If it is true that in girlbands we can see our society reflected back at us, what does it say about our society that we are left without a girlband at all?
This week, beloved British girlband Little Mix will set off on their Confetti tour. It will be their first without the dulcet tones of Jesy ‘X’ Nelson, and their last before hiatus (age-old girlband code for breaking up, though they assure us that’s not the case this time).
It will be hard not to miss Little Mix, both for their reliable brand of provincial gay club bangers, and for the scene they leave behind. Unless something changes by the end of that tour, for the first time since 1993, the UK music scene will officially lack a Big Girlband.
Our generation has, it will be acknowledged, been handed a raw deal, mired with debt and bills, most of the social contract torn up for property-hoarding and planet-burning. But it was once the case that we could be confident in living from girlband to girlband, a great golden thread from early-90s pioneers Eternal through to the present day. But times have changed. Temporary Drag Race quartets respectfully excluded, no new British girlband has entered the UK Top 40 since M.O six years ago – and they hardly made a habit of it.
Of course, girlbands are not in decline everywhere. Korean outfit BLACKPINK reign globally, amassing a dedicated young following in the UK, and filling Wembley Arena in 2019. But one successful international girlband does not a culture make. Once, girlbands powered gossip columns, injected glamour into football tournaments, and most importantly, dominated the charts. We are a long way from Misteeq’s classic “Scandalous”, Girls Aloud’s pathbreaking “Sound of the Underground”, the Sugababes’ thrilling mashup “Freak Like Me” – songs which were all released in the same 12 months.
There was once even a time when girlbands took the country’s temperature. The Spice Girls bottled the boorish sexed-up optimism of the late 90s; then the Sugababes offered a palate cleanser with their profoundly disaffected missives from suburban London (like the city itself, they slowly became artless and indistinct). Girls Aloud were the spiritual leaders of a nation of women stepping out fully bronzed with no coat all winter, and there was something of the austerity spirit in the Saturdays’ fluorescent New Look tights (NB that the latter bands had an Irish component too).
“If it is true that in girlbands we can see our society reflected back at us, what does it say about our society that we are left without a girlband at all?”
If it’s true that in girlbands we can see our society reflected back at us, what does it say about our society that we are left without a girlband at all? I happen to be reading Get Rich or Lie Trying, Symeon Brown’s excellent treatise on the hollow world of influencing, while I search for answers. It tells harrowing tales of young women sucked into influencing pyramid schemes, compelled to turn their personal feeds into free advertising for fast fashion brands, ignorant of their objective failure as they sell ‘influencing skills’ to others through vapid training programmes. The book’s astute point is that this industry preys on a generation who’ve had jobs, security and solidarity snatched away from them by successive governments, and are being sold the delusion of influence to fill the gap. I wonder, though, if social media’s distorting effect has distorted not just our perceptions of success, but short-circuited the more traditional paths to celebrity too.
I think about those ambitious young women who marched to an open audition advertised in a theatre magazine (Spice Girls), tried out for a reality TV show (Little Mix, Girls Aloud), or ticked the wrong box on a form (Sugababes). It could simply be that the new routes to fame and influence have killed off the girlband, by directing today’s would-be starlets down other paths. When a successful social media account is the precursor to success, it is hard to see why you would share the password with four of your perceived competitors.
But of course, girlbands have been coming through, if perhaps in lower numbers. It is just that they haven’t stuck. In 2019, unperfect came from the team that masterminded Girls Aloud’s frenetic back catalogue, but their songs were bafflingly inoffensive by comparison, and they discreetly announced their decision to split this year. 303 had brief bloggy hype but never truly got off the ground; they went their separate ways in January.
Stateside, Nasty Cherry had the combined heft of Netflix and Charli XCX behind them, but seem to have given up the ghost in the most 2022 way possible. One member has released a solo bedroom pop project, while a second called out a third on Instagram for her friendship with Ariel Pink, popularly reviled for his attendance of the January 6 pro-Trump insurrection at Capitol Hill.
This is perhaps an extreme example of why Adam Klein at Fascination Management, the label that underpinned Girls Aloud and the Saturdays, reckons that girlbands are an ever-harder proposition in the digital age. He suggests to me, “With a whole new generation of music consumers being increasingly savvy about how they present themselves on social media, any groups that feel remotely ‘put together’ or inauthentic may struggle to really connect”.
“The girlband is a resilient phenomenon, always arising in defiance of a culture that says it won’t work. Attempt to analyse why girlbands can’t succeed, and maybe you are simply describing the origin story of the next one”
Girlbands have always lived or died by their chemistry. They have either had to gel well, or at least hate each other in an addictively watchable way. Such an outwardly manicured dynamic requires a degree of sophistry, and is surely harder to make work in an age when celebrity relationships are so easily analysable.
But there is a risk of concluding that young women simply can’t get on, and social media lays that fact too bare to make girlbands viable. One look sidewards at the podcasting world, from Receipts to Red Scare, and you see plenty of contemporary examples of that addictive back-and-forth flow that used to set a good girlband apart from a bad one. In pop music, too, everything from WAP to the prolifically collaborative attitudes taken by artists like Taylor and Charli shows as big an appetite as ever for women sharing stages.
Perhaps the answer is more quotidian, to do with the truths of a hard-edged industry trying to make ends meet in the streaming era. “It’s probably an investment that is harder to justify these days,” Klein adds. “It’s extremely expensive for a label or management company to finetune [a girlband] with professional choreographers and vocal coaches, let alone the costs of styling and glam for shoots with multiple members.” (This goes some way to explaining why boybands are in short supply too.)
But perhaps what unifies the successful girlbands of the past, as much as chemistry, expensive hair, or bangers equally loved by children and ageing gay men, is a sense of adversity. Before Little Mix won The X Factor, viewers spoke of the ‘girlband curse’. No one expected Girls Aloud to beat their male competitors One True Voice on Popstars: the Rivals, and now they are sacred in the annals of hun history. The Spice Girls’ origin story, so told, is that they literally escaped their first management’s house in Maidenhead, driving away in Geri Halliwell’s Fiat armed with a cassette tape of demos.
The girlband is a resilient phenomenon, always arising in defiance of a culture that says it won’t work. Attempt to analyse why girlbands can’t succeed, and maybe you are simply describing the origin story of the next one.
As I write, new London outfit FLO drop their debut “Cardboard Box”. It’s a slick MNEK production, heavy on the 00s R&B, vocals as well-matched as early versions of the Sugababes. It has not yet set the culture alight, but then again, nor did Dua Lipa’s first six tries. Only time will tell if the label holds its nerve while the country catches on. The outcome has never been so important.