by Allyson Gross
On September 12, 2015, 20,000 highly excited One Direction fans attended the last American show of the On the Road Again tour. As fans anxiously waited, a series of promotional videos illuminated the stadium’s screens. Among these videos, fans received most raucously a commercial for the 2016 interactive video game Just Dance advertising its inclusion of the popular One Direction song “No Control.” The cheers and cries the commercial elicited from the crowd were about more than the song itself—as fans cheered for Just Dance, they simultaneously affirmed the success of the months of effort, engagement, and action they had put toward the fan-driven initiative Project No Control.
While media coverage of the group usually focuses on the British-Irish boyband itself, One Direction’s fans are numerous, international, and have inspired ample analysis in their own right for their devotion to the group since 2010. In March of 2015, when Zayn Malik announced he would leave the group to be “a normal 22-year-old,” depictions of tearful and emotional fan reactions to his departure littered the web. Like many predominantly young female demographics, One Direction fans are often portrayed as uncritical, emotional, and vapid consumers of cookie cutter pop music.
Beyond merely functioning as recipients of One Direction’s product, fans demonstrate ownership in the dissemination of its content through organizing themselves towards particular goals.
Through Project No Control (PNC), fans collectively organized disparate sections of the fandom to promote the song “No Control,” and utilized fan devotion to One Direction for the achievement of a singular goal. Not mere consumers, PNC participants united in opposing the group’s management to promote their own ideals and ideas of the group. In this regard, Project No Control demonstrates how One Direction fans perform their fandom through co-creational means of engagement with the group’s product. Through these projects, fans do more than just receive the object of their fandom—they ultimately attempt to control and construct its dissemination.
Project No Control
“Since the fandom is a black hole nowadays with no light at the end of the tunnel,” began London-based fan Anna in a May 2015 Tumblr post two months after Zayn had left the band, “I want to make a wish.” As promotion for the fourth album released in November 2014 had begun to dwindle, and fandom drama had divided many fans into infighting sects online, Anna envisioned a project that would both reunite the fandom and aid in album promotion.
From Anna’s perspective, fans “all agree that No Control should have been a single from Four,” and “the team who works with the boys is not helping.”
Her solution was simple: Fans would release “No Control” as the first “One Direction DIY single” by promoting the song on social media and on radio stations. The project would involve the myriad skills of fans across the world. Those skilled at Photoshop and iMovie would create edits and trailers for the song, and graphic artists would “make a comic version of the song to be downloaded with the single.” On a set day, fans would purchase the song on iTunes to boost its position on the charts, and a trending topic on Twitter would raise awareness for those outside the fandom. The project, Anna hoped, would not only show how “we all love [One Direction] deep and hard,” but also demonstrate “how powerful this fandom is and how [much] good there still is in this fandom [sic].” “Music can gather the whole world together,” Anna concluded, “which is always the most important part of all this and the point of everything.”
Though Project No Control may not have gathered “the whole world together” as Anna had wished, it did succeed in promoting the song and uniting the fandom. The initial post gained significant traction, receiving nearly 5,000 notes on Tumblr, and was taken up as a deliberate project by a team of fans who crafted the tactics, strategy, and promotional plan for “No Control.” Within weeks, fans had set up a Thunderclap for the song, which sent out a promotional message across Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook for those who signed up on May 17, 2015—the fans’ chosen “release date” for the song.
In total, the Thunderclap received more than 34,000 supporters, and reached over 55 million Twitter users to rank at the top of Billboard’s Trending Charts. As a result of fan efforts, Billboard reported that the song “picked up 1 million U.S. streams in the week ending May 17,” while its overall sales rose 1,674 percent to 5,000 downloads. The song was ultimately chosen for the aforementioned dance video game, Just Dance. With victory on the airwaves and praise from members of One Direction, fans considered Project No Control a promotional success. For one fan on Tumblr, the success of the project was only amplified by the lack of outside direction for the initiative: “We’ve done all of that,” Tumblr user lostjams noted, “without the help of a pr team or a management team but just because we are that passionate and that dedicated.”
Beyond its promotional achievements, however, Project No Control further attempted to unite the various fragments of fandom in the wake of Zayn’s departure. As one post describing what Project No Control “was about at its heart” wrote, “PNC came about because of unusual circumstances. Zayn had left the band, [their management] had stopped promoting Four, and the fandom was in total disarray.”
By the time Project No Control took off in May 2015, factions divided between Zayn and the now-foursome distracted the fandom. In early May of 2015, a Twitter fight between Zayn and Louis Tomlinson cemented the perception of severed ties between the former bandmates, and fans of the respective sides responded accordingly.
Through Project No Control, however, fans were not, as Katie Buenneke for LA Weekly remarked, “squabbling over the veracity of [the real person fanfictional relationship between bandmates Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson] ‘Larry’… or whether they should side with Zayn or condemn him for leaving the band.”
Instead, they were singularly focused on promoting the song online and off via radio play—the fandom united around the project in reaction to challenges to its unity.
After Zayn’s new producer insulted Louis’ singing voice on Twitter, Project No Control promoted a song that showcased his songwriting and vocal ability; as Zayn’s departure had halted promotion for Four beyond two singles and ultimately called into question the success of the album, fans organized to demonstrate that while Zayn may have abandoned the group, they remained devoted supporters of the band and their product. As an organizer of PNC noted in the tags of one Tumblr post, Project No Control “was about fighting for something instead of against each other.” By providing fans with an end towards which they could act to demonstrate their support for One Direction, Project No Control united fans around a common goal. This unity was, in some sense, an attempt at retrieving the lost one-ness of “One Direction.”
