From the moment Niall Horan stepped onto the X Factor stage, he’s been more question mark than exclamation point. His audition—a relatively uncompelling delivery of Ne-Yo’s “So Sick”—was vocally lackluster, though undeniably charming. Had the judges not been looking for a fifth member for their new boy band, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where that rendition would take the then-16-year-old anywhere but back home, to ride out the rest of his teenage years in weak-timbred peace.
Even as a member of the newly-formed One Direction, Horan started out as largely unremarkable. Overshadowed by bigger personalities and bigger voices, he was largely relegated to harmonies and backing vocals. In conversations addressing the elephant in the room—whose career would stand victorious after the inevitable bloodbath once the group split—he was routinely overlooked.
How, then, has Horan emerged as the frontrunner among his post-hiatus bandmates?
The answer is that he knows his niche, and he knows it well. In a pop landscape saturated with vocal powerhouses and electronic drops, Horan carved out a space for himself by venturing into folk-pop. His album “Flicker” is mellow, his love songs understated. There’s a sense that he could at a moment’s notice pull off an acoustic version of any of his repertoire, and as one of the few members of the band who could actually play guitar, that’s likely fairly close to the truth.
Though hindsight is 20/20, it’s hard to understand how true fans of One Direction couldn’t see this one coming. In its later years, the band was pretty clearly folk-shifting, slowly exiting the heavily-produced pure pop scene for a taste of the grittier work Niall would soon be dishing out. Listening as the quiet pining of “Summer Love” gives way to casual maturity in “Ready to Run,” it’s not so hard to see why Horan was always the one to watch.
“Likeable-ness is not going to sell records. It’s talent. And you have a seed of it,” warned guest judge Katy Perry as she contemplated whether or not to send the teenager through. Fortunately, her intuition was sound. The past few years have provided dark horse Niall Horan ample time to grow and show us that he has enough of both qualities to hold his own in the industry.
—Staff Writer Rick Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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