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How One Direction stayed the world’s biggest band even after it stopped existing

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Thank goodness we had 1D in 2016 even though we didn’t

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Billboard

One Direction has been on an indefinite “hiatus” since December 13th, 2015 — one year ago today. In the meantime most of the members have moved on to new projects: a solo recording contract here, a label imprint there… a Christopher Nolan film, a golf management company, an embarrassing production moniker, an Ed Sheeran-lite debut single. The boys have been busy, but they haven’t been together.

Regardless, One Direction was Forbes’ second highest-paid musical act for the year. A big reason for One Direction’s $110 million haul for 2016 is simply rolled over cash from their On the Road Again tour, which grossed over $200 million and wrapped in late fall of 2015. But the group also still has nearly 9 million monthly listeners on Spotify — more than four times the number boasted by 5 Seconds of Summer, their knighted successor. Made in the AM, released in October of last year just before the hiatus, was their fifth album to debut in the Billboard top 10 — breaking a record set by The Beatles. It sold 2.4 million copies in the remaining month and a half of that year, and then took 45 weeks to drop out of the top 200. It was a steady revenue provider well into 2016.

By the numbers, One Direction was and is an undeniable force to be reckoned with. They’re the most profitable boy band in history. They churned out five albums in as many years, and even nabbed some co-signs from the ‘70s and ‘80s icons they had so charmingly ripped off. By the less tangible measure of cultural influence, things get a little murkier. There’s no mainstream phenomenon you can point to that was obviously inspired by One Direction — though one could make the case that Taylor Swift’s pop about-face wouldn’t have gone so cleanly without the opportunity to write a dozen or so songs about Harry Styles. There’s no slang, no fashion trend, no musical innovation, no theme, no sound, no movement that this group of boys created on purpose and willed into existence. All there is that matters is One Direction itself. A cultural object so serendipitously conceived that it will never happen again quite the same way, and so perfectly timed that it’s stubbornly refusing to go away.

Today, they’re as omnipresent on the internet as they were at any point in their five-year reign. They’re kept alive by GIFs and fan accounts on Twitter and the bloggers who love them, including those at the (sadly) soon-to-be-shuttered Hearst site Sugarscape, a more readable and diligent version of Tiger Beat that has followed their every move since day one.

It’s not just sites for teens. The Hairpin’s Logan Sachon has also been charting 1D’s movements since August, piecing together their personal posts, paparazzi photos, and social media dispatches from fans to figure out what each member of the group has been up to. This week’s roundup includes the specifics of how One Direction briefly became a united front again and were seen together for the first time since their dissolution last year — rallying around Louis Tomlinson following the death of his mother at age 43 from leukemia. Sachon’s write-ups, while clearly an investment of time and a labor of love, never look like a real stretch of journalistic acumen because the boys and their fans make it so incredibly easy.

That’s because — as if fated by the gods — One Direction was born on the eve of social media dominance. In their 2011 propulsion across the sea from the UK, they rode the wave of the first year that parents let their teens have Twitter accounts. They were teens themselves, unlike many of the old-dude “boy” bands of yore who would have faltered on this precipice. Because of their brand’s emphasis on chaos, they were imminently loopable. They received an eager welcome from Tumblr; they were perfect for Vine.

In late 2016, Vine is of course dead, but One Direction’s presence on Twitter and Tumblr is as strong as ever. They don’t depend on new mass-marketed albums, fan books, merch, or collectible dolls in order to be everywhere. Fan fiction about Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles is still the third-most-popular “shipping” fantasy on Tumblr, according to the platform’s own data. What must be hundreds of thousands of GIFs from the group’s music videos, concert movies, TV appearances, and hundreds of live performances still circulate on the site daily. They’ve been reblogged millions of times, reposted without credit, re-outfitted situationally, and are likely such a part of the basic fabric of Tumblr that they’d survive even deliberate attempts to clean the slate. You don’t have to be looking for One Direction to find One Direction, they’re spilling out of every positive corner of the internet at all times.

They’re open-source pop stars, the inevitable follow-up to Hatsune Miku and other vocaloids, the Japanese pop star characters that can be used like software for the stories, games, and songs of fans and professional musicians alike. And for that reason, many fans don’t merely feel love for One Direction; they feel an ownership.

That has occasionally caused problems for the human beings in the band, as celebrity idolization at this level often does. But it’s also what’s letting thousands of fans continue to iterate on the idea of One Direction. Last spring, fans who were disappointed that the band never released the Four track “No Control” as an official single organized #ProjectNoControl, a crowd-backed effort to take the song to radio stations and produce artwork and a music video for it. In May, the song topped Billboard’s trending chart after BBC Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw agreed to play it. Fans proclaimed that day (May 17th) “No Control Day,” and made the cumbersome hashtag #WeWantNoControlAsASingle trend on Twitter all day.

When the Grammy nominations were announced last week and One Direction’s fifth, possibly final album Made in the AM didn’t receive any nominations, fans came out for their annual show of anger on Twitter — very few of them acknowledging that it would likely be the last time they carried out the time-honored tradition. They’ve also made a habit of trying to publicly hold One Direction to its promise to come back, using the hashtag #1D2017 to post daily reminders. My favorite hashtag #GrowingUpADirectioner is used for throwback posts and for real-time reactions to the band members’ activities. Obviously its primary purpose is to identify the poster as an old and loyal fan, but it also serves to coagulate an idea of One Direction as a permanent piece of a cohort’s identity.

I’ve always believed that One Direction — by electing to belong to young women and be mocked by everyone else, by serving as harmless early romantic interests, by doing the “sensitive boy” thing without making a big stupid deal about it, by liberating the word “fangirl,” by eschewing angst and promising over and over that the world is a good place — have been a net positive for society. They feel indispensable to me now, and they did that from beyond the proverbial grave.

In a year that didn’t involve One Direction at all, One Direction was still our biggest band. This is in open defiance of the fact that the core implicit promise of a boy band is ephemerality. They’re youth on a stick — edible, disposable. Fads. Though think-pieces far and wide credited One Direction with ripping up the boy band formula by refusing to do choreography or wear matching outfits, abandoning the tortured sad-boy shtick, treating social media as life’s blood, and leaning hard into an anarchic edge expressed mainly by dozens of weird tattoos and drunken afternoons on party boats, the act of sticking around post mortem might actually be their biggest departure — their contribution to the canon.