This Friday, one of this generation’s biggest competitions in pop music will take place. It’s been since the days of Backstreet Boys vs. ‘N Sync that a competition so epic has taken place. New albums by One Direction, Made In The A.M., and Justin Bieber, Purpose, will go head-to-head on release day, hitting shelves November 13.
On the surface, the two are in direct competition. Both are pop acts with predominantly teenage fans who receive more media coverage than can probably be justified. But this competition is more than just two pop sensations competing against each other. It’s a battle of demographics.
Like any former teen-pop act, Justin Bieber has been hard at work to shake his early persona, both professional and probably personally as well. Musically, he evolved from songs like Baby and Smile to recent radio hits What Do You Mean and Sorry. While he’s still clearly in the realm of pop, his songs have a broader appeal to them.
The release of Purpose, Bieber’s fourth studio album, puts him about on par with Britney Spears during her In The Zone era. Where I’m A Slave 4 U and her Britney album was her starting to close the lid on the teen-pop days, Justin did so with Boyfriend and the Believe album. Both were transition periods. By the time Toxic came out, Britney was a full-fledged pop star, appealing not so much to preteens, but to wider audiences that frequented clubs, listened to the radio, or just simply enjoyed pop music.
It’s an inevitable transition teen pop performers must take as their young audience outgrow the crushes and obsessions that are only ever temporary. Having emerged in 2009, Justin Bieber’s career as a pop star directed at the preteen audience could only last so long before those fans grew older and moved on to something else. What else is there to do but grow with those fans while also attempting to appeal to new audiences.
One Direction’s upcoming hiatus was written on the wall since day 1. If the trajectories of both the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync’s success are to be followed, the end of their popularity peak has just about arrived. The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync both had approximately five years of top-of-the-world fame before they either faded (BSB) or took a publicized break (‘N Sync).
With boybands, it’s harder to shake the image of preteen appeal, since that is pretty much the whole basis of “boybands” in general. It’s when individual members break out and attempt something new that longterm comes into play. Otherwise, nostalgia carries the brand. It’s what has carried both New Kids On The Block and the Backstreet Boys after their initial peaks.
What’s the point of all this? It comes down to demographics. One Direction’s album is their fifth album in five years and is more-or-less a last-ditch effort to sell to those fans who still follow their every move. Their decision to take a hiatus puts them in with the ‘N Sync group of going out while on top – or almost on top.
1D’s last album sold just under 400,000 in its first week compared to over half a million for both of the two albums before that. A result of decreasing album sales, declining fanbase, or both? Either way, their announced hiatus is their smartest move.
In comparison, however, Justin Bieber’s last album Believe, sold 374,000 in week 1, less than the last three One Direction albums, yet his highest one-week sales total up to that point.
So past experience suggests that One Direction will win the sales battle, both short term and in the long run, just because teen pop acts with a large teen-based fanbase almost always sell – there’s a reason the biggest first-week sales ever is by a boyband. But it’s worth noting that Bieber’s album will have a wider appeal, especially considering the success its first two singles have had so far. One Direction have had several major crossover hits, but they’ve still had more relative misses than hits compared to Bieber’s output since 2012.
The better comparison would be to see how individual members of 1D will fare on solo outings in a year or two as at that point, they’ve have been through their teen pop phases and attempting to build something beyond that. So far, Justin is going the Britney route on the mainstream stage, winning over new audiences with his music and succeeding on that front. From One Direction, will we be seeing a new Justin Timberlake or Robbie Williams?