August 26, 2014

GUEST ROOM | Rogers Centre: Best GIF Ever

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In a Toronto subway train filled with girls and parents who were also on their way to the One Direction concert at Rogers Centre this August, I overheard a couple of strangers making small talk. “So, do you like One Direction too, then?” a Toronto resident was asking the father of an adorably awkward-looking pre-teen girl. “Nooooo,” he said, with truly excessive emphasis, “this is all for my daughter, it’s her birthday present.” Then he put his arm around her and squeezed her to him, all dad-like.

I’m sure this self-declared martyr genuinely thought he was speaking affectionately and behaving like a good parent. But it was sickening to see that girl’s expression change from excited to sheepish in the time it took her to realize that her father truly did find one of her favorite things in the world to be trivial, irredeemable and silly, something that he chose to bear solely for the sake of loving her.

Shaming people for liking the things they like is weird and unnecessary and yet, for some reason, 100 percent reflex. It is also particularly stupid when the things they like aren’t even objectively bad (a true apology to all those pumpkin spice latte swillers I’ve detested over the years). Because One Direction’s faces appear on t-shirts and perfume boxes and 99-cent Valentine cards, they’re laughable. By belonging to young girls, they belong to one of the most subtly despised groups of human beings in the world.

Honestly, my mother strategized for weeks during the 2013 Christmas season in order to obtain the tickets to this concert. Absolutely, I knew exactly what we looked like — my beautiful soccer mom Mom, who is both actually beautiful and actually the mother of soccer players, escorting a gaggle of girls in red lipstick and hair bows out of a Honda Odyssey. We had driven four hours from south-of-Rochester suburbia, guzzled Starbucks sugar water at 8 a.m. and posted six SnapChat stories apiece of Mom singing “Rock Me” behind the wheel. It was a festival of the type of manufactured middle class femininity that makes for a bucket of scorn and a capitalist wet dream.

Wading through the crowds outside Rogers Centre I was struck by that fact — at 130 dollars per ticket, the price was right for this show to be the cultural event of most of these families’ year. It was not out of reach of the average American/Canadian clan with girl children, but also certainly not a negligible expense. This day was the one that was promised on 50,000 birthdays, graduations and Christmas mornings. It was the last gift, hidden in the corner like the Red Ryder BB Gun. The stuff of dreams! It was like Disney World — the most beautiful and barely-achievable thing that many American families could dare to promise to their children, and somehow, tied up in that, painfully tacky and more than a little pathetic.

But this feeling did not resurface even once during the concert. It was, frankly, the best live show I have ever been to. There was traditional rock show spectacle and pop concert fun, there was undeniable showmanship and endearing fan interaction and there was truly impressive musical talent on display.

So while it’s not a tragedy that One Direction is dismissed as a boy band, because that is not really what the word tragedy means, it is kind of a bummer. Watching my bookworm baby sister, whom I have never seen excited about anything, peering through my dad’s military grade binoculars for a glimpse of some Niall pores, it was basically heartbreaking to think that the next day someone could make her feel dumb about it. One Direction is a boy band in the technical sense of the word — if a technical sense of that word even exists. Which it doesn’t. Because it’s more or less just a derisive term that gets floated out to address any grouping of male musicians who have a primarily female fanbase. Just one of many terms that trivializes any and all entertainment that is uniquely feminine, and God forbid, uniquely youthfully feminine. But no one needs to be lectured about the many, diverse and insidious ways that society conspires to make young girls hate themselves. We know this; Tumblr knows this.

Actually, no one knows this better than One Direction does. And no one understands what One Direction is doing to ease the sting of this better than One Direction does.

“Better Than Words,” is a love song made up entirely of the titles of other wildly popular popular music love songs. The song swings from referencing Elvis, to Beyonce, to Drake, to Shakira, to Boston. It is the principles of kitschiness and catchiness at their most extreme — the epitome of pop. Where popular music is simulacra for a generation’s specific hopes and fears, this type of popular music is such an excruciatingly meta, meme-ish, zeitgeist-y form of pastiche that it almost seems brilliant. Or stupid.

The same goes for that album’s lead single, “Best Song Ever,” a meta enough-sounding name for an even more lyrically meta dance jam. The chorus is simple and circular: We danced all night to the best song ever. We knew every line. Now I can’t remember how it goes, but I know that I won’t forget her, ‘cause we danced all night to the best song ever. The song essentially turns every night, every group of friends, every pretty stranger, every foot-tapping song-of-the-moment in the history of pop into one technicolor whirl of delightful sameness. It is the nature of pop music to forget the details and remember the gist — the thrill.

Whatever originality they may be lacking, One Direction does still bring something new to popular music. They are the most media savvy band, possibly ever. The concept for the music video for “Best Song Ever,” is playfulness on a grandiose scale, as is the concept for most of the group’s videos, all of which boast upwards of 50 million VEVO views. In the days leading up to the release of “Midnight Memories,” “preview GIFs” were tweeted out to the band’s 20 million followers, and in fact, shot for shot, each of these videos were obviously designed to be GIF-ed.

Their GIF-able quality is one of One Direction’s most fascinating attributes and certainly one of the keys to their success. The day after the concert there were already dozens upon dozens of GIFs from the concert that I had just seen. Niall Horan grinning like an adorable man-child during “Little White Lies.” Harry Styles, the little attention-whore bouncing around asking if it’s anyone’s birthday and teasing the second encore. Zayn Malik brooding.

These three-second loops of boyhood at its most lovable are uploaded by the dozen every single day, making it a conservative estimate that there are at least thousands available online, accumulated over the last four years. Moments from interviews, concerts, fan interactions and the eight-hour disastrous/endearing Google hangout that the group’s management so brilliantly executed last November can be hoarded and consumed en masse in spaces like Tumblr, imgur, and Reddit. The sheer volume of the available addictive minutiae is unrivaled by any other contemporary pop act, making One Direction’s fanbase one of the most rewarding and instantly gratifying to belong to.

For most of the 54,000 people at Rogers Centre that weekend, these GIFs are going to be a better way to relive the concert than are the horrible sound-quality recordings they took on their phones. The majority of the audience wasn’t even close enough to the stage to experience these moments in person, and while this recycled experience is far from authentic it is still a welcome supplement to what their 130 dollars did buy them.