In the process of uniting fans, some organizers of PNC even relied on the divisions within the fandom to decentralize the project itself. For Emily, a 23-year-old fan from Indiana, the best way to accomplish the project would be to “divide into teams” based upon one’s self-identified favorite member of the group, or favorite ship. In one Tumblr post with almost 6,000 notes depicting the breakdown of labor across the fandom, Emily suggested that fans “find the guy you associate yourself with” and join a team: If your favorite was Harry, “you are in charge of song requests on the radio.” Louis’ fans would keep “No Control” trending on Twitter, while Niall Horan and Liam Payne fans would play the song on YouTube and Shazam respectively. Notably and intentionally absent from the division of roles are fans of Zayn. Beyond individual member preferences, Emily further attempted to unite even the most divisive of fan identifications—Larries and Anti-Larries, or the fan factions denoting whether or not one believes in the reality of a romantic relationship between Harry and Louis. In the division of labor for Project No Control, Emily sought to unite the split parties through assigning the groups particular tasks, from Larries’ role in helping out Team Louis if Twitter trends fell behind, to a request that Anti-Larries vote for “No Control” as Billboard’s Song of the Summer. Though in disarray from Zayn’s departure and divided by ships, Project No Control united and utilized these inherent divisions towards an objective goal.
Regardless of individual preferences and opinions, Project No Control was, as one Tumblr fan noted, “a celebration of everything fans love about 1D.”
Basis for the Project
Many fans argue that what they love about One Direction is ultimately grounded in a different understanding of the band than what the public perceives. According to laynefaire, one of the organizers of PNC, “One Direction is nominated for FOUR Billboard awards, but sadly way too many people still equate this outstanding band with bow ties, stripes, and screaming teens—when they are obviously so much more.” Laynefaire therefore called on them “to introduce the world to our One Direction.” “No Control”—a song explicitly about sex, driven by arena-rock power chords—highlighted what fans believed to be a distinction between the group’s reality and the public’s perception of them as producing candy-coated pop music.
In Brodie Lancaster’s Pitchfork article, “Pop Music, Teenage Girls, and the Legitimacy of Fandom,” Lynn Martineau, one of the fan organizers of the project, demonstrated this difference by pointing to 1DHQ’s choice of singles: “Instead of songs that showed the maturity and growth in the sound of 1D,” 1DHQ released the songs “Steal my Girl” and “Night Changes” as the two singles from Four, which Martineau described as “formulaic” and “exactly like the ‘boyband pop songs’ that 1D has always released.”
By releasing “No Control” themselves, fans challenged the public perception of One Direction as promoted by their team itself—where their management marketed a particular image of the band, fans sought to disseminate what they believed to be the truth underneath the marketed pop.
For Brodie Lancaster, the success of Project No Control was rooted in fans’ ability to not only identify the problem with this public perception, but also organize to change it: “All this,” Lancaster remarks, “because a passionate, predominantly female fanbase was savvy enough to identify a) that the band’s critical reputation would not change on its own, and b) the amplification required to chart a new track.”
In this manner, fans have united in opposition to the band’s own management. Colloquially referred to by fans as “1DHQ,” the combined monolith of SyCo Production, Modest Management, and Hackford-Jones PR functions as the entity against which the fandom actively organizes. Like the defensive protectors of One Direction’s authentic truths, fans are perpetually combative towards 1DHQ based on the perception of the band’s management as promoting a hyper-constructed and inauthentic representation of Harry, Louis, Liam, and Niall. Where many One Direction fans perceive some or all members of the group as queer, fans view 1DHQ as “closeting” the group; while others recognize growth in the band’s sound, 1DHQ continues to market them to a bubblegum demographic.
Insofar as fan divisions are bridged towards a unifying goal, collective identity is often constructed in opposition to the band’s own team for the purpose of communicating the real One Direction. Fans, as a result, routinely engage in demonstrations of ownership over the One Direction product. Project No Control was in sharp contrast to the absence of action by the group’s team—as laynefaire described on Tumblr, “since 1DHQ thinks Four didn’t need any promo, it looks like it’s up to us, the fans, to do it.” One fan-run Twitter account jokingly summarized 1DHQ’s lack of involvement by tweeting, “No, no, don’t get up 1DHQ, you might hurt yourselves.” Fan engagement around Project No Control manifested as fans filling in where they perceived 1DHQ to be slacking on the job. In the perpetual battle between fans and management, Project No Control demonstrated fan power and potential towards co-creating and influencing what One Direction sells: As Brodie Lancaster describes in Pitchfork, “they didn’t just want to consume the band’s music; they wanted to control what was on the menu.” Project No Control was, according to Tumblr user ohthefond, fans’ “rebellion against 1DHQ.”
In the fandom’s proverbial game of tug of war with 1DHQ, Project No Control was a demonstration of the power of fan organization towards a collective goal.
When asked about PNC backstage at the Billboard Music Awards, Louis explained that the project was “a perfect example of just how unique and incredible and passionate that [One Direction] fans are.” While fans’ passion for the group is certainly, as Louis noted, “incredible,” unique to PNC was that not only did fans of one of the world’s largest musical acts self-organize in affirmation of the band’s music, they also did so in ostensible opposition to their own management. Better yet, they won. The success of “No Control” in the summer of 2015, even if brief, demonstrated the collective potential of an organized and (albeit temporarily) unified fandom. Even after the charts had stabilized, and “No Control” was off the airwaves once more, the effects of the project remain a significant rallying point for the fandom. As one Tumblr user noted, Project No Control was “one of the most ambitious and successful things [they’d] ever done as a fandom.” In the spirit of the band’s original slogan “one band, one dream, One Direction,” fans united around one goal—in the promotion of “No Control,” fans demonstrated their critical engagement with and ultimate influence over the product of One Direction.