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Ginger To Zayn: Understanding the Pain of Teenagers Through Pop Music

One Direction’s Zayn Malik is this generation’s Ginger Spice…



When Ginger Spice left the Spice Girls, I hung her effigy inside another girl’s locker at school. I was 13 and in my first year of high school, and Geri Halliwell’s departure from the biggest girl group in the world hit us like a tragic death. Girls wailed in the halls. We were suddenly lost souls, wandering around in a wasted purgatory, and we lashed out at one another accordingly. Our Spice Girls “band,” in which I played Scary, had a memorial service. Our Ginger Spice took nearly a whole week off school, and rumor had it she wasn’t able to get out of bed in the morning so her mother had to get the doctor to come over for a housecall.

I’d been at war with Ginger for some time. She was a mean girl out of costume, and her brother bullied me. I saw the real Ginger’s living passing as my opportunity to hurt the fake one back, and wrought with my own grief, I took a pair of scissors to one of my Spice Girl’s posters and cut Geri out of the group. I poked her eyes out with scissors, drew devil horns and a goatee on her in red marker, tied a noose around her neck and hung her inside my frenemy’s locker for her to discover upon her return to school. Then I cut the image of the remaining Spice Girls up like confetti, and sprinkled them on the bottom of the locker, beneath the lynched Ginger. Days later, when the heinous crime was revealed, my frenemy broke down, screamed her way through our class waving the image above her head and promising death to the offender, before being rushed off campus and back to bed. I never admitted what I’d done (but everyone knew it was me).

One Direction’s Zayn Malik is this generation’s Ginger Spice. His, like Geri Halliwell’s, is a cultural loss that didn’t come about through disaster or death, but by calculated choice. Both Zayn and Geri found themselves at the peak of their respective groups’ popularity, and both, still in their 20s, decided to leave the party while it was still fun. And who are we to begrudge a 20-something with more money than God their early retirement?

Watching the collective meltdown of the world’s current teenage population over Zayn’s exit from 1D is an exquisite kind of perversion. When Ginger left the Spice Girls, it was 1998, and all I had was a paper and a pen and a diary that I’d plastered with cut-outs of Paul Walker and Leonardo DiCaprio’s faces and covered in clear contact paper. Back then, I mostly used the computer to play the King’s Quest game where you have to type commands into a black bar at the bottom of your screen to make your crappy pixellated avatar move across the crappy pixellated landscape. The internet was still really only for asking Jeeves rude questions and Instant Messenger. So I’m sure if you went back and read the aforementioned diary at the time Geri tore apart the Spice Girls, you’d find something that vaguely translates to a modern Vine video of a teenager sobbing their eyeballs out over the departure of Zayn.

The ferocity of teenage grief really knows no bounds, and with the Internet, we’re obviously able to witness that pain as it unfolds in real time, which I don’t think we understood the true gravity of until now. Fear the depressed teenager with a camera phone and a Vine account. The day Zayn made his announcement, every five seconds on Vine we were able to witness yet another face devastated by grief. Here’s a little supercut for those of you who haven’t spent the last few days in a obsessive Vine hole:

The Vines still seem to be appearing every thirty seconds online, a rate that shows no signs of slowing down, and they capture everything one needs to know about being a teenager, and about modern privilege. These are the faces of youth: contorted, wet and puffy from hours of crying, making death threats against anyone who’d dare to slander dear Zayn, or make light of this momentous occasion. #CutforZayn has been a trending topic on Twitter, which is as disturbing as teen angst gets, but if being a teenager is about anything, it’s about being consumed in a very tiny microcosm that revolves around an unpredictably hormonal nucleus, with outside events existing only insofar as they touch that nucleus. It’s stupid, sure, but it’s beautiful too. I’m not saying that all teenagers are oblivious to “real life,” but it’s a brilliantly innocent thing that bodies exist in which a teen heartthrob quitting his teen heartthrob band is exponentially more worth worry than, I don’t know, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Because most of these kids are going to turn out to be really okay, responsible adults with jobs and voting rights, and they’ll start to care about real horrors and atrocities, and like you and I have been this past week, will turn their noses up when Sexy Future Boy leaves Sexy Future Boy Band Pop Sensation in 2030.

The mythology of what a pop band provides for people is much more real than the band itself. Technically speaking, One Direction doesn’t need to die with Zayn’s exit, but it will. Despite being “manufactured,” its baby-faced members being totally interchangeable, it’s not as easy as one would think to carry on that legacy. The Spice Girls, technically, continued after Ginger’s departure. I loved “Holler.” “Holler,” objectively, was as good as the Spice Girls’ previous tunes (maybe not their hits, but definitely on par with most of their album filler), and definitely very “of the moment” and capable of existing in the same market as Toni Braxton and Mya with its R&B bent. But it was never going to work, because there’s nothing objective about a supergroup to its fans. When a unit is so adored by seemingly infinite swathes of teens, that unit must stay intact to stay alive.

We can talk about Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, and Robbie Williams, and their post-band departure successes after leaving their respective groups, but the plain fact is that while Destiny’s Child, ‘NSync and Take That might have been huge, they weren’t phenomenal. They didn’t define a global generation the way Spice Girls and One Direction have. They didn’t wreak total devastation when they walked; indeed, quite the opposite. All of them inspired hope, because their solo careers were even more compelling than anything they’d done in a group. But Zayn and Ginger, bless them, are necessary puzzle pieces. They only shine on their own when they’re part of a whole, which seems contradictory, but also makes perfect sense when you consider the term we use is super GROUP, not super PERSON.

It’s unclear what’s next for Zayn, and if he’ll manage a solo career, or if the other One Direction boys will survive this. I’m partial to believing that this is it: the teenagers can feel it in their guts. The collective, melodramatic mourning is because sometimes this special little cohort just knows, instinctively, that something designates The End. It’s a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, and it’s only intensified now because of the convenience of crying publicly for a globally-connected audience.

But isn’t it weirdly nice that these kids are still sharing, still emoting, still losing their minds over trivial, frivolous shit, the way teenagers always have? Isn’t it brilliant that music still does this to people? It might not be political, or righteous, or world-changing, but it’s still unifying. The power of a departure to bring people together is a stalwart of pop music, and while we will rebuild after Zayn, we will truly never forget the capacity a teenager has to feel, over something that’s completely trivial to us out here in the adult realm, no less. While we can’t go back in time and witness my desecration of Ginger Spice’s image, we’ll always be able to watch and rewatch the tears that followed in Zayn’s wake. That shit is on the internet forever now.

Don't fuck with Kat George but do follow her on Twitter.