Ever since the Spice Girls took over the world 20+ years ago, the UK has been known for its girl bands. With a kick of their platform trainers and a scattering of “girl power,” they laid the foundations for a genuinely diverse set of homegrown bands to dominate the charts in the 90s and 00s (Sugababes, Mis-Teeq, Girls Aloud, B*Witched etc) and even the start of this decade if you count The Saturdays (which you obviously should – Sean Paul collaboration aside.) Unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world, our girl bands were typically charismatic and outspoken – or at least cool, even if they couldn’t dance – and they all had some undeniable pop bangers. That was our thing.
But in recent years, public demand for girl groups has seemed to dry up. All Saints’ most recent release, Testament, failed to make a dent in the charts despite some positive reviews. A series of other, newer UK groups – most notably M.O. – have been hotly-tipped but continue to bubble under rather than make it big. The only real, glaring exception has been Little Mix, whose infectious choruses and genuinely very good voices have cemented their reputation as steady industry heavy-hitters with personality and likability to boot. Yet they remain an anomaly in today’s industry. Why?
According to Jordan Jay, the A&R wunderkind behind groups like Girls Aloud and The Saturdays, this lack of success can simply be attributed to ebb and flow of market trends. “Over the past few years the market has been more ‘urban-driven.’ Perhaps there hasn’t been the right group to come along and change it up yet.” In other words, at a time when streaming errs on the side of rap and R&B, or else dance music, the idea of a girl group – who have traditionally leant into pop – feels a bit out-of-touch right now, perhaps.
He also points to the changing face of the music industry in general – driven by a switch to streaming services – as a viable explanation for the lack of successful girl groups. Bands can’t be as easily packaged and sold to consumers in the way they used to be. “It’s been a few years of transition for all new acts breaking through, and any new band needs to ensure they have every box ticked: likability, personality, great songs and strong image.” Jay also reiterates the importance of chemistry and good timing, and points to Four of Diamonds – a group whose debut single includes a stellar guest verse from Burna Boy – as an act who might feasibly achieve success, yet hesitates when it comes to other names.
Another band who undeniably possess these characteristics – as well as a mammoth hit in the form of 2012’s “Black Heart” – is Stooshe, whose debut album London With The Lights On landed an impressive Top 10 debut. But not long after, they parted ways with their label Warner Music Group and chose to go independent. “We were so lucky to have such amazing success, as well as an amazing management team and label who facilitated that,” writes Karis Anderson, one-third of the band, over email. “We came into the group as three young girls who never wanted to be puppets, but as an artist you gradually fall into the position of being a product whether you like it or not. There might be one person at the label who doesn’t agree with you – that person might have the final say.”
Stooshe is a rare example of a group whose tongue-in-cheek lyrics, powerhouse vocals and genuine chemistry seemed to catch on quickly with the general public. Seemingly keen to cash in, the label pushed back their album to make room for a cover of TLC’s “Waterfalls,” but this didn’t sit well with the members. “We idolise the group, but we knew it wasn’t the right decision,” explains Karis. Everything from their aesthetic (“too many cooks in the kitchen!”) to their single choices were subject to label interference, so after their album, the band seized back control and have been grafting ever since. Back in 2016 they released a single, “Let It Go”, and plan to release more music in the future, but they have yet to reach the commercial heights of their emergence.
It might seem as though the idea of the ‘girl band’ is fading here in the UK right now, but you could also argue it’s the concept itself that’s becoming outdated. In early interviews, Stooshe chose to disavow the term entirely. “We saw ourselves more as three individuals who could hold their own, which wasn’t what people presumed to be a conventional ‘girl band’”, says fellow member Courtney. Alexandra, another member, agrees that their aim was to not be "boxed in" by labels, but also says she doesn’t feel there’s a stigma around the term. “There seems to be so much competition and pressure with girls – only one can be the best, or can be successful. It’s a shame, as we have great boy bands all over the charts.”
But what even is a girl band anyway? When Helen McCookeryBook – a musician who found fame as part of indie band The Chefs back in the 1970s and 80s – hears the term, she automatically thinks of “girls with guitars. There are loads of young female bands who play their own instruments at the moment, supported by informal organisations like Loud Women, so I think of bright colours, wild hair and loud music!” As the only woman in her group, Helen says she occasionally found herself jealous of all-female groups – “they just seemed to have more fun!”
She echoes the sentiment that women in the mainstream music industry often have their visions interfered with by men determined to package them: “There’ll always be a place for ‘mainstream’ [read: pop] girl bands, but the whole idea of handing over your career and persona to a record label – usually run by men – doesn’t chime well with the empowered young women who are increasingly making their own music.” She found herself equally enamoured with the independence of self-creating and self-releasing music, but reiterated the importance “of crafted, well-arranged pop music – I hope it doesn’t vanish. It still feels exciting to listen to shiny music with lovely harmonies.”
Our cultural landscape is rapidly shifting. Labels have always told us that ‘boy bands’ and ‘girl bands’ are at opposite ends of a spectrum, and that their gender dictates their output. Women are packaged as cute, feisty (girl power!) or sexy; men are either bad boys, endearingly goofy or twinkly-eyed heartthrobs. But these stereotypes feel old-fashioned and limiting at a time when people aren’t so bothered about, say, gender binaries. Instead, we’re more likely to see women guitar bands like Dream Wife, Goat Girl and Skinny Girl Diet thrive because they make great music on their own terms, and also don’t need to be packaged and sold in gendered ways like bands of the past.
Still, it’s unlikely that the music itself will ever vanish – the strength of a powerhouse pop chorus is as immortal as Jesus and Madonna. It just seems as though more bands are crafting their own identities as opposed to relying on record labels more concerned with sales than innovation. Little Mix may still be riding high, but their powerhouse hooks and big-name features are near impossible for emerging groups to recreate. Perhaps the golden era of the ‘girl band’ – the chart-topping, world-dominating, shiny pop powerhouse girl band – might genuinely be over for good. But in its wake will be a series of empowered, often independent groups working hard to redefine the controversial moniker. Which is way more fun anyway, right?