One Year Ago, I Went To England To See One Direction

I wasn’t doing anything else, and it was a Sunday night, so I decided to rent the 2013 documentary One Direction: This Is Us on YouTube for $2.99. I was not disappointed, especially because the Morgan Spurlock-directed film (yes, that Morgan Spurlock) explodes every few moments with cinematic sweeps and focuses in on its stars’ juvenile smirks as the biggest boy band of the 2010s belts its best songs—yes, Take Me Home is their most unimpeachable collection of music; I will not back down from this claim—to the 20,000 screaming humans inside London’s O2 Arena. It’s a lot of fun. I was satisfied.

The next day, my then-editor at MTV News pulled me into his office for an unexpected announcement. “We want to send you to England this Saturday for the last One Direction show,” he said, referencing the group’s final scheduled tour stop before a planned hiatus. “Are you free?”

It’s important to note here that I had only joined MTV News four months earlier as weekend editor and occasional pop writer, so in my mind, I was at the bottom of the list (though happily so, as a newbie who’d earn his stripes in due time) for special trips like this. But I was chosen, I think, because my bosses wanted to see what I, the recent hire tasked with keeping the embers burning on Saturdays and Sundays, was capable of in a more stimulating setting. “I just thought you’d be great,” another editor emailed me. So, I said yes.

Flying from New York to Paris to catch a connection to Birmingham, England, then hopping on a 90-mile train ride north to Sheffield to see the show—how could I possibly fuck it up, with so much trust and confidence alarmingly thrown my way (along with a corporate credit card) without much prior notice? I wasn’t worried so much about the travel logistics, as I had a large itinerary packet folded up in my coat pocket. I was more concerned with being found out as the at-best One Direction novice I was. I had some listening to do.

On the plane, in between the free glasses of champagne (Air France knows how to do it) and nodding off in my seat, I bury myself in the massive playlist I made shortly before takeoff. First up is “Clouds,” a great Oasis soundalike, for obvious reasons. I need to know every song deeply, to explore the emotional crevasses, to study the four-part harmonies, all so I’ll know which ones come as surprises in the concert set. Also so the fandom doesn’t pin me as a fraud in their midst. Until I joined MTV, I hadn’t had much connection with them past watching a TV performance of “What Makes You Beautiful” in 2011. And then I dove in, working backwards and unearthing music I ended up really enjoying: the sugar rush of “Kiss You” and the power-pop riffing of “Little Black Dress” and the distilled sorrow of “Fireproof” (the best 1D song; I will not back down from this claim). Three months into the new job, I’d built a familiarity and a genuine fandom of my own.

These explorations, of course, took place entirely after March 2015, when Zayn Malik very publicly exited the group a third of the way into a seven-leg, 50-plus-date tour because he wanted to live the life of a “normal 22-year-old.” That means that from the very genesis of my relationship to the group, I’ve known it as the quartet of Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, and Niall Horan. And I have to work diligently to identify the nuances in all five voices, so that’s mainly what I do as the flight drags on, between crafting an ideal setlist and other far-fetched dream scenarios. I’d likely be an outlier at the show: a 1D fan who came in at the end, amid the foggy strangeness of the post-Zayn days. As I queue up “Night Changes,” I focus on Zayn and wonder how they’ll manage that golden intro without him.

Impossibly, I peek out the window exactly as we glide over the Eiffel Tower before landing in Paris, which is cool. Another quick flight and a train ride later—including a moment at the Birmingham transit hub where I ask an attendant to point me to the Sheffield-bound track and he dryly quips back, “Oh, Sheffield? Good luck to ya.”—and I’m in the north, ready for the show. The only problem is that it’s Friday, and the concert isn’t until Sunday. Naturally, I take this opportunity to meander on the outskirts of the University of Sheffield, offering dad joke-level musings on the local cuisine and nomenclature via Twitter, and vicariously witnessing the Halloween party my roommate is throwing in our apartment on another continent. It doesn’t matter that I’m not there. They’re probably not even bumping “Steal My Girl” anyway.

