burn book containing several hundred scathing remarks about that bitch Charles who clearly never deserved her. Liam stays up nights researching obscure ancient laws that would allow him to wrest all titles from the heir apparent. Niall writes impassioned letters to every citizen of Ireland begging their forgiveness. Zayn grows his hair out until it’s an exact photo negative of Diana’s quintessentially ’80s feathered style.
In all honesty this song is nothing short of concerning. Do not pass Go, do not collect Relationship.
Most problematic line: “You’ve been lonely, you don’t even know me/But I can feel you crying”
Least problematic line: “If I could hold you/I swear I’d never put you down” Newer theory: Harry’s singing this to an actual baby.
“Little Black Dress”
Written by: Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, John Ryan, Julian Bunetta, Theodore Geiger
I debated whether or not to include this song because it doesn’t actually use any gendered pronouns, but the most obvious assumption is that they’re addressing a woman wearing the LBD and just . . . y’know, reducing her to an article of clothing rather than actually asking for her name because that’s a really cute and respectful way to speak to a human being. What a meet-cute that would be. “She was a little black dress and I was a rude asshole!” Ha. Ha ha. What laughs and banter. (Ed. Note: It’s just a bit of banter!)
In the interest of specificity though, let’s also consider that since there are no gendered pronouns in this song, it could be sung to an actual article of clothing on a hanger (or mannequin, or Cher Horowitz’s wardrobe cataloguing software, what have you) perhaps by a drag queen with a truly spectacular collection of wigs, swanning about in a negligee, choosing an ensemble for the evening. I like that better. Let’s all imagine it’s that instead.
Most problematic line: (if sung to a human being who happens to be wearing a dress that is black): “Little black dress who you doing it for?/Little black dress I can’t take any more/It’s not right, it’s not right, it’s not right, you know” Yes, I do know. In fact most people on Earth, who live in societies, know that it’s not right to dehumanize people and reduce them to one aspect of their appearance. Do YOU know that’s not right?
Least problematic line: (if sung, by the aforementioned drag queen, to an actual dress) Literally every line of this is beautiful and perfect. This is the actual Best Song Ever.
“Little White Lies”
Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Julian Bunetta, Ed Drewett, John Ryan, Wayne Hector
View this post on Instagram
Again for you @reallyxdontxcare 😉❤ I really love that video(and look at harry in the background at the end..)! — #Niall #NiallHoran #NiallJamesHoran #NiallSinging #NiallDancing #LittleWhiteLies #NiallOnStage #1D #OneDirection #1DVideo #1DVideos #OneDirectionVideo #OneDirectionVideos #NiallVideo #NiallVideos #NiallHoranVideo #NiallHoranVideos
Alright. This track, musically, is A JAM, make no mistake. But. The lyrics. Are a problem. Such, such a problem. And it makes me sad because of the inconsistency; One Direction has great tracks with empowering lyrics of all speeds and styles so there’s no reason this had to go to such a gross place and yet it does, and it goes hard.
Most problematic line: “You say you’re a good girl but I know you would girl/Cause you’ve been telling me all night/With your little white lies, little white lies” False, no, wrong, stop. “Now you wanna make some rules/Now, cool, then we’ll watch them break tonight” Seriously just tuck and roll out of the cab, sister. “I know what you want/And I’ve been waiting so long” Please make it stop.
What’s disturbing about these lyrics to me is that the culture they represent doesn’t just teach men not to listen to “No.” It teaches women not to say “Yes” when they want to. It teaches women that playing “coy” or “hard to get” is all part of the game, is the best way to keep a man’s attention and interest, rather than being upfront across the board with what you want or don’t want. It teaches women to undermine the value and power of their own consent. It’s sad and it’s scary and more songs should be “Kiss You.”
“Does He Know?”
Written by: Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, John Ryan, Jamie Scott, Julian Bunetta
No please, tell me more, One Direction. About dancing.
Most problematic line: “Tonight, you’re mine, baby/Does he know that you’ll never go back?/Oh, does he know?”
Least problematic line: I just like the implication that a girl in a supposedly long-standing relationship has a “secret tattoo.” Girl if he can’t find it maybe you DO need to break up with him. Not for the guy singing this song though, he seems smug.
Written by: Louis Tomlinson, John Ryan, Jamie Scott, Julian Bunetta
This is literally just a song about sex addiction.
