A couple of weeks ago now it was International Coming Out Day. Given that I’ve quite unequivocally already got that T-shirt, to mark the occasion I think I’ll admit something else.
… I quite like One Direction.
Yes, yes, yes, I know. They’re awful, boyband, bubblegum pop, with about much soul, sincerity and authenticity as a corporate greenwash. I know their music is formulaic and trite, with certain lyrics that are a bit ropey from a feminist standpoint (“You don’t your beautiful/That’s what makes you beautiful”). I know they exist solely for teenage girls and gossip columnists. I know they and their entire production history is a manifestation of everything I despise about the modern media and its profiteering ways, I know. But some of the songs are pretty catchy (I will admit to listening to “Gotta Be You” an embarrassing number of times), and I have a bit of a man-crush on Harry Styles – he’s got great fashion sense (or at least, his personal stylist does), and he has successfully rehabilitated big hair for the modern gentleman. Besides, I’m gay – I can enjoy shit things and call them kitsch. So sue me.
But One Direction also interests me because of how homosexuality – or rather, its potential existence – has been an increasing feature of their public presence, and how the various responses to this demonstrate how far industry bosses have fallen behind the contemporary attitudes.
I think it’s fair to say that One Direction have faced some of the most sustained and creative speculation about their sexual identities of any boy band in history. The rumoured relationship between the softly spoken Louis Tomlinson and the dandyish Harry set the blogosphere and twitter abuzz. The rustling of magazine-pages has got so bad, that Louis has begged everyone to just shut up about it, as its affecting his relationship with both his girlfriend and Harry. Personally, I don’t believe for a moment that they’re actually in a relationship. But I’ve read plenty of older commentators claiming that, in effect, no straight boys would ever be that tender with one another, or that if one (usually Harry) was gay, then there is no way Louis would flirt with him, if he were truly straight.
Firstly, I think this demonstrates how much the bounds of what is acceptably masculine behaviour are changing. Men below the age of 25 seem much happier and more comfortable with being intimate with other men – the so-called “bromance” – without the fear of being labelled gay, at least by their peers. Harry and Louis behaving in this way publicly has surprised huge numbers of people outside of that age group, leading to them fanning the flames of gay speculation. As for gay men not being able to flirt with heteros – Bitch, please. If anything, I flirt more with my straight friends than I do with my gay ones. Just as with my straight female friends, the understanding that nothing could ever happen basically means that it’s more or less open season. Flirting with someone you know to be gay, if you are gay yourself, is much more likely to result in mixed signals being given, and eventual heartache.
But this “Larry” controversy is only the tip of a very sparkly iceberg. Pretty much every conceivable possible pairing of the members of One Direction has been concocted by Directioners on tumblr and other social networking sites; a process known as “shipping”. Shipping doesn’t just happen to One Direction, either – a vast array of real and fictional characters are shipped by fans online. One thing that is important to note, though, is that shipping doesn’t necessarily equate to a belief that the relationship in question is really going on; rather, it can be (and usually is) an exercise in wishful thinking. I wonder if part of the reason why Louis and Harry have been subjected to so much speculation is because gossip columnists witnessed an unfolding bromance, googled “Harry and Louis One Direction gay” and discovered the Larry fandom, put 2 and 2 together and came up with 69.
This open, laid-back speculation about other people’s sexual behaviour, and the willingness of young men of all orientations to express intimacy with one another, are examples of what has become, in my view, a second sexual revolution, facilitated by the Internet. Having instant access to global audiences of people Just Like You has allowed young people to grow up and socialise relatively unhindered by high-school hierarchy and small-town bigotry for the first time, which has in turn disempowered those forms of domination. Although the communications revolution has had its darker side, it has also allowed people of my generation to cast off even more of the heritage of of sex-negativity and patriarchy than our parents in the swinging 60s managed. Straight guys and gays can be BFFs, and the girls are free to guess and lust to their heart’s content.
So when did it all change? I think I can square it down to the year – 2006, the year I started my undergrad. That was the year of the Social Network – when facebook truly exploded, when vlogging Youtube started to really take off. My year and above had an adolescent experience much like those that came before – popularity vs. unpopularity, fun vs. isolation. Those that came after had a different experience – because they could be so much cooler Online.
Of course, the Record (and Film, and TV) Industry have been slow to respond to this development. The internet is not just a closed book in terms of sales, its social impact has also left them standing. The fact that part of the appeal of boy bands is that teenage girls (and teenage gay guys) like to imagine the boys with each other has, as yet, completely eluded most Media Execs. If it hadn’t, we’d see way more boy bands following the mould of Madonna, Katy Perry and Russian duo t.A.T.u., who all have capitalised significantly on the sex appeal of lesbianism for both straight men and lesbian/bi/bicurious women. I can appreciate Louis’ frustration (it’s telling he’s more concerned about how the speculation might make his girlfriend feel than about being labelled gay himself) but I think the fault lies not with him, nor with his fans, but with a medium unaware of the new ways young people are thinking. And, if any member of One Direction is in fact gay, I’d advise them to listen to older-brother-homo Lance Bass – coming out won’t kill your career. In fact, your fans may love you even more for it!