In July 2010, Simon Cowell waved his wand, and five teenage boys from England and Ireland became some of the biggest pop stars on the planet. From their first performance on The X Factor to their last sold-out stadium show, One Direction were omnipresent. Their music played at college bars and high school proms, on the radio, in every CVS Pharmacy. They sold out shows from San Antonio to Sao Paolo. They churned out one album a year, their music transforming over five albums from bubblegum Euro-pop to an eclectic pop-rock pastiche.
It’d be short-sighted to say that no boy band has reached that kind of omnipresence since One Direction announced their hiatus. For one, BTS have reached those heights (and arguably surpassed them), winning over audiences around the world with their impeccable choreography, boundless energy, and beautiful voices. He’s not a boy band, but Ed Sheeran, who came up around the same time 1D did, has only gotten bigger in the English band’s absence. Brockhampton called themselves “the best boy band since One Direction” and dared prejudiced critics to think twice about only labeling someone a “pop star” if they’re white.
One Direction certainly isn’t the only pop band to win over the hearts of millions of fans, tear up the charts, and make themselves part of history. But they did come up in a period of fascinating flux, and used the converging trends in pop music to really innovate. The boys are obvious admirers of classic rock, and borrowed equally from the sounds of Fleetwood Mac and more contemporary artists. Getting their start in the early 2010s amid the explosion of Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, they connected with their fanbase (and let them connect with one another) in new ways, making 1D some of the first truly social media accessible pop stars. Instead of running from the Beatlemaniacs like the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night, 1D invited them in with video blogs, constant Twitter updates, and thousands of Instagram posts to decode.
Looking at male pop stars now — Charlie Puth‘s constant album recommendations or Shawn Mendes‘ Insta story gig recaps — you can see the legacy of 1D. Listening to the Jonas Brothers sing about trying to preserve their golden youth forever and BTS’ thoughtful, introspective lyrics, you can hear the massive impact they had on what we think of as boy-band music. They changed what we expect from the genre, setting convention ablaze and melding a fascinating array of influences into each of their albums.
A band like One Direction, five strangers put together on a reality TV show and managed fastidiously for their whole career, often gets labeled “inauthentic” and “manufactured.” However much they’re assumed to be a product of the corporate guys who put them together, their music is a product of decades of rock and pop history. Here’s a selection of boy bands, pop legends, and rock royalty that came before One Direction.