Girl groups made British pop great – so where did all the good ones go? | pop and rock
JThe girl group is in crisis. As Little Mix take a break and wrap up their Confetti Tour, billed as their last gig “for now”, the UK is left without a major girl group for the first time in nearly 30 years.
It’s a grim prospect, as girl bands have often acted as agitators in the male-dominated UK music scene. The Spice Girls are the most obvious example, arriving in 1996 amid a very masculine Britpop, but the bands in their wake also disrupted the status quo: the exuberance of Girls Aloud cut through the indie explosion of mid-2000s; All Saints and Sugababes offered sophistication instead of Europop bubblegum; and Mis Teeq brought a bold sexuality to the British garage.
But for every success, there have been half a dozen failed attempts to capitalize on it. After the rise of the Spice Girls, the big tag machine produced various bands, but, despite some decent hits, Atomic Kitten, B*Witched and Honeyz never achieved the same cultural dominance. The situation is worse after Little Mix: girl groups hoping to fill the void are downright lackluster.
SVN, a group made up of the original cast of the musical Six plus an understudy, peddles banal anthems of girl empowerment that, in an era of Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo’s ponderous emo pop, seem old-fashioned. The excruciatingly named CuteBad, a new group backed by Xenomania, creators of Girls Aloud hits, feels like it’s desperately pursuing K-pop maximalism, but is already struggling to retain group members. Another Xenomania band, Unperfect, broke up before they started, while bands like Ring the Alarm and Four of Diamonds tried unsuccessfully to capture the attention of pop fans.
Only the London trio FLO aroused the enthusiasm. Their debut single, Cardboard Box, produced by MNEK, is a fun hit of nostalgic 2000s R&B, though it lacks the sizzling originality of Sugababes’ Overload, a band FLO heavily styled after. It might be unfair to dismiss these bands before they’ve had a chance to thrive: much of their failure is due to a simple lack of good tracks. Yet they also seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a girl group good.
Twenty-five years ago, Sporty, Scary, Posh, Ginger and Baby were as recognizable as a red double-decker bus. The Spice Girls’ message of girl power, lifted and commodified from its inception, signified a new era of empowerment for women and girls that prioritized independence and female friendship, and contributed to push third-wave feminism – increasingly sexist and racially inclusive. – into the mainstream.
The anarchism of the group contributed to this: from the first images of the budding video, taking over the posh halls of London’s St Pancras building, they disrupted the pretentious elitism that characterized British culture, with Mel B turning to the camera and inviting the viewer to follow suit. This behavior spilled over into real life as well: the group interviews were messy, they interrupted the (usually male) interviewers and laughed their heads off.
Mockery, of each other and those interviewing them, was also common, though the silliness was almost always punctuated with emotional sincerity or earnestness on topics such as sexism and misogyny, spoken without media polish. Such unfiltered charisma is absent in a group like SVN, whose grassroots feminist bromides feel better suited to moisturizing advertising than resonating with a more sophisticated generational understanding of girl power.
The individualization of the five Spice Girls members also gave fans multiple access points. If you don’t understand Mel B’s rambling earthiness or Geri’s confident vampirism, then Emma Bunton’s kindness, Victoria’s detachment, or Mel C’s determination might better suit your temperament. But, taken together, they represented the diversity of women’s friendship groups across the UK, where each person had something unique to give. Today, record labels seem intent on marketing girl groups as unique units, a fatal misunderstanding of girl group dynamics – and the individualized culture of social media: it was impossible to tell the members apart. from Four of Diamonds, while CuteBad’s emphasis on party aesthetics has so far stripped the members of their personalities.
The Spice Girls wouldn’t have mattered if their music was trash, but, unlike the Hi-NRG dance pop and new jack swing that characterized most pop groups of the time, their music spanned on groove-filled R&B, disco, funk and 60s girl groups. and, later, Latin-influenced pop. Aside from FLO’s retro R&B, an outlier in a pop landscape that now favors moody singer-songwriters and noughties samples, every other recent UK girl group has produced music without any identify. CuteBad’s You Don’t Really Wanna lacks a noticeable melodic thread, while Unperfect’s debut single Gots to Give the Girl attempted a laid-back California breeze to the point of narcolepsy.
