Harry Styles has a cold or a hangover or a broken heart. Still, the Jumbotron tightens its focus as he prepares for another moment of intensity. The sudden silence and deep stare. The heavy breathing and tossed, greased hair. I’ve seen him nail it dozens of times. He’ll lift the mic to damp, open lips, sharpen his blue steel, and bore a message of love into the sea of screaming fans. The girls’ response is tidal, shrieking solid as a brick wall. Though tonight Styles seems slightly off. He’s tired. His eyes wander and shift. Tonight it’s late August all over the world.
One Direction has sold out Gillette Stadium. That’s 70,000 people in the New England Patriots’ home arena. A generous tally would have a hundred males in attendance. Most of these men are fathers checking sports scores on their devices, ignoring their daughter’s hysterical antics. There are no boys at 1D shows except the boys. The boyfriends stayed away, as did 1D’s gay fans despite the lush homoeroticism of Harry, Zayn, Liam, Niall, and Louis strutting onstage in tight jeans. This is Girl Land.
In the five years since Simon Cowell plucked five teenagers from a slush pile of U.K. talent-show losers and squashed them into a boy band, 1D has become a massive weather system traveling the globe, chasing summer nights. One world tour ends in the States as the next starts up in Australia and every night that they perform, no matter the continent, a temporary city of girls appears. I love it here. I love girls, my three girls in particular. But I also love the hormonal girls who fill the ranks of 1D’s fans, Directioners. They are unembarrassed by their extreme passions. They are honestly mad for love or whatever chemistry the band is brewing in their bodies. The documentary film Crazy About One Direction records one fan admitting she got braces put on her teeth not because she needed them but because Niall had braces. Another girl says that if the boys asked her to chop off her arm, she would. A third confesses she’d kill a cat, no, a goat, in order to meet the boys. These girls build galaxies out of whole cloth. They’d fight any battle for their seigneurs.
Tonight the mass of girls before me in the arena, swarming like insects, raises a question of economy. How many waitressing shifts, humid summer jobs, and hours babysitting does it take to hold these five boys aloft, to lard the fiefdom? How better might these girls’ energies be spent in humanitarian projects and education? And how best to understand their mania without dismissing it as a fault of their youth or gender?
It’s this last question that interests me most, because I, too, am here, willingly, happily, and I am not a girl. I’m a trespasser disguised as a “mum.” In truth, I’ve logged hundreds of hours listening to 1D without my kids. I consume 1D in huge, voracious doses as one might a bag of Cheetos. Sometimes I feel sick afterward but most often not. Most often 1D makes me feel light and lifted and full of gladness. Even as I write this piece, it is all I can do to not watch the video for “Steal My Girl” on a loop, as, you know, research. I love One Direction.
Friends who claim to know better urge me to listen to something more age-appropriate. They wonder why a 43-year-old, married mother, writer, and professor still picks the scab of teenage crush. They wonder how I became addicted to music produced in marketing laboratories. They want to know what is wrong with me and ask, sometimes facetiously, “Is One Direction really that good? Will I like them?”
“No,” I say. “You won’t.” The reason I love 1D isn’t because they are so good; it’s because they are so good for me. They are a code sequenced specifically for my DNA, made to produce emotions I really want to feel, thoughts I really want to think. The boys and their fans are a reminder that the intellect does not alone belong to suffering and seriousness but populates girly things just as fully. One Direction reminds me that love, joy, giddiness, even hysteria are crucibles of intelligence.
During the rise of Britney Spears, Simon Doonan wrote an article for the New York Observer lamenting a time when elegance equaled Elizabeth Taylor in a muumuu with a martini. What, Doonan wondered, had eroded adult worship and why was the new goal forever 21? I am in total agreement with Doonan. Adult elegance and aging with grace is one of the most beautiful acts. I worship Georges Moustaki and plentiful child care. My 1D fandom is not part of some cute act of delayed maturity like an adult who insists she just loves eating SpaghettiOs straight from the can. I like 1D because there’s a darkness in this light music that stirs thoughts of life, death, gender, literature, and the multiple problems of aging. The boys sing and it triggers a chemical response of joy in my body so intense it sets my mind zooming through history; it unclogs stoppered neural pathways last touched in the 1980s. That sounds disgusting. I suppose it is. But it is the truth of aging. The boys shout, “I don’t care what people say when we’re together.” And I think, Okay, okay, me neither, and raise my hands in the air because it is true, I just don’t care.