Most problematic line: “My mother told me I should go and get some therapy/I asked the doctor can you find out what is wrong with me” “Went to a party, just after the doctor talked to me/I met a girl, I took her right up to the balcony”
Least problematic line: *crickets*
5 of 16 songs mention women, 4 of those co-written by some/all of the boys
“Steal My Girl”
Written by: Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, John Ryan, Ed Drewett, Wayne Hector, Julian Bunetta
*sighs* *shakes head* *leaves* *comes back*
Most problematic line: “Couple billion in the whole wide world/Find another one cause she belongs to me”
Least problematic line: “Na na na na na na na, na na na na na na na”
Written by: John Ryan, Julian Bunetta, S. Pages Mehner
This song is 1) great, 2) nonsensical. I love it very much and I’m very embarrassed by it. I sing along with gusto while cringing. Because, honestly, “Her light is as loud as as many ambulances/As it takes just to save a saviour”??? Did . . . did nobody question this line? I understand that songwriting is a different process, but as someone who has written and edited professionally for news publications, and personally for short and longform fiction for over 10 years now, I say with great conviction and moderate authority: THIS MAKES NO SENSE. AND NOT IN A WAY THAT FEELS LIKE IT’S ON PURPOSE. I’m all for whimsy and magical realism, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that right now we’re talking about measuring the decibels emitted by an unknown number of ambulances, and then the conversion rate of that value into lumens and I’m . . . I’m getting a headache. I’m going to focus on the double entendre that’s so thinly veiled it might as well just be an entendre: “I’d get down on my knees for you,” and be happy.
Most problematic line: “Now, she floats through the room on a big balloon/Some say she’s such a fake, that her love is made up, no, no, no, no” I mean I would have a lot of questions about a chick who rode a hot air balloon through an indoor party too.
Least problematic line: “I’d get down, I’d get down, I’d get down on my knees, I’d get down on my knees for you” Bless.
(Ed. Note: Seriously, bless.)
Written by: Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Jamie Scott, John Ryan, Julian Bunetta
While those mentions of the red dress at first brush seem iffy, it’s the look into the reasons for her mother’s disapproval that made me realize this song is so much more than I at first thought it was. We’re hearing a love song that addresses the relationship between a mother and daughter, that addresses the inner life and feelings of a woman who is essentially a mother-in-law to the singers and it’s not in a way that makes her an obstacle at all. This isn’t a “parents just don’t understand” moment. Add to that, that we’re not talking about how her father “doesn’t like that kind of dress” which would change the entire tone of these lines, and the song as a whole. There’s talk of “lost innocence” and yeah that’s a phrase that can be loaded with patriarchal views on virginity, but here it’s surrounded with deeper, almost weary expressions of longing for lost youth, lost time, lost firsts. But, very specifically, “there’s nothing to be afraid of” follows those lines, undercutting the idea that a woman becoming sexually active should carry any negative impact on her self-image. Growing up, growing older, experiencing life and love, sex and relationships, it all can be scary especially as a young woman fighting through a world that loudly tells her every single thing she can do to lower her perceived value. But this song acknowledges that without agreeing with any of it, because at heart these lyrics are a promise that she’s not going through it alone, or with someone who doesn’t notice things like how her mother watches from the window as they pull out of the driveway.
Most problematic line: I’m sorry I’m crying at Starbucks right now, give me a minute.
Least problematic line: See above. Also watch the video because it is a G-rated masterpiece celebration of the female gaze.
Written by: John Ryan, Julian Bunetta, Liam Payne, Jamie Scott, Louis Tomlinson, Ruth-Anne “Rooty” Cunningham
This one seems to really ride the line of what’s problematic about a song about morning wood. Regardless of how much I love it, when I first read carefully through the lyrics only a few lines technically save this one. There’s the repeated mantra that men have “no control” which is obviously a terrifying and disgusting proposition especially when paired with the “loaded gun” euphemism. Though “euphemism” hardly counts when we’re talking about an actual loaded gun versus an excited penis. But. But. That’s only when you’re looking at the lyrics alone without a full picture of how they’re delivered or a careful eye to how they’re actually written. The repeated “no control” is several times preceded by, “I’m all yours,” which spins that phrase entirely on its ear, especially when followed immediately by the next line declaring themselves “powerless.” The bridge, too, takes apart the idea that “no control” means anything sinister, painting the singer “defenseless,” “held ransom,” and “lying here I count the hours” which is powerfully contradictory to that idea of strength without responsibility. There’s something else too, and that’s that when I see One Direction perform this song live, there’s no sense of smarminess, no current of aggression. There’s four grinning noodles running around a stage shimmying and thrusting, yes, but also being nearly drowned out by thousands upon thousands of young women screaming the lyrics back at them. Young women who chose that song against the plans of the record label to “fan release” via the No Control Project when they were dissatisfied with the label’s offering of singles. Do these lyrics toe the line when taken out of context at face value? If you’re not reading carefully, yes. But in the larger context, “No Control” means something very different than it may seem.
