Behind the Hype: Can One Direction Save the Boy Band?

As the group gets ready for their biggest U.S. gig to date — this week’s Saturday Night Live — TIME considers their staying power. Are they overrated? Or have they brought new credibility to the genre?

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Christopher Polk / KCA2012 / Getty Images

Singers Liam Payne and Zayn Malik of One Direction perform at Nickelodeon's 25th Annual Kids' Choice Awards held at Galen Center on March 31, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

If you don’t know who One Direction is, you don’t know many 15-year-old girls. The newest British import consists of five impeccably coiffed English and Irish lads (Niall Horan, 18, Zayn Malik, 19, Liam Payne, 18, Harry Styles, 18, and Louis Tomlinson, 20) who were individual contestants on the British TV talent show The X Factor in 2010. After Nicole Scherzinger, a guest judge, half jokingly suggested they perform together, they did — and came in a shrug-inducing third place. But X Factor producer/judge Simon Cowell  immediately signed the group to his record company and whisked them into the recording studio with producers who have created hits for Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and The Backstreet Boys. The result? One Direction became the first U.K. group to debut at No. 1 with their album, Up All Night. Not even The Beatles or Rolling Stones can claim that honor.

Are they overrated?

Up All Night may have debuted at the top of the Billboard chart, but it sold less than 200,000 copies. That’s paltry when compared to other boy bands’ takes: Backstreet Boys’ Millennium sold more than a million copies in its first week in 1999; ’N Sync’s No Strings Attached sold 2.4 million a year later. Without last decade’s pre-iTunes sensibility combined with battling boy bands competing for teenage girls’ hearts — and fueling album sales — One Direction isn’t likely to come close.

Sure, each One Direction song follows some version of the tried-and-true boy band formula: start sparse, alternate solos, then build into a foot-tapping hook backed by pulsating electronic beats. But unlike The Wanted, another recently popular British group, these guys don’t write their own songs. And they don’t even dance in the pleasure-inducing choreographed unison that first put New Kids on the Block on the map.

(READ: Boy Band Bests the Beatles)

Are they underrated?

Still, their appeal is undeniable. When One Direction made its first U.S. public appearance at Boston’s Natick Mall on March 4, more than 5,000 screaming fans descended on the complex. A week later they drew enormous crowds when they performed on the Today show — mostly teenage girls who had skipped school to be there. Which means their parents had skipped work to be there, too. The group takes cues from the boy bands of yesteryear with bubblegum lyrics about young love — “The way you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed” they croon in their breakout single — which any parent can get behind. That’s a far cry from a typical Nicki Minaj verse.

And they look the part of classic contemporary boy band, albeit one that is on the young side. (None of them needs to shave anytime soon.) Each member has his own shtick: Horan is the “cute little Irish one,” Malik is the “quiet and mysterious one,” Payne is “the sensible one,” Styles is “the charming one” and Tomlinson is “the funny one.” They like to sport t-shirts. They frolic on the beach. And they can most certainly sing — as 87 million YouTube views would probably attest to.

Though the single may not have deserved its win over Adele’s “Someone Like You” at the BRIT Awards, “What Makes You Beautiful” is endlessly playable — as catchy as “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “Bye Bye Bye” of the boy band heyday. Just try not dancing to the title track, “Up All Night.” They even showcased a different side with “I Want,” which the target demographic may never download, but which has been compared to the best of Freddie Mercury. No one ever said that about a 98 Degrees song.

(MORE: Boy Band Reality Show in the Works)

The verdict?

Even if One Direction’s popularity is a sign of a new boy band resurgence, we doubt we’ll regress all the way back to 1999. Still, the group has the makings — and the support — to be on the music scene for years to come. Frankly, they seem so earnest, it’s hard not to root for them. Maybe we shouldn’t even worry about the boy band distinction and instead compare the group to a different kind of pop star. The last artist to have such a combination of talent, aw-shucks youth appeal and music industry backing was none other than Justin Bieber. One Direction is poised to fill the vacuum he’ll create as he undergoes his own Justin Timberlake-esque growth from teen wonder to adult artist. Even Bieber realizes this: He announced a collaboration with One Direction yesterday. Like it or not, this boy band is here to stay. Let the screaming begin.