There was a time when I had three children under the age of 3. My twins were born a week after I moved to a new town. These are not the best conditions for maintaining a stable mind. During this period I told a friend that wolves and bears and coyotes were circling my house. I told her the animals wanted to eat my babies. She thought I was speaking metaphorically until she understood I was not.
When my twins were 3 weeks old, I was asked to give a reading of my latest novel. I told the full auditorium that, because everyone had been so kind and welcoming to me in this new town, I now knew they were vampires who wanted to suck the blood of my newborns. Some people thought I was telling a joke. Others shifted nervously.
I’m the last appointment of the day. The room is mostly dark. The ultrasound techs are sleepy and want to go home. “Feet in stirrups. You want to insert the wand or should I?” one asks. Life has not prepared me to answer this question. I’m unfamiliar with proper protocol for wand insertion. Though I’m naked but for a pink sweater and ankle socks, I fall back on propriety. “You?” I’m showing symptoms of ovarian cancer, a disease the terrifying internet has told me has no symptoms until it’s too late. So insert the wand any way you want.
Very quickly the tech goes from being tired to being a poor actor. She adjusts the wand hoping for a nicer view. She asks the other tech to join her. They both look into the screen. Neither is tired anymore. They take a sudden interest in me. “Where do you live upstate?” I translate her question to mean, There’s a bad-looking thing here on your ovary. She continues, “How many kids do you have?” This translation’s even easier. Who’s going to take care of them when you’re dead?
The hallways of the Foxboro, Massachusetts, Comfort Inn are a raucous girls’ dormitory. In our room, I cue up an MP3 player. My sister Amy pours two glasses of wine. The ritual is familiar since 1D goes on tour every summer and we’ve yet to miss a year. My oldest daughter Rosa, 7, and my niece Ella, 10, get to work creating handmade T-shirts for the show. Rosa cuts a fringe on her shirt before attacking it with a rainbow of Sharpies. Directioners make their own concert T-shirts, a gesture of DIY anti-capitalism that provides some relief to the marketing morass of these arena shows. Rosa is young enough to need help spelling favorite lyrics on her shirt. She doesn’t need help spelling Harry’s name. She’s scrawled it on notebooks, sneakers, sidewalks. She writes “I heart Harry” on her forearm, then passes me the marker for my own fake permanent tattoo. “I heart Rosa.”
The boys sing, “From the moment I met you, everything changed,” and I think of my daughters. The boys sing, “Your hand fits in mine like it’s made just for me.” Yes. “Baby, I loved you first.” As a zygote. “Even if you scream and shout, I’ll be here for you.” Often, you brats. “You’re all I think about, baby.” I haven’t slept in years. “You’re everything I see.” Mostly. “Nothing can come between you and I.” I really hope not.
“Girls,” I say, suddenly serious. “Before tonight gets started, I have some sad news.” Amy, Ella, and Rosa wince. Not tonight. We bought our tickets a year ago. We’ve planned for weeks. “Louis and I broke up,” I tell them. “But it’s cool. I’m dating Zayn now.” Ella laughs, half-embarrassed, half-delighted by an aunt so devoted to a boy band 20 years her junior.
“No, way,” my sister says (and she’s even older than I am). “Zayn’s mine. I gave you Louis.” We trade boys like baseball cards. If we were 40-year-old men talking this way about 20-year-old girls, I would hate us.
“Well, sorry,” I tell my sister. “I want Zayn. Also.”
“Okay. Okay.” Ella takes account of what we’ve got. She’ll be the judge. She sizes both of us up, taking note of my Union Jack hair kerchief. She makes her decision public. “You get Zayn,” she tells me.
“Great. Can I have Louis too?”
“What? Why?” My sister mocks outrage. “Why does she get them?”
“Mom.” Ella talks her down. “Mom. She knows all the words.”
