FIRST IMPRESSIONS: ZAYN’S “PILLOWTALK”

ALY: I had mixed feelings – confusingly, frustratingly mixed feelings – when I listened to this, and I think that’s due mostly to the video. I am sorry: this is not the video for me. I do think it’s an extremely interesting use of bodies and sex to create something that I ultimately don’t find sexy, but I don’t need to watch it again.

The rest of my mixed feelings came from something akin to disappointment, a sort of underwhelmed “hm” that even now I am ashamed to admit. I think what it comes down to is that my feelings were hurt when he left and no matter what this song was, it was going to take me some time to warm up to it. My girlfriend called me at two in the morning and we talked about it – she’s a Zayn girl – and I kind of needed that, to hear her so genuinely thrilled and excited about it, to sort of thaw me out. I was trying to be objective about this – about the debut album of someone I have loved for years, someone who hurt me but not intentionally, someone who is spreading his tiny little art-bro wings and flying – and I was just like, why? Why now, of all times, do I need to be objective about music, a thing that I have never once in my life been objective about?

This is the truth: I don’t know a lot about R&B, and my truest love is pop music. On first listen, this song underwhelmed me, but I woke up with nobody but you / body but me / body but us / bodies together pulsing in my skull.

This is another truth: If this album were Zayn yelling “FUCK ONE DIRECTION” over a bassline I would still listen to it, and I would be sad about it but I would still love it, because this – all of this – is important in ways that I cannot even begin to articulate, this fact that Zayn is becoming what he wants to become, and everything that entails. The way he is engaging with fans, with the world, and yes, with himself as a young Muslim man of color; all of this is part of this song, and this album, of Zayn Malik as ZAYN, and to pretend it’s not is to deny something incredibly, really significant.

ASHLEY: Zayn’s debut as a solo artist is rife with conflict for me. We should start there. I’m so incredibly happy to see him release music as a solo artist—find his own identity on the charts, including dropping his last name to mirror the likes of Beyoncé—but it’s been hard to get to this moment. There’s been relief, and there’s been irritation parsing through FADER and Billboard cover stories. It has been “paradise” and a “war zone.” “PILLOWTALK” is a strong debut—I can’t wait to hear it outside of my iPhone on the off-chance I actually step into a Manhattan nightclub soon, and watch people grind to nobody but you, ‘body but me—but it’s not the groundbreaking single that will change the music industry as it’s been touted in multiple cover stories.  I guess what I’m saying is, “PILLOWTALK” will fit in on Top 40 radio right alongside Bieber and Drake. He’s gone in a new direction, but that doesn’t mean it’s revolutionary (particularly the video which objectifies a woman and uses her as prop for Zayn’s own sexual awakening).  The timeline of artist’s using their sexuality to proclaim their musical agency goes back decades. Maybe it’s that as a fan of “Zayn Malik from One Direction”, I often daydreamed of him singing The Weeknd tracks on Bus 1 with Liam laying down the track. We’ve known since his X Factor debut what his allegiances and references were musically. Zane Lowe and other male rock critics might be surprised by the depth of Zayn’s mind, but I am not. It’s the music that all of us who followed Zayn Malik’s career for five years have known he is capable of recording. It’s good, meandering. Sexy. Climb on board / We’ll go slow and high tempo… Hold me hard and mellow… The production of the song elevates the lyrical content. As promised to The Sunday Times, “PILLOWTALK” is Zayn’s exploration of sex. A place that is so pure, so dirty and raw / In the bed all day, bed all day, bed all day / Fucking you, and fighting on… Zayn is all grown up, a twenty-three year old man who in the last year alone has cut ties with his former bandmates and fiancée in order to go back to his Bradford roots and reclaim the identity he feels he lost between the shuffle of stadiums and hotels. A year from the date Zayn Malik left One Direction, ZAYN will release “Mind of Mine” on his own terms, my pre-order will be ready for download. I need to hear “Befour” and “It’s You.” My enemy, my ally / Prisoners…

CORBIN: I tried to write a serious and nuanced review of “PILLOWTALK,” but I can’t. Not that I’ve ever had any interest in “””objective””” evaluation of music anyway, but, it is impossible to listen to “PILLOWTALK” as a standalone piece of music rather than a new installment in the greatest narrative saga of our time, Everything Relating To One Direction, and I am so thrilled to be here to witness it that my usual avenues of critique are all blocked off and all I can do is bask in how delighted I am that ZAYN, now a single-name entity stylized in all caps, is free to make this Gap commercial about vaginas. He made a whole album of this Drake-meets-the-1975-sounding music!!! He’s releasing it on March 25th, a year to the day from when he left One Direction!!! All of this is a real thing that’s really happening and we get to watch it unfold like a lily between the legs of a supermodel!!! Life is beautiful and poignant and strange and I am going to go to sleep tonight with reck less beHAV IAAah echoing in my head. God bless us every one. Buy “PILLOWTALK” on iTunes.