Most problematic line: “Waking up, beside you I’m a loaded gun/I can’t contain this anymore”
Least problematic line: “I’m all yours, I’ve got no control, no control/Powerless, and I don’t care it’s obvious/I just can’t get enough of you”
“Change Your Ticket”
Written by: Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, John Ryan, Julian Bunetta, Sam Martin
The biggest problem with Change Your Ticket is that it wasn’t a single. It’s SUCH a delightful little earworm, boppy and harmless and the video could have been a docu-style look at them on tour. Or, I don’t know, One Direction dressed up as flight attendants in an homage to Britney Spears’ Toxic video. Take your pick, really.
Most problematic line: “Don’t play innocent, I know what you meant/When you said you’d come over/Aren’t we way past that, playing hard to get?/We did that when we were younger”
Least problematic line: “And you say it’s hard to keep a secret/Girl don’t leave me all alone in this hotel/And these shades can hide us from the streets yeah/One weekend I’ll promise that I’ll never tell” Given that this song is being sung by dudes who literally need NDAs for one night stands, “I promise that I’ll never tell” is a pretty clever way to reverse the roles.
Made in the A.M. (2015)
5 of 18 songs mention women, all five co-written by some/all of the boys
Written by: Maureen Anne McDonald, John Ryan, Jacob Kasher, Jesse Shatkin, Julian Bunetta, Louis Tomlinson, Harry Styles
Leaving aside any and all speculation about this song being written about a particular woman, we do know a “girl” is mentioned in it so here we go. “Perfect” could have never existed on an earlier One Direction album because the difference between the content of these lyrics and of, say, One Thing, are so staggeringly different. “Perfect” comes from a place of self-knowledge and confidence; “I noticed you showing interest. Here’s who I am and what I want, sound good?” Whereas One Thing is more like “All I know about existence is that I desperately need to be completed by someone else.” The bridge, in particular, shows how different are M.I.T.A.M.’s One Direction from the band they were when they started out. “If you like camera’s flashing every time we go out,” Harry sighs, resigned, “Baby I’m perfect.” This isn’t a love song that makes grand promises of fairy tale endings or everlasting love, and that’s okay. That’s not what every woman is looking for anyway.
Most problematic line: “And if you like having secret little rendezvous” There’s nothing wrong with this line from a feminist point of view, I’m just taking this opportunity to air my grievance about the breath they all take in the MIDDLE OF THE WORD “rendezvous.” There is absolutely NO musical or rhythmic reason to do it instead of holding the note for a beat and yet they all take the goddamn breath, every time, and it really drives my high school-choir-educated ass all the way up a wall. Unless they suddenly decided to pay homage to the original French “rendez-vous” and are leaving that breath as a silent beat to represent the dash, JUST SING THE NOTE, GUYS. YOU’RE NOT FRENCH, NOT EVEN YOU, LOUIS.
Least problematic line: “I might never be your knight in shining armor/I might never be the one you take home to mother/And I might never be the one who brings you flowers/But I can be the one, be the one tonight”
“End of the Day”
Written by: Lunchmoney Lewis, Jacob Kasher, John Ryan, Wayne Hector, Ed Drewett, Julian Bunetta, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne
There’s not so much as a problematic letter in this song but I have to mention how hard and brightly I cackle at the line: “The priest thinks it’s the devil, my mum thinks it’s the flu/But girl it’s only you” every SINGLE time. This feels like a lyric lifted directly from a 2ge+her song in the best way possible. Instead of worrying over issues that aren’t here, let’s take a little breather as we wind down with one of their seminal hits:
Written by: Harry Styles, John Ryan, Julian Bunetta
Yes, Harry, we get it, “Olivia” is 9000% not about a woman named Olivia. If you were as concerned about that meaning being misconstrued as you ostensibly are now and ever shall be about the missing trumpets in the chorus, maybe you could have used any of these other nouns that also fit the rhyme scheme: Bolivia, arrhythmia, Lithuania, criteria, Namibia, bacteria, Chlamydia, Siberia, magnolia, Colombia, Columbia. Just a thought.