There’s a photograph of my cousin and me pressing our pregnant stomachs together. With twice as many babies inside, my belly is an obese Pac-Man set to swallow her tidy tan bump. I love showing people this photo because their inability to look away from the image confirms what I already know: My twin belly was a freakish sideshow attraction. It was the Mount Everest of Womanhood, a mountaintop I traveled to and returned from somewhat intact.
Toward the end of that pregnancy, I had three items of clothing that still fit. Each garment was soiled with food spills, a result of having a belly so large it kept me back from the food on my plate. I’d been invited to a benefit for beautiful, intelligent people in gorgeous outfits. I went anyway. Ten minutes after arriving, I had to pee, so I pushed into the ladies’ room just as the farthest stall door was kicked open from inside. A long leg in a black boot stepped out. I put my hands in front of my belly and waited to see what demon lay within. The stall occupant swayed on her way out, still zipping up her fly. She was tall as a man and slender. I waited and watched until, with fly secured, she looked up to see what monstrosity was blocking her way. I didn’t disappoint. I stood before her in my enormous, food-dribbled grotesqueness. She broke into a grin, displaying gray teeth. She nodded at my belly, blessed my babies with her happiness, her surety, her tough guts. We exchanged places and by the time we had, I realized who I was looking at: Patti Smith, poet, rocker, mother of all things cool, mother of Jesse, mother of Jackson.
I ask my husband what he thinks of 1D.
“They make serviceable pop songs.”
“I don’t know,” he confesses. “It’s kind of like I have Stockholm Syndrome.” But he doesn’t even realize that “Stockholm Syndrome” is the title of a 1D song. “Know what I mean?” he asks.
In my house, I have 1D duct tape, sunglasses, T-shirts, calendars, wrapping paper. I know what he means.
I hear Billy Joel, Blondie, Tom Petty. I hear Queen and “Summer Loving” when I listen to 1D. That makes sense, since a lot of their songs are co-written by men my age. The argument that 1D’s music is unoriginal is consistently hurled at me by haters; my counterargument is that the boys are not sampling sounds unaware. One Direction sings, “I’m a thief, I’m a thief,” and their song “Better Than Words,” my personal favorite, is made up of lyrical quotes taken from the Bee Gees, Beyoncé, Lionel Richie, Boston, Cascada, Usher, the Beach Boys, Britney Spears, Adele, Mariah Carey, Drake, Elvis, Shakira, Gnarls Barkley, Daft Punk, and Maroon 5. A catholic, generous, inclusive, cyclical, generational approach to the Western pop canon. Or else perhaps it is an attempt to break down the ego with the admission that nothing we make is ever really new. Either way, the boys’ borrowed words are linked by an original chorus. “Words ain’t good enough. There’s no way I can explain your love.” They are attempting to describe emotions so complex that all pop music that’s come before fails to communicate the depth. To further underscore this bottomless complexity of love, to offer proof of how words consistently fail us, the song is punctuated by two deep, held pauses, postmodern silences that beyond the obvious allusion to the grave, have, in past live concert settings, provided opportune moments for one of the boys to hip thrust or attempt a pleasing crotch grab. Dance moves for which all the girls go wild.
I call the doctor. “Hold on,” the nurse says. “Let me look at your chart.” There’s silence on the line as she reads about me. “Okay. I’ve got it here in front of me.”
“I’ll say a prayer for you,” she tells me.
Not only are words not good enough, they can also be the unwilling bearers of pure terror.
One common T-shirt design among the fans is when a posse of girlfriends subverts the traditional team-jersey format. They print MALIK or PAYNE or TOMLINSON in capitals across their shoulder blades. They print a huge 1D up front. A perfect girl team would be made up of five friends, each girl representing the separate object of her 1D crush. (Crush indeed. I fear that the boys, left unprotected in this arena, would be devoured, ripped, and torn apart by their loving fans.) These punked jerseys interest me because while we’re gathered inside a football-field shrine to testosterone, the screams tonight don’t come from defeat or competition. I see two girls in handmade tees both scrawled with the same message: “Future Mrs. Niall Horan.” The girls are walking arm in arm, disregarding any laws of logic, monogamy, civility, or cardinal numbers. The screams tonight come from pure hydra-headed joy and the act of creation, building fantasies that won’t last forever but might be strong enough to hold for a night.
