For the past 40 years, the hardest thing for any act to do has been to graduate from teen pop.
Then there was One Direction. “What Makes You Beautiful” had stalled just on the cusp of “real hit” status during its run on the airplay charts, but was eventually ratified during the years largely by its staying power at AC radio. After that, the fan base could be counted on to rapidly push each new single to the middle of the charts, right into an onslaught of PD resistance. “Best Song Ever” seemed only to confirm that pattern.
Instead, radio received “Story of My Life” almost immediately as “the One Direction song for people who don’t like One Direction.” Other 1D songs struggled to get out of the low teens on the charts. This one is hovering just outside the top five. It is almost certainly headed for the same sort of afterlife at adult top 40 and mainstream AC that powered “What Makes You Beautiful.”
So how did One Direction do it? Think back to its one-time rivals, the Wanted. “What Makes You Beautiful” was identified at the outset as too bubble-gummy. The Wanted’s “Glad You Came” sounded like any of the other “turbo-pop” hits of the time and was thus perceived as grown-up. “Story of My Life” isn’t shy about invoking other recent hits—“Home,” “Wake Me Up!,” “Counting Stars.” (Despite this, PDs don’t seem to have any trepidation about scheduling it next to, say, “Counting Stars.”)
I root for One Direction (and I root for teen pop in general, because top 40 usually does better when it’s present). It sends a strange message that the best way to be taken seriously as an adult artist is to show that you can do exactly what everyone else is doing on the radio. But at least nobody had to dance suggestively with a teddy bear.
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