In 2010, five teenage singers entered a British reality talent competition as Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, and Niall Horan. They left as One Direction, the first big boy band of the social media age. This week, one of them decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. Or did he? “My life with One Direction has been more than I could ever have imagined,” Zayn said in a statement on the band’s Facebook page on Wednesday. “But, after five years, I feel like it is now the right time for me to leave the band.” He added: “I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.”
Within minutes, fan theories bubbled up from the depths of Twitter and Tumblr to explain why Zayn had really quit. Maybe Zayn, a Muslim, left One Direction to join ISIS. Or maybe he left because his British pop star fiancée, Perrie Edwards, pulled a Yoko Ono and broke up the band. Or maybe Zayn never left, but nefarious hackers had infiltrated the band’s Twitter and Facebook accounts to make it seem as if he left. Or maybe something something Illuminati.
The dominant fan interpretation of Zayn’s exit is the inside job theory: that someone forced him to leave the band against his will—someone coming from inside the band. Under this theory, the band’s artist management company Modest Management—known to One Direction conspiracy theorists as simply “the management”—is a nefarious force that has perverted the boys’ love of music, their fans, and one another in a greedy bid to sell records. These shadowy overlords, the theory goes, control the boys’ social media accounts, programming them with PR-friendly platitudes; they flatten the boys’ personalities, turning them from sprightly individuals into pomade-slicked automatons; they keep them imprisoned in the recording studio, then march them from arena to arena on world tours; and they install fake girlfriends on their arms, because in many iterations of the theory, the boys are secretly gay for one another. As one highly circulated Tumblr post puts it: “Fuck you for stripping the boys of their personalities, their cultures, trying to strip away their sexualities.” Perhaps Zayn doesn’t really want to “relax and have some private time.” Perhaps Zayn just doesn’t want to play management’s little game anymore. Perhaps Zayn got a little too difficult. Perhaps Zayn had to go.
Directioners invested in this narrative created the Twitter hashtags #WeHateYouModest and #WeHateModestManagement to vent their rage. They started a change.org petition calling for Modest Management to be shut down and launched a GoFundMe page for the purposes of crowdfunding the purchase of One Direction. So far, fans have raised more than $1,600 of their $87.7 million goal.
Like enthusiasts of the “Paul is dead” urban legend—which posits that Paul McCartney really died in a car accident in 1966 and that record execs replaced him with a lookalike—One Direction theorists parse the band’s song lyrics and scour its album covers for clues that the band is attempting to communicate under the noses of its handlers. (Why did One Direction title its most recent album Four? To signal that they would soon be forced to downsize into a quartet, probably). Some fans have even borrowed the old Beatles conspiracy theorist trick of playing One Direction songs backwards to divine a secret meaning: Reverse the 2012 track “They Don’t Know About Us,” one online sleuth says, and you can hear the boys say: “Shut up. Don’t ignore me. Don’t ignore me. Believe it. … Nice going Modest!”
Modern boy band skeptics have a lot more material to work with than their pre-Internet predecessors did. Conspiracy-minded Directioners scour fan-shot concert videos to prove that Management is directing the boys from the sidelines. They digitally enhance paparazzi photos to zero in on clues that the boys’ girlfriends are hired beards. They analyze timestamps of the boys’ Facebook and Twitter posts to intimate that they couldn’t possibly have been in control of their own accounts at the time of that tweet. They reproduce screengrabs of apocryphal emails ostensibly sent by management to pesky fans. They use the boys’ public silences as confirmation of whatever theory is gaining traction that day. When some random Twitter user posed as a Modest employee and claimed that he had quit the firm because it was treating the One Direction members like “slaves,” his tweets were favorited and boosted tens of thousands of times; but when Zayn himself gave his first post-exit interview to the Sun, fans instantly dismissed it as a fake.
Pop culture tends to present conspiracy nuts as pasty male geeks, but research paints a different picture. A 2007 analysis of beliefs in 9/11 conspiracy theories published in Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly found that theories were more likely to gain traction among “members of less powerful social groups,” with young people and women being particularly drawn to certain conspiratorial explanations; consumers of “non-mainstream media,” like blogs and tabloids, also expressed higher levels of belief in conspiracy theories. One Direction’s fandom—young women who are plugged into Tumblr and fluent in tabloid—is a demographic perfect fit.
It’s worth noting that in the context of the boy band industrial complex, young women constitute a particularly disadvantaged group. One Direction is a band that was assembled, styled, and managed by older men in a transparent bid to sell teen girls on a sterilized vision of female fantasy—and then sell them 1D albums, concert tickets, lunchboxes, and pencil cases. Crafting elaborate Tumblr posts asserting that the band members are actually closeted gay record industry slaves is one way for girls to rebel against that power dynamic (even while they’re ultimately buying what the band’s selling). Experimental psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky argues that conspiracy theorizing is a strategy for establishing “a sense of control” in a world that doesn’t make sense; perhaps the online theories around One Direction are so batshit precisely because the fantasies that women are being fed feel so false.
And besides, is any of this really so crazy? Boy bands have a long history of suppressing their singers’ sexualities to make for more accessible heartthrobs. See: Wham’s George Michael, Westlife’s Mark Feehily, New Kids on the Block’s Jonathan Knight, and ’N Sync’s Lance Bass. A gay guy in a boy band “ruins their whole business plan,” Bass acknowledged after he finally came out. And Kevin Yee, a closeted gay member of the failed ’90s boy band Youth Asylum, told Reddit last year that the hetero posturing goes deep: His management “used to teach me how to walk ‘straight’ up and down the aisles of a grocery store,” he said. This isn’t to say that Zayn is or is not gay, just that the suspicions that underpin One Direction conspiracy theories are plausible, even if the specific claims aren’t always supportable. (That One Direction and its fans are in some way being manipulated to sell concert tickets and T-shirts is obviously true.)
Meanwhile, the vilification of One Direction’s management can only benefit One Direction’s management. (I reached out to Modest for comment and will update if I hear back.) When the “Paul is dead” rumor spread out of control, Capitol Records vice president Rocco Catena welcomed it with open arms, predicting that the frenzy would spark “the biggest month ever in terms of Beatle sales.” Similarly, any flavor of 1D obsession is likely to lead to greater 1D brand loyalty, more 1D record sales, and greater 1D concert attendance. Any suggestion of a One Direction fan boycott has been swiftly quashed by fans who feel they need to support the band’s remaining members now more than ever. It’s so perfect, it’s almost like management planned it all along.