Narrative dissonance & Stephen Hawking
What Zayn Malik's return tells us about the plasticity of fan narratives
“My advice to any heartbroken young girl is to pay close attention to the study of theoretical physics. Because one day, there may well be proof of multiple universes. It would not be beyond the realm of possibility that somewhere outside our own universe lies another, different universe, and in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction.”
Zayn Malik left One Direction in 2015, in the middle of their last tour, causing massive shockwaves through fandom. Even though it’s now been almost a decade since then, the narratives continue to evolve and spread according to different fan corners.
Malik is now returning to the public sphere with new music and publicity, participating in a sit-down interview for the first time in 6 years with the Spotify exclusive podcast Call Her Daddy.
It wasn’t a particularly revealing interview, confirming speculation more than anything, but it still set off some interesting reactions worth looking at as they highlight the collision of fandom factions and realities.
Pop Tingz picked out the sentence that made the most headlines, understandably so as it reads like a zinger, a dig at his former band members. Feuds drive clicks, and a bold admission of selfishness adds a bit of spice; as if he knew he was in the wrong.
Contextually, however, it doesn’t seem so provocative. Asked about leaving 1D, he said,
I don’t want to go into too much detail, but there was a lot of politics going on. People were doing certain things, people didn’t want to sign contracts, so I knew something was happening.
So I just got ahead of the curve. If I’m being honest with you, I was like, I’m just going to get out of here. I think this is done and I just seen it, and I completely selfishly wanted to be the first person to go and make my own record.
I was like, I’m going to jump the gun here for the first time.
I’m a passive dude but when it comes to my music and my business, I’m serious about it and I’m competitive, so I wanted to be the first to go and do my own thing.
And then there was obviously underlying issues, like within our friendships too. We had been together every day for five years and we got sick of each other.
— Transcript via KeepingUpWithZaynMalik on Tumblr.
This confirms a lot of what was already speculated in some fandom corners. Malik suspected the suggested hiatus was a ruse and “jumped the gun” in his words.
If we look at his past public disclosures, we also know that he was suffering from an eating disorder that was at its height in late 2014, months before his departure. This is also when the “hiatus” was proposed—though we learned of that timing only years later1.
None of this was public knowledge in 2015, the “hiatus” was not even announced at the time of his departure, so it’s no surprise it began the splintering of fandom. Fans were divided into multiple camps; the five-piece fans and the four-piece fans, the Zayn/Liam shippers gasping for relief, and the Zayn/Louis fans shocked that their friendship wasn’t strong enough to keep him around.
Some corners of fandom became convinced that his leaving was a publicity stunt; just as any rumours of discord between the members were a stunt. This was a line that was maintained for some time, even when he was removed from public corporation records; that was all for show, a dedicated attempt to make the departure seem permanent.2
Those that expressed anger at him were accused of buying into the public narrative, all the while the anti-Zayn fandom started growing, particularly among the remaining 1D fans, as it was fueled by certain band members. Referring to “paperwork” being the most difficult part of his leaving; calling him the Ringo Starr of 1D and so on.
1D was sold as a package deal: “One Direction funny moments” and their X-Factor video diaries were often referenced as stepping stones into fandom.
Thanks to Wikileaks, fandom became privy to some Sony Pictures marketing slides that were utterly unsurprising to anyone paying attention:
The men’s relationships with each other are what attracted many a fan, but potential animosity between them could also be clung to—as previously explored, anti-fandom attachment can still be extremely strong, especially if it is part of your stan identity.
To illustrate the grudges that are still held, please see a recent anonymous message I received because I shared a transcript of Malik’s interview, with no comments or tags.
What’s clear about this message is that it presumes a lot of things, and prioritizes public performance and statements; we shouldn’t know who attended the funerals of Tomlinson’s mother and sister, and there should be no requirement for public condolences, yet this is wielded as a revealing (non) action.
Then there’s the claim that Malik robbed the other members of a bonus; it’s certainly possible. We don’t know the details of their contracts, but such bonuses are not uncommon. A public record of such a situation was revealed when Backstreet Boys sued their own label for prohibiting them from fulfilling their contract in a way in which they would receive a bonus:
[…] all five members of the Backstreet Boys must be involved in the recording of the album for the band to collect an advance. In the suit, the Backstreet Boys maintain that Zomba used that clause as a loophole, while the label engaged Nick Carter in the work and promotion for a solo album.
The group charges that the label demanded Carter's solo release, Now or Never, take precedence over the Backstreet album. That prevented Carter from fulfilling his own contractual obligation to the band.
Even if the anonymous OP was correct, the only reason to care about such granular contractual details that haven’t been made public is to keep a grudge alive, something that fans and anti-fans will continue to do. Considering what Malik has revealed about that time, it seems cold-hearted to blame him for wanting to get out.
But the message also leaves room for Malik’s decision to be the right one, making him the candidate to back. He was the smartest, most prepared. As if actions and reactions can be stripped from their context and lobbed against anyone and everyone.
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Even K-Pop fandom paid attention and reacted to this interview, the difference being that they focused on Malik’s comment about getting “sick of each other” something that would absolutely never happen in a K-Pop group.
I find this perspective really revealing just how important intra-group friendships are. Many 1D fans migrated to K-Pop fandoms, no doubt in part due to their illusions shattering. But instead of accepting that perhaps we can’t be privy to everything, perhaps relationships change, perhaps we can’t deduce reality from public narratives, the conclusion is simply that “kpop groups are better,” as a Reddit post suggests.
Some comments challenged the authenticity of the praised friendships, making the point that none of the members would ever be allowed to even insinuate that there was friction between them. That is a cynical but far more realistic perspective, but it also applies beyond the world of K-Pop.
The following exchange was particularly amusing because it brings up the infamous 1D shippers as an example that Western fans do, indeed, investigate and analyze all interactions.
Caring about friendships isn’t something Western fans “don’t care about” —but it may be less noticeable to outsiders because most prominent standoms are for solo performers rather than groups.
Ultimately, it’s not about reality because reality is unavailable to those of us on the outside, the spectators. But reality seems to matter less and less, the battle for narratives is more about convincing others than being right.
Rather than dealing with a Schrödinger’s cat scenario, wherein opposing realities co-exist as possible long as we don’t know, we seem to inhabit a Hawking multiverse scenario, where anything any fan can imagine may be in existence in another universe.
And fans can summon that universe into a public narrative if they want it badly enough, if they feel it strongly enough, and if they believe it with absolute abandon. If nothing else, it can be emotionally real and kept alive by fellow believers.
There is a theory that Malik’s departure was planned in 2014 due to his omission from advertising creative that was filmed at the time and released at a later date.
I remember a similar denial when the 1D touring company was dissolved; it didn’t mean the band was done/wouldn’t tour anymore, it was just more convenient to dissolve for the time being.