The fish and chips I order at a local pub is divine, even if the peas arrive merely steamed instead of mushy, which is objectively better, and I knock back a Guinness with the paid-for-by-Viacom meal. I keep reminding myself of the surreality of all this every 10 minutes, so it won’t ever just seem like another business trip, even if it became a thing I regularly do. (Flash forward a year later: It hasn’t). One of my favorite keepsakes from the trek would later be a simple note on my iPhone with the walking directions to from the Sheffield train station to my hotel and then to the arena, which read like wonderful, whimsical nonsense: “Furnival, right on Cambridge/Slight left Holly (By Yates restr) … Ticket to Don Valley twd Meadowhall.” I will treasure it forever.

At the pub, I don’t ask anyone about One Direction. On the walk home, I pop in my earbuds and listen to Elliott Smith’s “Baby Britain,” because when you’re there, why wouldn’t you? And once I settle back into my hotel room again, I spend far too long getting the outlet adapter figured out and eventually fall asleep. (This is where I’d say I had a crazy dream about getting matching tattoos with Harry Styles, but that didn’t happen. I probably just dreamed about the usual weird shit.)

On Sunday afternoon, I wander around the town square for too long trying to find the tram to the Sheffield Arena but eventually hop aboard and arrive, several hours before showtime, for two reasons: One, I want to get fan stories from folks who’ve traveled to be here at what could very well be One Direction’s final tour performance ever; and two, I need to lock down two authentic tour T-shirts for folks back home. Success on both fronts.

Fans outside the venue have signs. They have light-up plastic 1D bows in their hair. They’ve come from all across the U.K. to see this maybe-final show, but for most folks I talk to have been to these shows before. Several of them. They’ve grown up with the group, so this is just another go-round. They know the moves already, and some even utilize the evening as a meet-up to see friends they met online through 1D fandom and people who live far away. This is all to say that by the time we all file into the arena, it’s a patchwork of colors and voices and whistles and signs reading “HOME,” to be held up later, improbably in unison by the hundreds during “Don’t Forget Where You Belong.” (A coordinated crew doled them out before the show.)

The most vivid memory I have from the entire show—apart from Harry asking how people in the suites were enjoying their cheese boards—is the four guys entering the stage and immediately ripping into the deep vowels of “Clouds,” the very tune I played repeatedly on the plane. It felt like a personal song request.

I won’t attempt to recap the show since it’s been a whole year, and I already did that here, written directly after I got back to my hotel room (and then drank five cups of tea and stayed awake all night spinning around the room like a madman). But as 2016 has been largely devoid of One Direction as a unit—now that Harry is a movie star, Louis is a dad, Niall is the next Ed Sheeran, and Liam is…around—it’s valid now to look back on the lead-up to their hiatus with a glint of rose-colored nostalgia. This is the first fall in five years without a new album or a tour. That’s why being at this show was special. I didn’t need a year to pass before I realized that.

And from a music standpoint? Killer setlist. And from a meme culture standpoint? Pure gold. Even the Larry shippers got their moment at the end of the night.

One Direction may well reunite to make another album in a few years. They very well might never make music ever again, too. At this point, both outcomes seem equally likely, somehow, and it’s not clear which one is even preferable. A future 1D album feel could either like an m b v-level triumph after years of waiting or an NSYNC-at-the-2013-VMAs moment, a reminder that one star will always burn much brighter than the rest. All indicators point to Harry as being that star, but who knows! And while the main four don’t seem to have much love toward Zayn now, we’ll see what happens in a decade. Even LeBron eventually came back to Cleveland.

In Sheffield, the group ended its last scheduled tour stop loudly singing not the song that first introduced them to the world and not even the song that made the biggest splash on the charts. They cried out what they want their legacy to be, and it’s bold: “Nobody can drag me down.” That’s the idea. I came back to America with a ton of new Twitter followers (all Directioners because they’re the best), a massive sense of accomplishment, and, oh yeah, a lack of travel anxiety. I used to hate flying and would take Lorazepam to mellow me out before getting on a plane, but because of the short notice for this trek, I had no time to re-up my stash. That meant flying stone-cold sober for nearly eight hours over the raging waters of the Atlantic—and I totally survived it without incident.

This extraordinary data can only prove one thing: One Direction are miracle workers. Ask any fan who was at the Sheffield Arena on October 31, 2015. I bet they’ll tell you the same.