Most problematic line: Nothing here is really bad? The general message of the song is begging not to get dumped without any acknowledgement of the validity of the dumping, but again we’re definitely not for sure talking about a human woman so anything can mean anything, up can be down, cats can be dogs, etc. etc. (Dear Harry, I only kid because I love, this song is wonderful and so are you, I hope you got a good night’s sleep last night, please stay hydrated and say three nice things to yourself everyday, I love you, okay bye)
Least problematic line: “The summertime, and butterflies/All belong to your creation”
“What a Feeling”
Written by: Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Jamie Scott, Mike Needle, Daniel Bryer
Both lyrically and musically, this song, like “Perfect,” shows how much One Direction has evolved from their first album. Crackling with anticipation without any hint of presumption, this track is the much older and wiser (and sexier) relation of Take Me Home’s “Last First Kiss” (by way of Fleetwood Mac, of course.)
Most problematic line: There’s nothing gross about this song and I just have to highlight how these lines: “Through the wire, through the wire, through the wire/I’m watching her dance, dress is catching the light/In her eyes there’s no lies, no lies/There’s no question, she’s not in a disguise” are the antithesis of the mess that is “Little White Lies.”
Least problematic line: “Whatever chains are holding you back, holding you back/Don’t let them tie you down”
Written by: Niall Horan, Wayne Hector, TMS
It seems to be something of an open secret in the One Direction fandom that Niall Horan could nearly literally get away with murder and still retain his squeaky clean image as the ideal and doting boyfriend to both Snapchat and Sports™ and Ireland’s most favorite person but according to this song he’s not exactly angling for an actual girlfriend. Offering a no-strings-attached hook-up in a lot of songs ends up sounding sad and/or gross, but, well. This is not most songs. The big difference is that while this song is from a guy’s perspective, it’s abundantly clear the woman in question isn’t an object being pursued from the first verse: “You got my attention you were looking at me first.”
Most problematic line: All of them but only because I’m embarrassed by how much I blushed and giggled reading through these lyrics.
Least problematic line: “You control me, even if it’s just tonight” “You can own me and we’ll call this what you like.” Mr. Horan, my goodness.
Various members of One Direction have talked about the idea of their fans growing up with them over the years and perhaps nowhere is that more evident (other than, like, facial hair — sorry Harry), than when you read their lyrics. Made in the A.M., the album on which they’ve had the most lyrical influence, is also their most feminist offering by far. They may have been only boys when they started out but their perspectives, their insights, and their talent have evolved profoundly over the years, and by now they’re singing (and writing) like men, not (fuck)boys. Have they written and sang some straight up super problematic crap over the years? Yes indeed. Frankly writing this post has ruined a few of their songs for me. But it’s highlighted exactly how good, on all levels, many of their songs are as well and made me feel better about sharing this music with my own daughter one day. In the end I would rather be a conscientious critical listener taking extra joy in the songs that get it right from every angle – musically and lyrically – than to turn a blind eye to how the music I listen to shapes my own perspectives.
(For real guys what was happening when Girl Almighty was written? Shrooms?)
Top Five Best One Direction Songs (According to a Feminist Who’s Really Picky About Grammar)
In no particular order, because I couldn’t possibly choose
“Kiss You” – “Oh, tell me, tell me, tell me how to turn your love on/You can get, get anything that you want/Baby just shout it out, shout it out/ Baby just shout it out, yeah”
“Girl Almighty” – “I’d get down, I’d get down, I’d get down on my knees, I’d get down on my knees for you”
“Best Song Ever” – “I said ‘can I take you home with me?’/She said ‘never in your wildest dreams’/And we danced all night to the best song ever”
“Night Changes” – “But there’s nothing to be afraid of/Even when the night changes/It will never change me and you”
“Temporary Fix” – “I’ll be your temporary fix/You control me, even if it’s just tonight”
Top Five Worst One Direction Songs (According to a Feminist Who is Too Old for this Shit to be Cute Anymore)
In no particular order because why pretend any of it’s acceptable
“Little White Lies” – “You say you’re a good girl but I know you would girl/Cause you’ve been telling me all night/With your little white lies, little white lies”
“Steal My Girl” – “Couple billion in the whole wide world/Find another one cause she belongs to me”
“I Want” – “Give you this, give you that, blow a kiss, take it back, if I looked inside your brain/I would find lots of things, clothes, shoes, diamond rings, stuff that’s driving me insane”
“C’mon C’mon” – “The one that I came with didn’t know how to move/The way that you let your hair down I can tell that you do”
“Loved You First” – “Cause I was the only one who loved you from the start”
What do y’all think? Are 1D a feminist fail or a light in the misogynistic darkness? Let’s discuss in the comments!