Girl, Serenaded – A Feminist Close-Read of One Direction’s Lyrics

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Posted by Mary

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.

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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.)

“One Thing”
Written by: Savon Kotecha, Carl Falk, Rami

one thing

“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.

“Taken”
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

up all night

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.

“I Want”
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.

“Another World”
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

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

live while we're young

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.

“Kiss You”
Written by: Albin Nedler, Kristoffer Fogelmark, Kristian Lundin, Shellback, Savan Kotecha, Carl Falk, Rami

kiss you

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”

“C’mon, C’mon”
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.

“Over Again”
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

so hard

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.

“Nobody Compares”
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.

“Magic”
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”

Least problematic line: I guess otherwise this song is fine but consider how superior a cover of any of these other songs titled “Magic” could have been.

midnight memories 2

Midnight Memories (2013)
7 of 18 songs mention women, 6 of those co-written by some/all of the boys

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