The Enigma Of Zayn Malik, Reluctant Pop Star

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Zayn Malik has the kind of voice you take for granted.

Zayn has a high and clear tenor, most comfortable showing off his higher register. He makes it look easy. Watching live performances, back when he used to perform on stages, Zayn had a magnetic presence. He strolled around the stage, pulling off the kind of vocal runs you thought pop stars could only create in the studio with a dozen engineers there to make it happen. The ease has to be an illusion. It’s impossible to be the kind of famous Zayn is — the kind where walking next to a girl makes magazine headlines and leaving your apartment becomes a photo shoot — without a lot of hard work to make it happen.

But, no matter how hard you dig, you can’t find any traces of the work Zayn puts into maintaining his solo career and image. I don’t mean this as a bad thing, necessarily — I’m a big fan of Zayn’s, and despite the fact that he broke my heart when he left One Direction in 2015, I believe in the power of his voice to carry him through a great solo career. But apart from that voice, Zayn seems frustratingly bent on doing as little of the ancillary work of being a pop star as possible.

Zayn is on the cover of the July issue of GQ magazine, a rarity for him. He’s done plenty of interviews before, including a recent one with Billboard, and he’s been in several modeling campaigns, including a collaboration with Versace last year. But, for an artist who recorded and released a debut album without touring, who skipped the late night TV circuit, who guards his private life fiercely, every crumb of promo is anomaly.

The interview reveals maddeningly little about Zayn. It’s not the writer’s fault — Zayn ghosted on the interview halfway through, leaving to go to the bathroom and never turning back up (or returning the writer’s follow-up calls). There are aspects of his life he probably didn’t want to talk about, like his fractured friendships with his former bandmates, or too many details about his on-again, off-again, “zeitgeist-y” relationship with model Gigi Hadid. Maybe he didn’t talk about his music because he wanted to save the surprise for fans hearing it for the first time, whenever he decides to drop the new album. Or he’s just trolling everyone, being an enigma because it’s what we all expect from him anyway.

There’s a part of me that feels like Zayn owes me something. It’s not just that I’d drop an insane amount of money to hear him perform live, and wish that, as a fan, I could be afforded a more extensive look at his artistic process (even if it’s just Jimmy Fallon asking him about what the rest of his next album is going to sound like). Through 20-odd years of loving pop music, I’ve grown accustomed to the rules pop stars have to play by. There’s a comfort in knowing how available they are, even apart from their music.

The boy ones, always my favorites, are expected to bend and worship their girl-fans. They’re supposed to tweet at us every so often, give us interviews to analyze and TV appearances for us to GIF, tour and let us scream and dance, put on our own show while they perform in the background. They’re supposed to exist for our consumption, and publicity and marketing is supposed to deliver that hot content to us faster, so we can keep fueling the machine.

One Direction fans were especially spoiled. From 2011 to 2015, 1D released five studio albums and went on four massive world tours. They promoted each album and tour (plus their tour movie, This Is Us) heavily, did SNL sketches, went home to their sleepy English hometowns only a couple times a year. All five of the 1D boys joined the band as teenagers. When they broke up in 2015, the oldest was only 24.

If you imagine the people behind the shining, smiling images on stage, you can see how this lifestyle would be exhausting. To go from being a high school student to working nonstop — to be tossed from your working-class family into a kind of wealth and excess that’s hard to even imagine — can’t be healthy. Pop stars aren’t machines. In the constant influx of 1D content, as a fan, it was sometimes hard for me to remember that. When Zayn left the band, it was an immediate and harsh reminder. Oh yeah. He’s a person. No one could be all of this forever.

It’s frustrating to see an artist you admire decide not to tour, to release music sporadically and unpredictably — to send so much love, know he’s receiving it, and then feel the emptiness of him ghosting you. He responds to fans on Instagram and tweets every so often, but in the shadow of the constant promo machine, it still feels like he’s far away. Pop stardom is so tied up in promotion that it’s easy to take for granted. You only notice how important all that noise is when an artist you love goes quiet.

I’m not sure Zayn even enjoys being a musician, at least in the way “musician” for pop singers usually means “star.” Following the GQ profile, I’ve seen a lot of criticism coming from One Direction fans, especially those whose primary allegiance aligns with the other four boys (OT4, as they’re called in the fandom). They say Zayn is ungrateful, entitled, narcissistic. His walking out on the GQ journalist, his short answers, the way his unwillingness to cooperate is painted as “cool” because there aren’t many other angles for a journalist to write about it — it’s the fame getting to his head, obscuring the humble and down-to-earth person that longtime fans thought Zayn was.