KENZIE: I am not impressed by what Zayn, or should I say ZAYN, is bringing to the table lately. Part of that is, of course, One Direction-related. I don’t like the way he shirks any accountability in the current relations between he and his former bandmates, the way he is so easily forgiven any responsibility in the lapse in communication. Yes, I have some complicated feelings about all the One Direction drama last year, and I’m sure that is impacting the way I approach ZAYN now. But even beyond that, I’m just not into the whole image being presented right now. When I was a guest on #SWOONSTEP I said that I’d paid my dues with an artbro phase, that those days were behind me. I meant it. I really, really dislike guys whose Tinder profiles would just read “420 + pussy = life” beneath a moody over-filtered picture of them where you can’t see their face, and that is exactly what ZAYN is leaning into right now. Last night when I listened to the song the first time, I made a note on my phone that reads simply, “the ways he says Fuck with the heavy emphasis of a 12-year-old saying it to his friends for shock value.” I’m not surprised. This is exactly what I expected ZAYN’s first single to sound like, the video looks exactly like I thought it would, blooming vagina-flowers and all. But this is all in line with a ZAYN I find sort of blandly irritating, like an annoying guy in your class that you can’t wait to be rid of at the end of the semester, even if you are secretly hoping you run into him at a party where you can blame the desire to kiss him on alcohol. Plus, okay, yeah. It stings that he claimed he was going to make #realmusic and #realart and then we got a college freshman’s intro art class project run through every Windows movie maker filter. “Kiss You” is, objectively, a much better video, and I’m not sorry to say it.

All of that being said, the video is pleasantly and surprisingly gay in between being terrible, and the song is pretty enjoyable if you mumble along so that all the goofy artbro lyrics are obscured. ZAYN’s voice is spectacular and I hadn’t even realized how much I missed hearing him until he started singing. And I mean, I’m fake as hell and I’ve listened to this song on repeat all day; I just pretend the lyrics are “hmm hmm hmm ba duh da duh reck-UH-liss behavi-YUUUUUUH ba duh duh dummmm.”

TESS: When Zayn left One Direction I was too busy falling in love to care, and today, as the first #zingle is released unto the world, I am too physically ill with heartbreak to have much of an opinion about it one way or another. “Pillow Talk” is pretty lyrically humorless and dull (pleasure/pain, light/dark, hard/mellow, paradise/war zone, like, “so dirty and raw” okay, bud, I get it), and I personally have never had much patience for the “Yes I Have In Fact Had Sexual Intercourse” genre of music unless the song has a certain amount of levity and wit to engate how boring it is to hear some boy brag about the fact that he has fucked a girl before but, you know what? I’m happy for Zayn. It is 2016 but the way that we talk about and relate to sex culturally is still so fraught as to make all openly sexual pieces of media A Statement by default. I may not find “Pillow Talk” to be particularly “sexy”, but there is no denying that it is a song about sex, and for a person of color, a young brown man whose sexuality is inherently coded as aggressive, volatile, and other in a milquetoast lily-white society and subsequently repressed– a young brown man who spent five years of his life making white music with white boys under the control of white people — this territory is all the more treacherous to explore. Zayn Malik singing about fucking and fighting in the bed all day isn’t just Zayn Malik singing about fucking and fighting in the bed all day. It is Zayn Malik employing a right to sexual autonomy and sexual expression that the world would prefer he didn’t have. If Zayn wants to be a gloomy Drizzy Jr. with a swirl of Miguel and the most cringeworthy moments of The 1975 then that is what I want for him, too. I probably won’t listen to this song very many more times, but I am glad it exists. Art is an exercise in actively making the personal available for public consumption, and the process of its creation involves so many lenses and complexly moving parts that the idea of authenticity and the fact of artifice blur until the two are in fact one slippery amalgam. I don’t mean to imply that I am interested at all in interrogating what is or is not “real” in a piece of art, a meaningless endeavor, but that when someone is able to take a step closer to a version of their truth, we are all better off.

Furthermore, Gigi Hadid is so beautiful I want to give her both my kidneys.

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