Teen-pop stars like One Direction and Justin Bieber attempt to stay current

Can Bieber, left, and One Direction stay relevant by evolving?
Annie Zaleski

The record industry typically relies on the fourth quarter of the year—read: prime holiday shopping time—to boost its sales and revenue, which explains why so many blockbuster albums see the light of day during this time. This year, however, November 13 has far higher stakes than just label bottom lines: It’s the release date for new records by both U.K. pop sensations One Direction (Made in the A.M.) and Canada’s pop bad boy, Justin Bieber (Purpose).

Both artists have something to prove in this teen-pop battle royale. Bieber has had multiple run-ins with the law in recent years, and he’s been working overtime to rehabilitate his sound and image. Accordingly, the singles from Purpose express remorse (“Sorry”) or employ well-liked collaborators (the Skrillex and Diplo-assisted smash “Where Are Ü Now”). One Direction, meanwhile, is trying to establish that it can survive without popular former member Zayn Malik, who left earlier this year. As a result, already-released midtempo Made in the A.M. ballads “Perfect” and “Infinity” dig in and play to their strengths: romantic sentiments and strong vocal melodies. (Neither album was made available by press time.)

On a broader level, Made in the A.M. and Purpose feel like chapter-closers for the current teen-pop epoch. The members of One Direction have already announced they’re going on hiatus in 2016 to explore solo careers, while Bieber is (understandably) more eager than ever to grow up with his fanbase and explore more sophisticated, adult sounds and themes—a path taken by perennial teen faves Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato in recent years. That push toward independence and autonomy has had a profound influence on teen-pop’s next generation, however.

In fact, those next-wave artists are all self-made acts who have leveraged YouTube and social media to amass legions of fans. The undisputed kings of self-promotion are Australian pop-punks 5 Seconds of Summer, former One Direction tourmates whose new album, Sounds Good Feels Good, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts last month. Coming up right behind them are U.K. quartet The Vamps, who also harnessed YouTube to promote their rock-oriented pop originals, and soulful singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes, whose “Stitches” has been a big hit. (Both 5SOS and The Vamps are also moguls-in-training: Each has formed a label to sign other bands.)

Television also remains a strong medium to launch careers. Pop-rock quintet R5 has benefitted both from YouTube and its members’ parallel TV careers, while Ariana Grande started off on the Disney Channel, and vocal groups Fifth Harmony and Little Mix are X-Factor alums.

Teen-pop often gets sneered at and assumed to be lightweight, as if its (mostly teenage girl) fans lack in discerning taste. Nothing could be further from the truth: These loyalists are savvy listeners who appreciate when favorite artists respect their fans enough to continue trying new genres or sounds. Teen-pop artists, in turn, stoke this fandom by explicitly acknowledging the power women wield, while empathizing with fans’ hopes and fantasies.

Justin Bieber and One Direction have never been afraid to evolve, whether by choice or out of necessity. At this pivotal juncture in their careers, their chameleonic tendencies could be their saving grace.

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