When you come from one of the biggest acts in modern pop, when you decide that such an existence has become too stale or too straining – has drifted altogether into a black hole of blind adoration and horrific obligations – there are two places in which you can go: 1) total obscurity, where you hide from the world in order to regain your sense of “normalcy” either through marriage, college, or both or 2) attempt to rebrand yourself as something beyond your bubblegum past and be taken seriously. It is more often than not that one or two or three, or maybe even all members of a group will opt for the latter, wanting to keep fame and financial freedom at their own speed and with their own style. But it is even more often than not that the success of those paths is quite dubious and intensely risky.
None of this is particularly unique to contemporary times, however. From the advent of teen-pop in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, there were sensations that came blazing onto the scene just to burn out entirely soon after. And during the most group-oriented periods of the 1960’s and 1970’s, many members branched out to “do their own thing” only to be forgotten about after a staled top 40 hit failed to capture any more steam able to guide them to the next plateau. Part of this lies within the basic inner workings of the teen-pop machine, which does not adhere to long shelf-lives, preferring instead to milk as much in as little as possible without regard of quality or “timeliness.” Another part of this, however, lies within the fact that such longevity in music does not lend itself dearly to that curiously strange species known as the male pop star.
As much as men seem to have greater ease in pursuing their artistic freedoms throughout the music world, the male pop star, in particular, seems to be one of the most thankless beings within our deified aural pantheon. Unlike his rocker or rapper counterpart, his appeal relies primarily on his magnetic attraction and cosmic beauty, which, if perfectly coiffed and concocted, will contain a mixture of the most alluring attributes of what we perceive to be masculine and feminine. What they are singing or what they are saying or even how they are speaking does not quite matter as much as their general mannequin-like expectation to simply look pretty and cause sheer panic. Make no mistake, however: many male pop stars have elevated from these confines from Prince to Michael Jackson to David Bowie, perhaps the quintessential male pop star of all-time. Many have been able to create careers that go beyond teenyboppers and bedroom posters, that stretch farther than thrown-panties and sneaking-past-security. But when you are coming from a pop group such aspirations are almost quaint, if not entirely poignant in their creation.
And such remained the case when Zayn Malik ditched the sinking One Direction ship and decided he’d become a solo artist in his own image. As arguably the quietest and least “impressionable” member of the once-titanic once-fivesome, skepticism arrived in abundance of whether or not he could genuinely pull off any kind of movable music, much less an album full of it. He was, after all, simply from a squeaky-clean boy band that was not renowned for their artistic breakthroughs nor their conventional tactics. By-products of a post-NSYNC teen explosion, choreography and matching attire never properly entered the mindset of Zayn and his bandmates, which, in turn, only added to the confusion of his possibility of success as a solo star. Yet none of that stopped him from doing what is perhaps the most fascinating pre-album campaign in the history of male pop stardom by appearing on high-art, cool-kid fashion magazines, instantly separating himself from the Tiger Beat origins he’d crawled away from.
Through these carefully-crafted photo shoots and equally curated interviews/think pieces, a blonde-buzz cut Zayn emerged as a budding style icon, utilizing the male pop star expectations of androgynous beauty (perhaps best exemplified by David Cassidy) and turning it upon its head through brightened, often quixotic adornments and anecdotes, that made him seem as if an aloof philosopher in love with himself and his drive. Even before a sound of music was dropped to the clamoring public, he had crafted a persona not unlike that of the classic Method actors of the late-Hollywood era, whom brooded and wallowed with a sense of narcissism and amusement, whom seemed to be both animalistic and completely tamed, slick sexy cats laid out in the afternoon sunlight. Far from the exuberant wigger-gloriousness of Justin Bieber, Zayn seemed almost classical, restrained, and contemplative – still teeming with massive youth but containing ambitions that calmed his impulse.
