Wednesday was a weird day in the American school system.
Students by the hundreds were afflicted by inexplicable bouts of wailing normally reserved for natural disasters and train wrecks. The cause was the departure of 22-year-old Zayn Malik from the mega boy band One Direction. The stakes, students bleated, couldn’t be higher. What does this mean for Zayn? Does he still love us? Did he ever? Why is he leaving?
Tears. Lots of tears.
“WHAT IS A ONE DIRECTION WITHOUT ZAYN HOW COULD HE LEAVE I MEAN RESPECT HIS DECISION BUT THIS IS TOO MUCH FOR ME TO HANDLE I CANT DO THIS,” one distraught youth lamented. Moments passed. Caps-lock was turned off. Shock gave way to despondence: “He broke my heart. Zayn shattered my heart into the tiniest pieces. It won’t ever be fixed.”
Other kids went to sleep worried about what woes tomorrow will bring.
“Today is the worst f–– day of my life i just want to sleep forever,” said one Twitter user who took Malik’s departure particularly hard. “… I’m probably not going to talk to anyone at school tomorrow and if my writing teacher is an ass to me like today ill stab him. my heart hurts. it actually hurts.”
Things got so out of hand that a British mental health charity, Mind, released a statement pleading for calm. Fans should seek help if their emotions were getting the better of them. “Upsetting life events can spark feelings of distress or anxiety and it’s important to seek help if you are going through a difficult time,” a spokesman told the Independent, offering guidance if necessary.
Let’s pause for a moment and take a deep breath. Teens are so distraught that mental health groups are advising counsel? What is driving this outburst of emotion?
Turns out quite a few psychological mechanisms are at work here. Sure, kids love boy bands. Such acts are easy on the eyes. They make catchy music. And it sucks when a band member splits. But the mass weeping rippling across the international teen landscape defies logic, raising a complex question that has befuddled psychologists for decades.
It goes all the way back to one of the original examples of teen hysteria: Beatlemania.
“Psychologists are as puzzled as parents over the explosive effect the Beatles are having on American teen-agers,” mulled Science News Letter on Feb. 29, 1964.
That same week, the New York Times lumbered onto the scene with what appeared to be an anthropological analysis of “disturbing” side effects in a piece called “Why the Girls Scream, Weep, Flip.” The “admirers often stand in one place and jump up and down,” the piece reported. “Usually this is accompanied by incessant screaming and, on the part of girls, by protestations of undying love.”
There had been popular acts before the Beatles. Like Frank Sinatra. Or Elvis Presley. But the Beatles seemed to tap into some unknown primal force in the teenage psyche, giving rise to difficult-to-explain outbursts of madness. “The appropriate reaction to contact with them – such as occupying the same auditorium or city block – was to sob uncontrollably while screaming, ‘I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die,' or, more optimistically, the name of a favorite Beatle, until the onset of either unconsciousness or laryngitis,” observed Barbara Ehrenreich and co-authors in “Beatlemania: A sexually defiant consumer subculture?”
The Beatles were different from the acts before them in one key way: androgyny. Unlike Elvis – “too phallic and groin-centered,” commented the author of “Meet the Beatles” – the Beatles’s aesthetic was scrubbed free of overt masculinity. “Combined with their relative long hair, the Beatles’ overall appearance deviated from a traditional masculine image,” wrote Kimberly Cura in the Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Musicology. In addition: It “added to the bands members’ allure among young female fans. … girls were able to see the Beatles as a reflection of themselves.”
This is a very important idea. The Beatles weren’t sexually threatening. Plus, they were so far removed as to be unattainable. Thinking about them, worshiping them, was safe for the simple reason that nothing tangible could transpire between fan and star. The fan had the security he or she needed to truly lose control.
“The star could be loved noninstrumentally, for his own sake, and with complete abandon,” Ehrenreich added, calling it a sexual revolution.
This provided a clear road map for savvy producers keen to reproduce the effect. It led to a slew of androgynous, feminized acts – from Duran Duran to ‘N Sync to Justin Bieber and now One Direction – and to recurring bouts of wild fanaticism now commonplace. The Beatles sang harmlessly about wanting to hold your hand. One Direction sings: “Oh I just wanna show you off to all my friends/Makin' them drool down their chinny-chin-chins.”
“Many girls expressed their adulation in conventional, monogamous terms, for example, picking their favorite Beatle and writing him a serious letter of proposal, or carrying placards saying, ‘John, Divorce Cynthia,’” wrote Ehrenreich. “But it was inconceivable that any fan would actually marry a Beatle or sleep with him … or even hold his hand. Adulation of the male star was a way to express sexual yearnings that would normally be … repressed.”
And now adulation has moved on to One Direction. All day on Wednesday, a hashtag exploded on Twitter under the banner of #AlwaysInOurHeartsZaynMalik. For now, at least, it seems as though Malik worship will continue – with or without One Direction.
“I love him so much it hurts,” one fan said.