The other evening I was standing outside Logan Airport, waiting for the Silver Line near Terminal E, when an entourage of burly security types suddenly hustled by, followed by a horde of screaming preteen girls.
All of them were headed toward a bus, parked quietly at one end of the terminal, on which the members of the British/Irish boy band One Direction were deposited, out of reach of the girls, in advance of their Tuesday show at Mohegan Sun. A State Police officer told me he had snuck the boys out a side door, but the girls had discovered them anyway. Something about the pheromones, maybe.
One Direction, if you haven’t heard, is the heartthrob band of the moment: five lads assembled by Simon Cowell on a recent installment of the British “X Factor,” on which they finished third. They are 18 to 20 years old and sweetly androgynous, with bright white teeth and Justin Bieber hair, and to be one of them, at Logan Airport that night, must have been both exciting and terrifying.
The girls had energy (there were some tired-looking mothers among them) and as successive waves of them raced toward the bus, clutching their autograph books, what struck me was how serious and determined their faces were. They wanted a glimpse of the stars; their shrieks rose skyward when a bus window opened, revealing the visage of Liam, or maybe Niall. But surely, each one harbored another fantasy, too: that one of those boys would see her down here, pick her out of the crowd, pull her onto the bus, make her his own.
For a girl of roughly 13 — buffeted by puberty, the pressures of conformity, the message of the music — what would be the best way to stand out?
To some extent, this is a question as old as boy bands and their screaming girl fans. My mother talks about going to a Beatles concert in Philadelphia, in 1964, and not being able to hear the music because the girls were screaming too loudly. (Probably, she was screaming too, for George.)
Still, the boys of One Direction are big — their new album, “Up All Night,” was the first-ever British entry to debut on the Billboard charts at number one — and they are, in some ways, a product of this particular moment in time. Consider the lyrics to their infectious hit song, “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful:”
Baby, you light up my world like nobody else
The way that you flip your hair get me overwhelmed
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell
You don’t know, oh, oh
You don’t know you’re beautiful
That’s what makes you beautiful
The sentiment is sweet, on some level, but disturbing on another. Romanticizing the ugly duckling is also nothing new; it was the point of “Sixteen Candles,” “Pretty in Pink,” and “The Princess Diaries” before it became the province of today’s young heroines, Bella of “Twilight” (and Ana of the X-rated Twilight knockoff “Fifty Shades of Grey”), and, to some degree, Katniss of “The Hunger Games.”
But there’s something a shade different about those latter heroines, and of the girl in the One Direction song. Being underconfident isn’t just one of their traits; it’s the core of their appeal. Their stories don’t require them to find beauty within themselves, as Lady Gaga might preach. They require a boy to pull it out of them — or, perhaps, to keep the secret to himself.
Granted, this is not merely a One Direction message. Even many girl-sung pop songs about empowerment today begin when the guy says “no,” at which point Kelly Clarkson finally discovers that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or Katy Perry turns into a firework. What is the appeal of the clumsy, awkward heroine who doesn’t know her own power? Why are there so few sweet, chaste teenybop love songs about the opposite?
I don’t mean to overstate the tragedy here; I doubt that the girls who gathered at Logan have analyzed One Direction lyrics with as much intensity as they’ve studied Zayn’s eyebrows or Harry’s complexion. Still, as they grow older, I hope they discover something much more useful than where the bus is parked: If you’re looking to stand out in the crowd, underestimating yourself isn’t going to help you at all.