Analyzing Fame Through the One Direction Movie

As I have written about before, our culture is obsessed with celebrity and it seems like it’s only getting worse. Several of the children in my life have expressed the desire for fame and fortune as their sole interest in what they want for their future. I think that is incredibly short-sighted but, with phenomena like the boy band One Direction constantly shoved in their faces, who can blame them?

With that in mind, I decided to watch the documentary, One Direction: This is Us, over the weekend (how old do I sound if I admit that I fast-forwarded through the concert parts?). I thought it might prove to be interesting because Morgan Spurlock – the director of Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold – directed it. I hoped Spurlock might give a riveting analysis on celebrity in general and the big business of musical groups in particular but I was disappointed.

As a documentary, This is Us is not great. It clearly was designed as promotional material for the band. Since I am not a member of their intended audience and hence did not know the basics, the movie informed me that One Direction is comprised of five boys (the oldest is 22) from the United Kingdom who were formed into a group after they each were rejected by the television show The X-Factor. The band went on to lose the group competition as well but their fans, mostly adolescent girls, would not let them die. The fans staged a Twitter campaign to rival a planned invasion and One Direction (Niall, Liam, Louis, Zayn, and Harry) soon had an incredible following before they’d released an album or gone on tour.

This Is Us was clearly made for those fans. As expected, it showed a bunch of concert footage but during other times, it didn’t give us much more than shots of the boys goofing around with each other and interacting with those around them. The movie didn’t veer into any dangerous (read: interesting) territory, so we never see them drinking alcohol, smoking, getting angry, or communicating with anyone outside the tour other than family. After all, they must seem accessible even though they aren’t. Instead, we hear a lot from the boys about how much they enjoy their “four best friends” (we get it!) but the movie doesn’t let us truly get to know who they are. And that’s probably the point: who they are doesn’t matter because fame is about how other people see you.

If that isn’t depressing enough, another underlying message I got was that fame is fleeting and the price may be a bit too high. For example, the fact that fame is hard on relationships appeared crystal clear to the boys’ parents. While all of them were quite proud, there was a lot of wistfulness as well. Liam’s father mourned the lost ritual of adulthood (“getting a pint”) that he didn’t get to have with his son because he was off touring the world. Harry’s mother mentioned how her son’s success had disturbed the order of things as she should be the one taking him around and showing him things instead of having him do that for her. She also wondered how she will help her son pick up the pieces when this all ends. It’s a valid concern: how do you transition from the screams of an adoring crowd to the silence of an uncaring public?

The boys themselves hint at the dangers of fame. Liam expressed a desire to meet someone who is “truthful” (an interesting adjective to be sure) and “100% just there because of me” instead of the circumstances of his life. Harry talked about how he hates being called famous because “it gives you no substance.” In other words, being famous doesn’t describe internal qualities like being funny or kind but instead illustrates the external, how you are viewed by others. When you’re famous, many people think they know you even though they don’t. Zayn stated that he doesn’t like to expose family members to fan hysteria because he wants them to “still think I’m the same person.” He wants the authentic emotional connection with them versus the cold superficiality of fame.

Moreover, for One Direction, the price of fame and fortune is a lot of hard work. The movie shows their 10 month tour in which they had over 130 shows. If you do the math, that’s a show every two days (or so) with very little time off, a fact several band members cheerfully mentioned. This Is Us spends an inordinate amount of time showing them goofing around with each other but, in reality, it probably isn’t a huge part of their lives. They just wouldn’t have the time. In addition to each show, they must rehearse, record music, perform sound checks, make promotional appearances, spend time doing their hair, makeup and wardrobe, travel to and from venues and, of course, do the tasks of daily living.

A large amount of sacrifice also is involved. Instead of honing their craft or getting an education – things they would be doing otherwise – the tour has them putting on the exact same show over 130 times. Not only does that have to get old (I don’t even want to listen to the same songs 130 times, much less sing them!) but the high decibel level of the concerts may cause hearing loss later in life. The boys rarely have down time, constantly have people around them and endure an incredible lack of privacy. For This Is Us, the cameras were allowed to follow the boys even into the bathroom! Plus, they cannot go out in public without bodyguards because of the probability they will be mobbed by fans. One scene showed Liam, Zayn and Louis taking in the sights of Amsterdam and becoming trapped in a store until security could shuffle them out with fans grabbing at them along the way. That doesn’t seem fun.

Clearly, fame is not all it’s cracked up to be. As Marilyn Monroe once said, “Fame doesn’t fulfill you. It warms you a bit, but that warmth is temporary.” So why are we so obsessed by something that carries such a high price? Much of it has to do with the constant presence of celebrity and the promotion of the perks of fame. In addition to social media and the thousands of television channels, websites and magazines that promote famous people, even news programs and newspapers are now treating celebrity like it is important to cover. Thus, it is hard to ignore something you see continuously. After all, One Direction started off as a Twitter sensation.

Another part of our obsession is that fame is packaged as this amazing experience, filled with travel, beautiful people and adoring crowds. That is what This Is Us was supposed to convey: a “lad’s holiday” made up of seeing the world, joking around with your friends, singing, and being the object of desire for thousands of young women. Put that way, it sounds pretty good. It’s only when you scratch the surface that you see the hard work and huge sacrifices that such fame requires.

But there’s a darker side to the promotion of celebrity as well. First and foremost, it is about money. There is a reason that One Direction was created and molded the way they were and it is not because Niall, Liam, Louis, Zayn, and Harry are such talented boys. It is because they could be sold in a way that makes people in the music industry rich. But fame is also about control. The more the attention of the masses remains fixated upon appreciating and striving for fame, the less we focus on the things that truly matter, like economic inequality, unjust application of laws, inept and corrupt politicians, a crumbling infrastructure, a struggling educational system and a healthcare system that doesn’t work for everyone. In other words, the crowds for One Direction are acceptable while crowds forming for justice and change (like Occupy groups) are not.

So, what do we do? How do we keep the children in our lives from getting obsessed with celebrity and fame? Unfortunately, the pull of their peers may be too strong to prevent it completely. What we can do though is moderate the effect by talking to them about what truly matters in life and pointing out the high cost of fame. We also can put limits on what our kids are allowed to do. For example, perhaps standing for hours in a crowd of thousands to get a brief glimpse of five famous boys is not the best use of their time. Most of all, we can encourage our kids to concentrate on their strengths, strive for goals that are both worthy and achievable, and focus on becoming good people who celebrate the small things. If they do that, then perhaps they will let go of the desire to be famous all on their own.

As for the boys of One Direction, I wish them well. I hope they enjoy their time in the sun, invest their earnings wisely, and find people who love them for themselves and have no problem telling them no. I also hope that they develop interests and pursuits that will sustain them once the crowds have fallen silent. If they need help, perhaps they can call on the former members of the Backstreet Boys, N-Sync or 98 Degrees….if they can remember who they are. As Emily Dickinson pointed out, “Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate.”

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