The obsessive and volatile nature of boyband One Direction’s fans is legendary. Last July, the magazine GQ faced bomb threats after running a cover feature alluding to frontman Harry Styles’ sexual exploits. A month later, a documentary which took a critical look at 1D fandom, Crazy About One Direction, provoked thousands of outraged tweets and hundreds of complaints to Ofcom. Yet these same fans became the toast of the liberal-left last week, after the band took the surprising step of encouraging their fanbase to write to British chancellor George Osborne, demanding that he clamp down on corporate tax avoidance and maintain the Coalition government’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of British GDP on international aid.
Even by the standards of post-Live Aid pop star campaigning, this seemed an astonishingly bravura political move, coming as it did from a bland, X Factor-launched boyband. But it turns out 1D are but one of many pop acts who are plugging the campaign launched by Global Citizen, a new international network of anti-poverty NGOs and charities. As part of the campaign, pop fans can win concert tickets in exchange for performing certain tasks, including writing to politicians, watching informative videos and volunteering with Global Citizen’s partners, such as Oxfam and Save the Children.
Suffice to say it did not take long for some to note that the boyband’s stand against tax avoidance was a little hypocritical, given that the group’s members channel their own earnings through holding companies in Ireland so as to pay lower tax rates. Yet 1D’s supposed hypocrisy is really not the biggest issue here. The campaign itself is more indicative of the cynical moral posturing which passes for contemporary political debate today: with the underlying assumption that paying tax is a moral obligation, that foreign aid is an inherent force for good, that the young can only be interested in politics if they are tricked into it and that the best forms of social activism are ones where nobody asks any difficult questions. Directioners are being turned into a stage army for a political campaign which, rather than inspiring them, seeks to bribe them through the offer of free gig tickets.
Earlier this year, Styles wryly proclaimed that his band were ‘bigger than The Beatles’ – before hastily adding that the two bands ‘are not in the same league, music-wise’. Even the Fab Four only just got away with their own foray into the politics of taxation in ‘Taxman’, thanks largely to the song’s musical brilliance. However, Styles may note, The Beatles thought that not paying your tax was the decent thing to do. Given their acknowledged shortcomings, One Direction should worry less about engaging their fans with ‘the issues’ and more about stepping up their musical game, so they can keep that obsessive fanbase happy once the braces come off, the acne clears up and they grow out of kiddy pop for good.
David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.