As it were, that creation of a new persona is almost more than half of the brilliance in a truly unique male pop star. One can only think of how Justin Bieber’s own stylistic rise to fame paved the way for every shaggy-haired boy under 13 who could harmonize, yet that rampant emulation only created a rampant extinction. And even in today’s world, dominated by the likes of Shawn Mendes and Charlie Puth, there seems to be a saddening lack of distinction over which face belongs to whom as, despite their successes, their personas have been awashed in beige realness. But as Zayn attended fashion shows and explored his sexuality through the art of photography, he allowed himself to be exposed to those who had never once downloaded a One Direction track and, in return, became victorious in creating a solid foundation for the true main event of this mystification: the album itself.
Accompanied by a striking cover with a toddler-aged Zayn retroactively adorned with tattoos and whimsically entitled Mind of Mine, it presents itself on the surface as a very typical “independent” album from a former boy-bander, as if a deliberate call to freedom and liberation from the shackles of teen-pop. And in some ways, perhaps it truly is such a work. But to classify it so cheaply would be delineating its power of exploring the endless rhapsodies that arise from our deepest loves and darkest lusts. Teeming with curiosity, magnificence, and passion, Mind of Mine must be one of the greatest solo debuts to have lurked within the confines of the pop genre, and especially the greatest solo debut for a male pop star of the decade. Eschewing the kind of collection of weepy, tawdry romantic delusions which would mostly plague someone attempting to etch out their path for the first time, the album feels mature and complete, as if Zayn had previously made two or three works prior. The coolly morose atmosphere, his playful inflections, the explorations of identity and heritage all seem so confident and so strident – so strong – that not one time does one ever think of where he came from or what he was once associated with. In 46 minutes, Zayn seems as if reborn and renewed, absolved of previous “sins” and “deceit.” He seems almost, in ways, immaculate from sheen.
And yet, for the success of which lies critically within his album and the massive commercial peaks of which his one-and-only single “PILLOWTALK” has achieved, Zayn’s apathy remains his most potent trait. He may not be entirely opposed to performing at venues and events, yet at the same time, he also does not seem enthusiastic in pushing his work out as often and as frequently as not only stars of his same sex but of any pop star period. Instead, he seems quite comfortable with carousing with his supermodel girlfriend and showing up at things when he pleases, only furthering the difference between him, his contemporaries, and those whom came before him. In true James Dean/Marlon Brando fashion, his attention does not lie deeply within the circle and cycle of fame, but rather on a more personalized idea of how such a machine can be run and decided. He is, in some silly way, a rebel. But even within that rebelliousness of sorts, one sees the comfort and calm of a millennial child wanting to be accepted for his musical creations. One sees that spirit wanting their work to be appreciated for its abilities and its power. The “part” of the male pop star does not interest him as it may others around him and this is most evident in the amount of time and attention taken on such a brilliant album.
It is that delightful mixture of disinterest and disaffection that makes Mind of Mine such a triumph. Filled with lush lyricism, meandering fears, and electronic flourishes that often sound far more neurotic and pensive than they possibly should, Zayn has crafted something that feels uniquely his own, that does not seem as if it could be recorded or redone by anyone else – a rarity in the art of pop. As he dips through late-90’s r&b, late-70’s soul, and the airtight ambiance of modern balladry, one gets a sense of whom he is, what he likes, what he appreciates, without needing for him to prove it through startling performances or impressive affairs. Through the diverse sounds and the quiet reflections, one understands him, one feels as if they might even know who he is. Such is not easy in pop and certainly not easy for a male star, but somehow that ex-boy bander whom few hardly believed had it in him has created a work of art that is as urgent as it is passive – a darling mood piece containing atomic pathos.
And perhaps this surreal rollercoaster may not be his trajectory forever. Perhaps he may fade away without a solid follow-up or create such a brilliant follow-up he’ll have to fade away. But there is something about that marvelously silent charisma and that endlessly ravenous hunger of which Zayn exudes that makes me believe that even in his most unbelievable carelessness, he will always contain some kind of magnetic charge that keeps him afloat and seeking new adventures. He will always contain some kind of magnetic charge that keeps him slightly above the fray. That sort of thing does not simply just disappear and go away; if anything, it expands as far as it possibly can.