But it’s important to note that this hostility and coldness is directed toward — it’s the press. It’s striking to compare Zayn’s print interviews with radio interviews, such as this recent one with DJ Zane Lowe, and the material he offered fans in his book. He says more when he gets to do it with his own voice. In the GQ interview, Zayn balks when the interviewer tries to make a comparison between him and Lil Peep, with whom Zayn shared a manager before Peep’s death. The interviewer says they could have been friends because they both had a lot of tattoos. Zayn is offended. He says it’s because it’s dumb to assume he picks his friends based on aesthetics alone, but maybe he caught the same reference to a blind gossip headline as I did reading this exchange.

The interviews always have to work to find an angle. Usually, it’s painting Zayn as the troubled rebel, not-so-subtly alluding to mental health or substance abuse issues and using them as a way to give him rockstar cred. His one-word answers are “enigmatic,” his chain-smoking is cool posturing, not a way of dealing with discomfort and anxiety talking to journalists. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, either, that a lot of the “types” Zayn was meant to represent early in his time in One Direction — the dangerous one, the sexy one, the bad boy — are racialized stereotypes. His quietness was perceived differently by the mostly-white journalists who were writing about 1D early on in the UK and US This image was created for Zayn when he was 17, and it follows him still today.

If you watch enough 1D interviews, you’ll notice that, even years ago, when he was quicker to smile and more playful and wrapped an arm around Harry or Louis during press conferences, he was still pretty quiet. He only talked when someone addressed him by name, or someone posed a question to the group about their music.

Though Zayn is supposedly gearing up for an album release sometime this year, and has released two promotional singles in the last month or two, the GQ profile barely mentions his music. It’s a shame, too, because of that voice — easy, lovely, alternately gentle and defiant. Zayn’s debut album, Mind Of Mine, was a showcase of all he had to offer. Though at 18 songs it was a little overlong, and the best single was buried as a bonus track (justice for “Like I Would”!), Mind Of Mine pointed toward a great solo career. He seemed to borrow a bit from the hazy, jaded hip-hop of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean’s introspection, and the lyrics of the songs were some of the most honest words I’d heard from Zayn throughout his whole career. He didn’t have as many writing credits as the others in One Direction, and I think it’s because he was saving it to record on his own time.

Take “lUcOzAdE,” one of the best songs from the album. It’s a song about betrayal, maybe, or sex, or hate-sex, or the fog that comes from when you’ve smoked too much. It’s esoteric and weird, on both a line-to-line and musical level. The song doesn’t have a chorus, no bridges, no repeated lines, and through the whole thing Zayn’s voice has to compete with a driving, complicated electronic beat. Generally, Zayn has a tendency to mumble, and in rougher moments, can be a bit monotone. Even if you don’t pay attention to lyrics and let the song hypnotize you, it’s a game to listen to Zayn try and drown out the noise. The song is poetic and stream-of-consciousness — and Zayn actually recorded it in one take, the one you hear on the album.

He’s a great lyricist. Like most pop, a lot of the songs are co-written by a team of a half dozen, but knowing what I know about Zayn, what little he’s given me, I hear him in the lyrics of these songs. “fOoL fOr YoU,” a track about midway through the album, is incredibly tender and sad. It’s about a toxic love, being pulled back toward something you know is hurting you, being vulnerable to the point of powerlessness. The piano at the beginning reminds me of “A Day In The Life” — another song by a wounded and introspective poet, who was loved fiercely, everyone always hungry for a piece of him. Some fans speculate the lyrics to be about Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards (Zayn’s ex-fiancée) or maybe Harry Styles. But I listen to it and feel guilty for even speculating. Maybe we owe it to Zayn and take a step back and read ourselves into the lyrics. Maybe the song is about us.

“I just can’t resist it / I know sometimes I hide it / But I can’t this time ’cause it’s gonna defeat me / But you won’t believe me, believe me…”

We don’t ask. Not because we value his privacy and the fact that his songs are strong enough to stand on their own. Because, no matter how fervently he avoids the press and promotion, he can’t escape the machine. His interviews are spare and hostile, but in his one-word responses, he gets further flattened. He gets twisted back into the persona that was created for him against his wishes. His own voice gets buried. When your narrative of “bad boy” is laid out for you before you even make the decision to leave the band, the profile is written the same whether you leave the interview halfway through or tough it out through the whole thing. Right now, from where I stand, it looks like Zayn is more valuable to the public as a pretty face and a commodity than a musician.

And it’s a damn shame. The two songs he’s released from his album so far, “Let Me” and “Entertainer,” are admittedly not his strongest material, but they feel like gifts after waiting so long after Mind Of Mine. Right now, Zayn is still without management, and if there’s a plan to his release schedule, it’s all on him. He’s dropping these songs with almost zero promotion. I’m a music journalist and a fan of Zayn’s, and “Entertainer” almost slipped past me the week it was released.

There’s a kind of poetry to that, though — hating the PR machine so much you’d risk sacrificing your sales and success for the integrity of your music. To recognize that you’re being flattened, call the people out who are doing it, walk away knowing they’re going to write you as ungrateful and egotistical, and you’ll be a rebel before you even break the rules. To try and let the music speak for itself.