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Moment that mattered: One Direction conquers America

One Direction, from left, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, and Harry Styles arrive at Nickelodeon's 25th Annual Kids' Choice Awards on Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

“Imagine five teen boys with various forms of coiffure – short and sassy to long and tousled – sporting nautical-coloured shirts and khakis and splashing in the surf. ‘You don’t know you’re beautiful,’ they chant over a clash of overproduced background music. No, this is not an Abercrombie & Fitch-sponsored commercial for Olay’s male skin care line. This is the video for ‘What Makes You Beautiful’, the first single from One Direction, the band that have done what The Beatles could not. One Direction have – to the chagrin of many a music critic – become the first British act to have their debut album go straight to number one on America’s Billboard 200 chart – a feat which proved beyond the powers of The Beatles, The Stones, The Clash and countless other creditable tunesmiths.

But how did a generic boy band manufactured by the king of 15-minute pop stardom, Simon Cowell, best the Fab Four? Simple: where The Beatles had fans, 1D have followers. Approximately 11 million of them. They cyber-stalk the band’s every movement with such passion that they trend almost as often as social networking king Justin Bieber.

But 11 million followers weren’t built in a day – in 1D’s case it took a little over a year (less than half the time it took Beatlemania to infect America). In August 2010, members Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne and Harry Styles (left to right, above) and did not make much of a ripple when they individually tried out for the seventh season of British karaoke-fest ‘X Factor’. But at the suggestion of guest judge Nicole ‘Pussycat Dolls’ Scherzinger, the lads formed One Direction. Unlike the boy bands of the ’90s and noughties with their choreographed movements and matching gear, these guys celebrated their individuality and refused to dance (possibly because it was beyond their skill set).

Despite their weak vocal performances, 1D soon had tween ‘X Factor’ fans going wild. It wasn’t enough for them to win (they came in third) but it was enough for Cowell to smell an opportunity – he saw in them the harbingers of boy band 2.0.

Cowell signed them to his label, Syco, in January 2011. For the next eight months 1D travelled through Mr Nasty’s music machine, smoothing out their style and vocal edge, before emerging on the other side into the scrubbed musical surf of ‘What Makes You Beautiful.’ Suddenly, YouTubing tweens across the western hemisphere felt the tickle of a new crush.

Soon after that, 1D’s ‘Up All Night’ was becoming the fastest-selling debut album of the year in the UK but Cowell – who’d seen Susan Boyle and Leona Lewis conquer America – had his eyes on the US. The last big US boy band was the Jonas Brothers, which formed in 2005, and with former tween faves like Miley Cyrus too busy planning their weddings, there was suddenly a gap in the market for something new.

For tweens, 1D was a smooth transition. Their swishes of hair were not only reminiscent of the Bieb’s famous ’do, but like the pint-sized Canadian star, they were highly web-savvy and the members maintained constant contact with fans via Twitter. Their label quickly launched ‘Bring 1D to the US’, a competition in which fans were asked to compete as well as interact with the band on Twitter and YouTube to bring them to their town. 1D’s US Facebook followers swiftly multiplied tenfold to 400,000.

By the time the band actually touched down in the States earlier this year, there was so much build up online that their fame was snowballing hard. ‘Beautiful,’ which had already clocked 47 million views on VEVO, sold 131,000 copies when it was officially released in February (without any radio play). When March rolled around, the gang hit New York’s ‘The Today Show’, drawing the kinds of fans reserved for established A-listers like Lady Gaga. The guys got so big that they had to move up the release date of ‘Up All Night’ one week to March 13. And, well, the rest is history.

Soraya Roberts is a freelance journalist in Toronto who writes gossip about One Direction for Yahoo! and slightly more cerebral pop culture for publications such as the Toronto Star and Slate.

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