One group of girls is different from the others. They’re not wearing T-shirts but rather paper masks, photographs of the band members with cutout eyes. They don’t want to marry 1D. They want to be 1D. Yes, I think. Me too. Give me some tight black jeans and a microphone. Give me a penis. I really do know all the words. I love to karaoke. Plus, Harry’s off tonight. He needs a break. His moments of punctuation are fuzzy. His eyes seem unclear, unable to meet the camera. I can do the blue steel. I’ll be an understudy. The stage lights lift and an overwhelming roar greets the opening chords of a new song. I forget my body. I think of Mary Robison saying, “Something else that makes me angry is that I got too old to prostitute myself. I wasn’t going to anyway but it was there, it was my Z plan.”
I’ll be Zayn. That’s my Z plan.
I was taking a music-theory course in college when a young man, a fellow music-lover trying to court me, asked, “What are your favorite bands?” It was the ‘90s. Grunge and the riot grrrls urged listeners to demonstrate how their lives were more messed up than the next person’s. Our tragedies connoted gravitas. I knew the answer this young suitor expected/hoped I’d provide: Pavement, Velvet Underground, Television, and Bikini Kill. I kind of liked these bands, but they were indie bands, cool-kid bands, and cool kids had so often struck me as cruel kids. I’d had enough cool kids to last a lifetime.
“Bon Jovi,” I told the boy. “Poison. Skid Row. Damn Yankees.” That was the truth.
“You can’t,” he told me. “You can’t like those bands.”
Recently I saw the Who live in London for the band’s 50th anniversary. The tickets had been given to me for free, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone, though I enjoyed the evening and knew every song they played. I spent the night measuring the similarities between One Direction and the Who. I know all Who fans, old and male, will shudder at my exercise. All 1D fans, young and female, will ask, “Who?” Still, I couldn’t help forcing confluences on these two all-male, mostly white, mostly British bands. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, the last two remaining Who members, performed surrounded by ghosts and I felt this haunting deeply, even imagining 45 years hence, 1D taking the stage in their 70s. Who will be there and who won’t? The accounting on my end is a bit brutal.
The doctor calls it a “solid mass.” She says we have to wait for further test results. This drop of new information is a gallon of gasoline on my fear fire. I picture something like the creature from the Black Lagoon eating my ovary. I don’t imagine the “solid mass” could be just as pink as the rest of my parts. No. I make things up for a living. The danger in my job is that I can’t stop making things up.
With my family asleep, the loneliness of death is real. It’s a darkness without boundary. I pass my laptop on my way to the bathroom and think, I should delete my new novel, a recently completed book that took me five years to write. From where I’m standing beside this solid mass, even literature, my true love, is the tiniest scratching on a distant wall. The only thing that matters to me in that moment is staying alive, and deleting the book would be the clearest example of what words mean against death. My husband rocks me in his lap when my mind gets stuck on repeat. “Let me stay. Let me stay. Let me stay.” Here, I mean, on planet Earth, alive, with my family. Nothing I mutter makes the night easier.
“I love Harry for his voice,” Rosa tells me. “And his hair.” Me too.
The day they remove my right ovary, Zayn fails to show up at the world premiere of the new 1D record. It seems right in terms of my reproductive health. The boys make excuses, say it’s a stomach bug. I know it isn’t a stomach bug, but I make excuses also because I want to live.
I think about the boys’ moms a lot. Some of their moms are younger than I am. One of them also has twins. Zayn bought his mom a house, her first house ever. Louis’s mom bought a life-size cardboard cutout of her son so she could “just go in and say good night.” She said this in front of rolling cameras, so it is fake, but still, to the 1D moms it must seem like their children were born, their children left home for an afternoon X-Factor audition, and, five years later, they still haven’t returned.
The mass is benign. This is good news, great news, the best possible news I could ever receive, though a small part of me is furious at how my imagination makes fake things real. After my surgery, early menopause sets in. Hot flashes, night sweats. Fine. It’s not like I want any more babies. But after a few weeks, these flashes make me sad. I’m not ready to be old. I wonder where my ovary is. Not that I need it, but it’s been with me a long time, from the start. I don’t want to arrive at my end prematurely just because I was careless and let some important parts slip away unawares.
