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One Direction releases first post-Zayn single. Who's Zayn, again?

Zayn Malik, a former member of One Direction.
Zayn Malik, a former member of One Direction.
Christopher Polk

On Wednesday, Zayn Malik — onetime member of the British boy band One Direction — announced via Twitter that he had signed a new solo recording contract with RCA. A day later, the remaining four members of One Direction dropped a surprise new single called "Drag Me Down." Both moves made headlines and ripples across social media. In case you don't know any 11-year-olds and are unfamiliar with pop music, here's why this is such a big deal.

What happened with Zayn?

Zayn Malik was one of the five singers in the boy band One Direction, a group that doesn't play instruments on stage.

Malik is often referred to as "the hot one" by the youngsters who adore the band, and he is probably the second most recognizable member of the band after Taylor Swift's ex-boyfriend Harry Styles.

zayn 2

Zayn Malik has now left the band. (Jeff Kravitz/Getty)

But on March 25, after five years with the band, Malik announced his departure. "I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight," he commented in a Facebook statement.

Rumors circulated that part of the reason Zayn chose to leave the group was because of love trouble:

He certainly wouldn't have been the first member of a world-famous musical group to leave because of stress or frustration. Geri Halliwell, a.k.a. Ginger Spice, was the first to depart the Spice Girls, citing depression. Jonathan Knight left New Kids on the Block when trying to deal with extreme panic attacks. A.J. McLean took stints off from the Backstreet Boys to make visits to rehab to deal with drug and alcohol addiction.

But Malik's announcement that he had signed a new record deal suggests his reasons for leaving the group went beyond stress. His tweet, which said he wanted "the opportunity to show you who i really am!" is hashtagged #realmusic, which some interpreted as him throwing shade at the remaining One Direction members.

Others have theorized that 1D's surprise single release so soon after Malik's announcement was intended to "steal their former bandmate's thunder." The band members themselves admitted to The Late, Late Show's James Corden in May that "we were a little bit angry, obviously" about Malik's departure from the group. But that's nothing compared to the widespread devastation of One Direction's fans when Malik announced his exit.

Let's backtrack. What is One Direction?

One Direction is a British boy band originally made up of five members: Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, and Zayn Malik. You might know them for the song "Steal Your Girl."

The group appeared on the popular talent show X Factor in 2010, after which they were signed to Simon Cowell's (yes, the former American Idol judge) talent label, Syco.

Since then, One Direction have put out four full-length albums. The group has also created two music movies, performed at dozens of award shows, and lived through four worldwide tours. For four years, One Direction have ridden a wave of fame fueled by an intense fandom consisting primarily of teenage girls.

For the most part, One Direction's success was subject only to minor blips of conflict (both of them coming from the mouth of Liam Payne). The've recorded more complete albums than NSYNC produced, and their touring streak has been more rigorous than the Backstreet Boys' was at the height of their fame in the late 1990s.

The members have been incredibly busy and under enormous pressure. It's not surprising that for at least one of them, the lifestyle became overwhelming.

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One Direction performs as a whole band. Are you crying? I am. (Kevin Kane)

How popular are they?

Hugely. Every one of One Direction's first four studio albums debuted at number one on the Billboard charts — making them the first group in history to do so. Their debut single, "What Makes You Beautiful," was the most preordered song that major label Sony Music has ever produced. In 2013, they nudged out Eminem and Justin Timberlake to be named by IFPI as the "most popular artist in the world."

The YouTube video for "Story of My Life" has more than 340 million views. That's 70 million more than Beyoncé's "Drunk in Love."

Fans of One Direction aren't just rabid — they are in love with the band's members. And these fans turn out in absolute droves. They broke box office records for the band's movie One Direction: This Is Us. Their attendance at the Where We Are tour in 2014 grossed $290 million dollars, meaning 3.4 million people left their houses to see the band perform.

The response to Malik's departure, then, was intense, as one would expect. The comments on the Facebook announcement ranged from the mildly sad ("if the world is against you I will be against the world. Zayn malik") to the fully depressed ("IM CRYING SO HARD I CANT BREATH").

On Twitter, fans announced their mourning with not one, but four trending topics:

Is this the end of One Direction?

At this point, it's unclear what Zayn's departure means for the boy band in the long term. The remaining four members released a single unified statement on Zayn's departure:

"We're really sad to see Zayn go, but we totally respect his decision and send him all our love for the future. The past five years have been beyond amazing, we've gone through so much together, so we will always be friends. The four of us will now continue. We're looking forward to recording the new album and seeing all the fans on the next stage of the world tour."

The band have continued with their current world tour, which is planned to last through October.

But the question of what will happen to the group without Zayn lingers. Boy bands have a history of wild success followed by wild instability. Few boy bands manage to have long and healthy careers. The Backstreet Boys' album production and touring diminished drastically after McLean's drug addiction. NSYNC fell apart after the Celebrity tour despite having planned to release another album. New Kids on the Block broke up after allegations of lip-syncing tore apart the band. Boy bands are fragile, and losing Zayn is a reminder that One Direction could fall into disarray at any moment.

The group, though, is still expected to release an album this year. In all likelihood, they are contractually obligated to record and release that album, and it seems like they're on track to do so given their just-released single and a photo from the studio Niall Horan posted on July 29 suggesting their fifth album is nearly finished:

Final touches .........

A photo posted by Niall horan (@niallhoran) on

But Malik's departure could change the agreement the band has with its record label and force renegotiations or, worse — an early breakup. If the original contract with Sony Music (their US distributor) or Syco required all five original members to remain, the terms may change — and unless the rest of the band are blissfully happy, which seems unlikely, renegotiating a contract could mean fewer future albums are required of them.

For now, though, fans at least have both a new 1D album and (presumably) a new Zayn Malik solo album to look forward to — even if the original One Direction seems to be done for good.

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The band, which used to be so unified and snuggly, is now headed in two directions. (Karwai Tang/Getty)