By Alex Girard
Friday the 13th is marked by avoidance. We avoid black cats, broken mirrors, human interaction in fear of contracting Norovirus, etc. However, this Friday the 13th there was an unavoidable force that consumed popular conscious and radio airwaves. Love them or hate them, both One Direction and Justin Bieber chose Nov. 13 as the release date for their heavily anticipated albums.
Both projects are being released during periods of flux in their respective artists’ careers. One Direction is handling the departure of Zayn Malik, and transitioning from a five-piece to a four member group. Further, the band’s scheduled hiatus is starting in 2016. With Zayn starting his own solo career, it wouldn’t surprise many if the other boys followed suit, and “Made in the A.M.” turned out to be the last project released by 1D. On the other hand, Justin Bieber has spent the better part of the last year rebuilding his tarnished image. Through a Comedy Central Roast, award show performances, and calculated talk show appearances, Bieber has done his best to put to rest his party-boy image in favor of that of a more serious musician.
I took this opportunity to really explore these artists’ work for the first time. The anthemic quality of nearly every One Direction hit is mind boggling. The choruses are booming, the lyrics are easily remembered, and they make plenty of excuses to include a couple “nah nah nah nahs” for good measure. These songs are written with performance in mind. All of their songs are meant to be belted in a sing-along fashion amongst fifty-thousand other “Directioners.” One Direction probably executes this style better than any other band out there today, but consistent repetition of this format gives their songs a formulaic quality.
While One Direction has not attempted to edit their winning formula, Justin Bieber’s career is marked by change and reinvention of sound. This is due to the fact that Bieber literally grew up in the public eye – and it is partially documented in his music. There is a notable difference between his pre-pubescent crooning on “Baby” and his rap/singing approach to a song like “Boyfriend.” Bieber is anything but stagnant, and this is noticeable in his music.
Bieber’s “Purpose” and One Direction’s “Made in the A.M.” continue the trends they have established throughout their careers. “Made in the A.M.” has more of the same anthems that have made One Direction so popular. “Perfect” is the quintessential One Direction song, except the lyricism is noticeably imperfect, almost sloppy. Songs like “Drag Me Down” will inevitably join the pantheon of One Direction mega-hits, but the album lacks a clear teeny-bop anthem akin to “Steal My Girl” or “What Makes You Beautiful.” As a whole, “Made in the A.M.” comes off as something thrown together to appease fans, as the lads begin to ponder life post-One Direction.
The singles off of “Purpose” are probably the strongest of Bieber’s career. “Purpose” finds Justin searching for a more mature pop sound – and he achieves this in some regards. The triumphant “What Do You Mean” is unlike anything Bieber has attempted before, and is probably the high-water mark of his career. This significant change in sound is most likely due to the collaborators Bieber has enlisted for this project. Skrillex plays a heavy hand on a number of songs, Ed Sheeran pens the clever “Love Yourself,” and long-time Kanye West collaborator Mike Dean worked on “No Sense.” The features list is also nothing short of absurd with everyone from Nas to Halsey contributing to various degrees of success. Although provocative on the track listing, the verses contributed by Big Sean and Travis Scott come off as afterthoughts, and don’t add much to the project.
Both “Purpose” and “Made in the A.M.” will undoubtedly satisfy fans who have long awaited the return of these superstars. However, while the singles off both albums are spectacular, the deep cuts disappoint. If anything, exploring these two artists’ body of work has shown me the irrelevance of creating strong albums within the Top 40 Market. Singles sell (or stream), and both One Direction and Justin Bieber do it better than anyone else.