Then, four months after the surgery, menopause also departs. My period returns replete with a crazy surge of hormones and pimples. I enter puberty again in my 40s. This seems like a great sign, a definite step away from the end. I’m singing. I’m dancing. Maybe I even put on some 1D. I’m so over the moon, the universe sits up and takes notice. You are not a teenager, it says. And that afternoon, Zayn, mid-tour, quits the band, quits One Direction.
One of the most entrenched and elaborate fantasies among 1D fans is that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are lovers. To search the term “Larry Stylinson” — their ‘ship (relationship) name — is to fall into an endless wormhole: hundreds of Tumblrs, Twitters, YouTube videos, and Facebook accounts collect evidence of this love affair. Larry Stylinson has an online presence as vast as any Kennedy conspiracy theory, exegeses that unpack Louis’s and Harry’s many tattoos, the alignments and secret meanings of these markings. There are diatribes against Modest!, the management company that, rumor says, no longer allows Harry and Louis to stand beside one another in public in order to quash rumors of homosexuality. There are warring factions among fans: the Larry Shippers (those who want the boys to be together) versus the Shakespearean-sounding Calderics (those fans who fly under the banner of Louis’s ex-girlfriend, Eleanor Calder). There are reams of Larry Stylinson fanfiction. Some innocent — kisses and snuggles in paragraphs so prolonged a reader’s expectations for climax are never fulfilled. Other pieces are more traditionally debauched. “Pretty Boy,” an anonymous work, comes with this summary: “Harry’s been forced into a high-class prostitution ring … Louis is the crown prince of England and gets into a lot of mischief and thinks it’s normal to pay prostitutes.”
The truth of these fantasies is that every girl makes her own One Direction. There’s an expansiveness in the number five, a creativity. This capaciousness is clear when 1D is juxtaposed against a more narrowly defined singularity, say Justin Bieber or Ed Sheeran. In the video for 1D’s song “Kiss You,” the boys re-create Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock,” but the director doubled, tripled, quadrupled their bodies. He metastasized Liams for everyone, Nialls enough to go around. The boys are clay in their fans’ hands and when Harry stares out from the Jumbotron, he’s looking right at YOU. He is Joyce’s snow, falling upon us all.
The fantasies these girls create are so elaborate, it can be a betrayal when the boys are revealed to be five mortal men who like to sing, who might even already be engaged to marry someone else besides you. Just ask Taylor Swift about the death threats she received while dating Harry. Just ask Zayn.
The first time I saw Patti Smith in concert, I recognized in her elements of Borges’s aleph: that which contains everything in the universe seen from every point of view simultaneously. She scowled, tough and bitten. She smiled like a beautiful girl who knows love. She spit onstage, a solid body dispersing itself over the audience.
When my twins were born, I didn’t care about literature anymore. As I said, I had three children under age 3. The only book I managed to read that first year was Smith’s Just Kids. I wedged its hardcovers between Marie’s and Juliet’s heads as they tandem breast-fed. At night, I had a mantra. “Patti Smith is a mom. Patti Smith is a mom.”
Luc Sante’s article “The Mother Courage of Rock,” in The New York Review of Books, tracks Patti Smith from the first time Sante heard her name in 1971 through her life as a playwright, a poet, painter, lover, rocker, but then Sante himself arrives at a wonderful, deeply stirring wordless moment in the piece. He writes, “In 1980, [Smith] did the unthinkable: at or near the height of her powers she married Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, late of the MC5, and retired from recording and performance to move to a Detroit suburb and become a housewife and mother.” The page drops into white space. What is it Sante means to leave unsaid? The shift from a public artist to a private parent? Or is it something more sinister? Something so awful that we can’t say about mothers because there’s no one who doesn’t have some semblance of one?
I already know what people think about moms: cookie recipes, Halloween costumes, hysterical uteruses, laundry, organic yogurt, kitschy comforts of home, chicken breasts, regular old breasts, frivolousness, pop music, vanilla flavoring, minivans. No one has ever looked at my kids and said, “Wow. You made three deaths. You must really understand life.” I’d like to see that Mother’s Day card. The truth of this love — mother love — is that it’s so penetrating it has made a mush of my mind. Perhaps that is clear in the way I (don’t) organize a coherent argument, but my mind, in its mushy maternal state, has an ability to ooze over boundaries, squish into thoughts a more logically solid mind might never even dare to consider.
