One Direction: where the outpouring of emotion at Zayn Malik’s departure comes from

The grass is always greener. Ian West/PA Archive

So Zayn Malik has left One Direction. This may not be an occasion to compare with the death of Elvis or the break-up of the Beatles, but whether you scoff or not, it’s undeniably big news all over the world.

Social media has responded with unbelievable force. The Guardian reports that a search for the phrase “IM CRYING” in the hour after the announcement brought up between four and six tweets per second. So where did this tidal wave of fandom come from?

The boyband was cobbled together during the 2010 X Factor auditions and, thanks to a cultural alchemy, the base metal of a few ordinarily talented young men was turned into gold. The band has sold 50m records (and counting) and packs stadiums wherever they perform.

Zayn was one of the X Factor wannabes who auditioned as a solo artist, was rejected, then rescued – but on the condition that he became part of a band. Called One Direction, the band proved greater than its constituent parts and, while it didn’t win the X Factor competition (it came 3rd), they went on to become the show’s most commercially successful act.

But critics scratched their heads: in terms of creative originality, the band was … well, modest; as singers, none seemed especially blessed and, while they were all pretty decent looking, none was heart-stoppingly handsome (well maybe Harry Styles now he’s grown his hair).

When there were five. Melissa Rose, CC BY

The secret

One Direction’s secret, if indeed we can call it that, is an irresistible capacity to engage audiences. By engage, I mean they occupy fans’ attention and interests, their love lives captivate and engross fans, their ever-changing hair-dos induce countless emulators.

Practically everything they do, however humdrum, is monitored by a media, which in turn relays the information to our smartphones, tablets, computers and, for those old-schoolers, televisions.

This is actually what precipitated Zayn’s untimely departure. He wants to feel like a “normal 22-year-old”. The ever-vigilant media recently caught him in flagrante, so to speak, with a woman who was not his fiancee Perrie Edwards (a member of another band discovered – or rather assembled – on the X Factor).

In a sense, Zayn’s dalliance is what audiences crave: we love celebrities to get up to mischief. Remember the reaction to Tiger Woods’s so-called transgression. We permit celebrities the glamorous, hedonistic sometimes depraved lifestyles they conspicuously dangle before us, but on the condition that they occasionally reveal their imperfections, just to remind us that they are as morally deficient as the rest of us.

On the same day that Zayn left the band, another celebrity departure caused outrage from some quarters when the BBC announced it was dropping Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear. The BBC might not forgive but his fans surely will: they expect him to trample all over moral codes. If he didn’t violate rules, he wouldn’t have the same appeal.

Why we follow

People often misunderstand the allure of celebrities. It isn’t their talent, their looks, even their narcissism. It isn’t even the sybaritic life they enjoy.

It’s more basic than that: it’s because they are a lot like us. They just have a lot more money (usually) and much more media attention.

But essentially, they are flawed, flesh-and-blood mortals like the rest of us. In a culture where interactive media dominates, we can – and here’s that word again – engage with them.

Following celebrities today involves more than reading about them, listening to them or just knowing a little bit about them: it means involving oneself in their lives. Those lives are conveyed to us via social media.

At the time of writing, One Direction has 23m Twitter followers, all of whom presumably feel an attachment to the band, if only because they all imagine they know them. In a sense, we do know the celebrities we follow, though only courtesy of the media. Celebrity culture reminds us just how powerful the media has become in the 21st century.

Now that social media has taken over, audiences feel entitled to peer into what was, up till a few years ago, regarded as the private lives of people who interested them.

The old binary of private versus public has been dissolved – and this means that anyone with even the vaguest aspirations of becoming a celeb in any sphere of activity has to strike a kind of Faustian bargain: they have to surrender all remnants of their private life in exchange for the worldly riches, adulation and pleasures offered by celebrity.

In another era, Zayn’s private affairs would not have been invaded – or certainly not to the extent they are today. The media wouldn’t have scrutinised his affairs with the same predatory zeal as they have done over the past few days. Zayn himself hasn’t complained about the violation of his privacy: he has no privacy and no reason to expect any.

That’s the whole point of celebrity culture: public figures are for all of us to enjoy. We take delight in their fortune and perhaps even greater delight in their misfortune. And by leaving One Direction, Zayn has taken a step towards preventing his fans from doing so.