British girl groups conceived in the wake of the Spice Girls often failed to capture their anarchic effervescence. Sometimes it was by design: All Saints, with their sophisticated trip-hop, looked like a Silk Cut and a glass of wine compared to the cotton candy of the Spice Girls. Effortless freshness was also the Sugababes’ initial MO, though they also arrived with an agonizing sense of disaffected ambivalence and innovative sound in the form of Overload. (You wonder if the anarchy of the Spice Girls—stealing their master tapes before fame, firing their manager—caused the recording industry to exert a tighter grip on the stubbornly kid-friendly girl groups that came into their wake, like B*Witched.)
Only Girls Aloud came close to reuniting with the fiery mayhem of the Spice Girls. Their music was often idiosyncratic: while they weren’t immune to bland covers, songs like Biology and Sexy! No No No … sew together hooks and disparate textures. Separate identities helped sell these pop curiosities: Cheryl Tweedy and the late Sarah Harding became tabloid tabloids, famous not just for their late-night antics but also for their gossip (like Cheryl’s criticisms of other pop stars such as Nicole Scherzinger and Lily Allen). Again, they all felt like individuals who could come together to form something bigger.
Little Mix took longer to prove themselves: as the first group to win The X Factor, they had a harder time walking away from their reality TV debut, especially since they arrived when One Direction controlled the pop world. What they had was a sense of brotherly togetherness that hadn’t been felt since the Spice Girls’ debut: the band members cared deeply for each other (although Jesy Nelson’s departure put a damper on light a discontent that they previously hid).
Like many of their fans, Little Mix was the victim of public abuse and intimidation potentiated by Instagram and Twitter: that Little Mix then took to the stage full of confidence and sensuality helped others feel that they too could take control and conquer their lives. . And that’s exactly what Little Mix did, responding to mockery from Noel Gallagher and Piers Morgan, and parting ways with Simon Cowell’s label.
Little Mix also improved the British girl group. Performances by groups such as Saturdays and Even Girls Aloud had a certain sweetness to them (no doubt part of their charm), but Little Mix threw themselves into precise choreography and powerful vocals. While vocal strength was never a prerequisite for the girl group, this new generation’s low-key, low-energy, girl-next-door style will sound very dull after Little Mix’s explosive finale.
However, the Spice Girls, Girls Aloud and Little Mix have all benefited from a pop market less saturated with artists than today, and for the last two, from a big springboard for reality TV. Today’s candid TikTok stars have created a growing distrust of artifice – something incompatible with fabricated girl groups. Anyone with a hint of tag interference is quickly shot down as an industrial plant. As Dorian Lynskey wrote in the Guardian of the wider unease surrounding the band’s format, in rock or pop, the limited size of a phone screen and TikTok’s portrait format favors the solo artist. Shrinking record label budgets may also be to blame – girl groups, with their multiple members, glamorous crews, choreographers and travel needs are a bad investment – and with musicians earning so little money from music these days, why would a singer want to split their royalties four ways?
So, in the era of the solo artist, the closest thing to a girl group is when those solo artists collaborate. Sometimes, like Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens, and Caroline Polachek’s various crews, they’re explorations of simpatico pop sensibilities; others, like Dua Lipa and Megan Thee Stallion’s Sweetest Pie collaboration, are calculated positioning exercises. Supergroups such as US-based Boygenius, consisting of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, could also mean the next iteration of the girl group: the thought of Bree Runway, Raye and other British pop stars transforming in Avengers is certainly appealing. K-pop, of course, is a space where the girl group is thriving: bands like Blackpink, Twice, and Everglow offer whiplash-inducing choreography, explosive bangers, and luminescent visuals with production values. surprisingly high that make the British effort an embarrassing budget by comparison.
But a new girl group is what Britain needs. While the Spice Girls took the masculine energy of 90s Britain and powerfully feminized it, anyone who follows Little Mix must also tap into the spirit of the era. They’ll need chemistry, strong personalities, irreverence, a stash of bangers and an ability to commune with the mood of the country: one that has now been ravaged by a decade of austerity, the fallout from the Brexit and vicious culture wars. The dark times, currently soothed by the sad girls of chamber pop, also need to be brightened by bold and dynamic talent, not by the questioning of major labels. It’s a daunting task, but only then will the UK spice up life once again – God knows we need it.