The aesthetic as the message

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Zayn Malik in ‘Pillowtalk’

When Zayn Malik left One Direction, he confessed to interviewers that the main reason he went solo was the lack of opportunities to make an input in the songwriting process. It’s easy to assume at first that what he meant related to the content of the songs that the boy band were singing.

Were they too happy? Too bubblegum pop? Too generic love song? Too safe? Were the lyrics too shallow for his tastes?

Two years later and the now single-named solo artist Zayn has released, well, mostly love songs. Granted that they are more grown up and sexual, but the content does not really stray too far from the subject of love and sex — two of the main topics that One Direction were already singing about even during their early years: “Tonight let’s get some/ And live while we’re young”, “Don’t overthink/ Just let it go/ And if we get together/ Don’t let the pictures leave your phone” (From ‘Live While We’re Young’)

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Zayn and Harry Styles in ‘Live While We’re Young’ during their One Direction days

Zayn’s ‘Pillowtalk’, whose music video is a mish-mash of dark psychedelia and images of genitalia, is literally about pissing off the neighbors because you and your gal are having loud sex. ‘Like I Would’ is about a person taunting his ex that she won’t get the same love and physical pleasure from her current beau. The sweetness and earnestness of youth and boyhood may be gone, but really, Zayn is treading familiar territory. There are no political undertones or existential explorations here. Just love and sex.

So is this a case of an artist being a hypocrite in terms of his creative expression or could Zayn have been referring to something else when he expressed his dissatisfaction with One Direction’s music?

In one of the first interviews he gave after leaving the boy band, he related that during recording with One Direction, he would try to infuse some of his R&B vocalization into the songs. This was apparently met with some disapproval from the ones in charge because they would make him sing his lines over and over until he fulfilled the pop template of delivery. This frustrated him so much, even as his bandmates would, according to him, give allowances for him to perform in his own style during live performances.

Zayn seems to have been primarily referring to the musical and vocalization styles as well as the mood of the songs when he expressed his creative disconnection from One Direction’s music. In short, he wanted a different aesthetic — one that felt more authentic to him as a person and as an artist.

Content-wise, he wanted the world to know that he has had grown-up love and has engaged in sex — again, not really all that different from One Direction’s lyrics in the first place. But aesthetically, he wanted to express the content with an R&B style of music and a more sexual and primal imagery and emotional feel.

This is an artist whose creative revolution arose out of the need for aesthetic authenticity. The medium, aka the aesthetic, is the message.

And the message has been well-received so far, based on record sales as well as the music awards he has garnered since going solo.

Former bandmate (and current frenemy?) Harry Styles seems to be having a similarly successful aesthetic-grounded revolution, albeit with a soft British rock style as compared to Zayn’s R&B. And as with Zayn, the music critics have praised Harry’s shift in genre but have also pinpointed his debut album’s lack of lyrical variety and depth, even as Harry has attempted to go outside the realms of love and sex for his song topics.

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Harry Styles in ‘Sign of the Times’

It seems that the content has a lot of catching up to do to the medium for these two artists. Not that this writer and music fan is complaining. They’re young and they are growing as musicians and as persons. Whatever creative revolution or evolution they have lined up next, I will be ready with YouTube on my monitor and my headset on my ears.

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