So I’m waiting for Patti Smith’s real Mother Courage, her book filled with words about those wordless years of maternity and her own kids, the baby she gave up for adoption at 19 and the two she kept and raised. I trust Patti Smith will bury all notions of motherhood that measure only its unbearable lightness without mentioning the flip side of that coin.
It comes down to the simple truth of the band’s name. In five years, five boys have become five men. And one direction is, of course, the only choice they, we, get.
Rosa, Ella, my sister, and I already have our tickets for a 1D show next September, tickets to a partial thing. I haven’t even told my girls yet that Zayn is gone. It still feels too much like death.
A few weeks ago, the internet exploded with an amazing clip. Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking was answering viewer questions for a live audience in Sydney, Australia. The male emcee posed a question submitted by the presumably female Samantha Su. “What do you think is the cosmological effect of Zayn leaving One Direction and consequently breaking the hearts of millions of girls across the world?” The emcee then added his own commentary, behaving as if he has no responsibility whatsoever to try to understand an enormous population — girls — who are clearly so confoundingly incomprehensible he has wholly discounted their contributions. “I haven’t a clue what that’s about,” he said.
But Stephen Hawking, generous and clearly even more intelligent than I had already thought, answered, “Finally a question about something important. My advice to any heartbroken young girl is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics, because one day there may well be proof of multiple universes. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that somewhere outside of our own universe lies a different universe. And in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction.”
How tender I feel toward Zayn now that’s he quit. He’s imperfect and fallible like the rest of us. Even mothers. I’m going to go binge-watch 1D videos now.
Back in the arena, the sun has set. It’s still warm and we’ve been dancing for hours. Liam, above an ocean of screaming girls, says, “Thank you.” His beautiful West Midlands accent clear. “Thank you for supporting this boy band for the past four years.” He laughs and looks at his four mates. “This boy band with chest hairs.”
The Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana, recently hosted New Edition, the boy band of my own youth, and Ronnie DeVoe, the New Edition member whose gorgeous teenage smile and dance moves made my 11-year-old heart beat, now has a Twitter feed. “Even in the studio,” he writes, “I’m reppin —> devoerealestate.”
So there’s a time limit on boys. Harry, Zayn, Liam, Niall, and Louis gaze down at me at the grocery store, cardboard images hawking Ritz Crackers, Pepsi, and their own line of perfume while they still can. In the aisles of Target, their images scream the truth of beauty. The photos gracing the five partitioned covers of a 1D Trapper Keeper were taken a while ago, when the boys were still boys, when they had a lot fewer tattoos. At this point, five years in, the members of One Direction are covered with ink. (Perhaps the stick of the needle makes it easier to shill for huge corporations.) There’s even a wiki dedicated to the boys’ tattoos. On this site, their body parts are parceled out, labeled, and deconstructed. The fans parse these markings as if encountering a system of iconography, a new alphabet or constellation that becomes inspiration for the girls’ own tattoos. Copycats and stolen lyrics inked with the hope of pinning one singular moment in restless time to the wall. Stay young forever. Good luck with that.
I could never bring myself to get a tattoo after seeing a young woman in a Raleigh, North Carolina, bus station. Her forearm was covered by the word Survivor. She was so attached to her grief and suffering and all I could think was how one day, in some morgue, her tattoo would no longer be true.
Recently, I had an etymological breakthrough standing nude before the mirror while waiting for the shower to heat up. Through the now-deflated skin of my abdomen, the term “old bag” shook with new resonance. How commodious! How wonderful. I, like an old bag, have held things — babies, lovers, friends. These droops and sags seem a clear sign of a life well-lived, an unselfish, un-conservative use of the gifts my parents’ gave me. My stomach’s a contour map of twin skin and Caesarian scars. This is a different sort of tattoo.
Rosa leans against me, exhausted but still swaying to the songs, enjoying perfect health while we stand in the irresistible pull of coming night, of late August. There’s a time limit on girls, too. Here, feeling light, feeling dark, feeling everything for a few hours. Her smooth skin. Her name on my wrist written in permanent marker, set to fade, to age, to remain a girl forever. Better than even words can say.