Four years ago today, One Direction was arguably the most popular boy band on the planet. In 2015 Harry, Louis, Niall, Liam, and Zayn had hordes of screaming fans (dubbed “Directioners”), over 6.49 million U.S. albums sold, stores around the world, a feature film, and billions of dollars earned. This whirlwind of sugary 2010’s boyband magic came to a screeching halt when Zayn Malik left the group in 2015 to “be normal”, but then ultimately set out on a solo career. Things did not go as planned for Malik.
Zayn Malik was never the most popular member of One Direction. That title typically went to Harry Styles, and sometimes Niall Horan. Malik remained at the bottom of the list popularity-wise, and he never really had a knack for drawing in fans. At the time of the split, Malik only contributed 14.5% to the band’s overall popularity, had the fewest Twitter followers, and spent a considerably minimal amount of time with the press compared to the other members of the band. In fact, after Malik left the band, there was some speculation as to whether or not he was kicked out for being so unpopular. Malik usually remained at the back of the group as the dark, brooding, bad boy, The Guardian officially deeming him “The Mysterious One” of the group in 2014. Having the slightly off-putting, skulking, pouty one, be the main attraction isn’t always ideal when marketing a tour or album.
Zayn Malik is undeniably a talented vocalist. While Malik often hung at the bottom of the rankings popularity-wise, he almost always topped the lists in regards to his talent. However, raw vocal talent isn’t all that’s necessary to procure a successful post-departure career.
Beyonce and Justin Timberlake were always the most popular members of their respective bands. They had star power, they had the “it” factor, and they had fan loyalty. Renee Graham, a writer for The Boston Globe, spoke about boy and girl bands in CNN’s docu-series The 2000’s, saying, “You talk about people who were always going to be bigger than their group, that was Beyonce.” Nobody really looked at Zayn Malik that way. He was part of the collective. Within One Direction he had his place, his role, his job – but fans and critics never looked at him and said, “He’s the one.” When Justin Timberlake broke from NSYNC, he established his new image almost immediately, and fans followed. Malik did not have the same path. When Zayn Malik broke from One Direction, fans did not follow him – instead, they blamed him. The band was spiralling to a close, and many considered Malik to be the one who brought the One Direction era to an end. Members broke down crying on stage, stores closed, and the music was recorded without Malik.
If a major star from the group, like Styles, for example, had been first to break, they likely would have had fans following, loving, and supporting him; unlike Zayn Malik. Malik lacked as vast a loyal base that more prominent members like Horan or Styles (who have both gone on to have incredibly successful solo careers) had. Malik also made the error of spending a great deal of time after the split picking fights with members of One Direction, major producers, and ending his relationship with his fiancée (who also has a fiercely loyal fanbase, that happened to overlap with One Direction’s base). He also announced that he “never really wanted to be in One Direction”, which broke the hearts of many tween girls, and they took to the internet to share that this declaration shattered their image of him, and left them feeling betrayed. By losing the trust of his former One Direction bandmates, he lost the trust of fans.
Zayn Malik’s discography has been scrambled, to say the least. Malik’s only major hits have been duets and a sole single. Malik’s first album Mind Of Mine was somewhat generic, but was ultimately successful as a result of his hit single, “Pillow Talk”. In August 2018, Malik released two singles within one week. The second single, “Too Much,” did not chart at all, sold 13 copies the first day, and then sold a mere 32 copies over the course of that entire week. Icarus Falls, Malik’s latest album sold only 1,730 copies, meaning it debuted at a disappointing #64 on the UK charts. Icarus Falls was too lengthy, featured six singles that barely got radio play (most of those six never actually graced the radios), and seemed to lack consistency in theme. There was barely any media coverage or build up.
A great deal of the issues with its failure appears to be that of his management/team. Malik struggles with anxiety and has been open about feeling uncomfortable in large crowds or under a lot of media scrutiny. This difficulty with the press has been a blow to his career, and his management should have acted accordingly, prior to the album’s release. Zayn Malik can no longer coast off of being “the one to leave One Direction” or Gigi Hadid’s on-again-off-again boyfriend.
In Zayn Malik’s defence, he really does have talent. He has a powerful voice and a strong range. The other members of One Direction also did not have to face the racism and Islamophobia that he battled while he was also trying to support his family, cope with his anxiety, and simply grow up. These factors made his time in the band more difficult, and his time transitioning out of the group even rockier.
Zayn Malik greatly benefitted from being in a group. He needed more personalities to enhance his own, to handle the press, and to compliment his somewhat scattered identity as an artist. It’s time for him to get a better PR team, and to get a producer who can help him make a cohesive album. The material for success in the future is there (he is only 26, after all), but over the course of the past four years, it has become increasingly clear that Zayn Malik made a definite mistake (professionally, at least) by being the first one to leave One Direction.