Why is there a monopoly on girl bands?

Douglas Greenwood

Douglas Greenwood on how the pop industry can only seem to handle one female-fronted group at a time

06 December 2018 09:00

The competitive nature of pop music is what makes so many of its mundane artists interesting. On the internet and in the seedy, exploitative pages of tabloids, whether we like to admit it or not, we live to see petty spats and animosity between stars make headlines.

In fact, the very basis of stan culture – a form of artist appreciation that’s unwavering, obsessive and unique to the internet age – is not solely rooted in supporting big pop talents. Instead, it involves the oppression of those who stand alongside them: so-called chart enemies.

But there is one kind of act in the pop circle who never has to buy into the ‘us versus them’ ideology, nor do they have fans who actively pit them against other stars: the girl group. Be it the Spice Girls back in the 1990s, or Little Mix dominating the industry today, for some reason, two noteworthy girl groups seem to have never coexisted – but why?

When the Spice Girls first came onto the scene in the mid-90s with their breakout hit ‘Wannabe’ – inspired by a boy band format that was working for major labels both stateside and in the UK – the public’s overwhelmingly positive response was somewhat unprecedented. Their message of ‘girl power’ and feminism, filtered through a lens of pop music and commercial appeal, was something labels had never considered injecting cash into before.

‘Wannabe’ – Spice Girls

And it was pioneering too: five women gathered together championing a message of unity, whilst promoting the sex-positive values of third wave feminism. There was also the clever (if now slightly problematic) use of their five easily identifiable monikers: Scary (though, as the sole black member, we’re forced to question whether that name was acceptable or not), Baby, Sporty, Posh and Ginger Spice spawned individual brand and marketing opportunities aplenty, each one becoming a different fan’s favourite. It led the group to a wildly successful spur of albums, tours and a now iconic movie that put those messages at its forefront.

Considering the fact that groups like Little Mix and the Spice Girls are some of the most reliable pop entities in terms of quality chart output, touring (over 700,000 people joined queues on the Ticketmaster site for the Spice Girls’ reunion earlier this year) and merchandising revenue, it’s strange to think that labels are not looking deeper into replicating their commercial success on a wider level in 2018, opening up more opportunities for new girl bands. It feels like a serendipitous, if slightly exploitative, moment to do it: discussions about the power of femininity are now well and truly part of the mainstream (Ariana Grande being the pop star of the year is a testament to this), so why are labels struggling to push that message where the power could be amplified with four or five collective faces?

Little Mix, arguably the only culturally relevant girl band working at the moment, tapped into that on their latest record, LM5. But by flitting between anthemic, feminist pop tracks like the lead single ‘Woman Like Me’ and the slightly more conflicting lyrics of ‘Motivate’ (‘When he’s with me bitches hate me’), there was an obvious dichotomy between intention and execution: the commodification of women’s empowerment can yield positive results, like normalising the discussion of feminism, as well as negative ones, such as intense scrutiny and accusations of supposed ‘slacktivism’.

Perhaps the once pioneering message that the Spice Girls’ preached is no longer necessary in the context of a girl group. If we live in a time when feminism has permeated through every corner of pop culture and become a key topic of conversation – so relevant, in fact, that it’s now considered redundant when discussed – does a ‘feminist girl band’ feel revelatory enough to push past those conversations and become a phenomenon that we can handle multiple versions of? Is the concept of more than one girl band peddling the same message now tiresome?

The ways in which these groups, successful or not, come together hasn’t changed: management still like to prioritise factory-line assembly and external songwriters. It’s now commonplace to reject the notion of ‘organic’ musicianship in favour of glorious bangers and glossy appearances, and practically every successful girl band we’ve had since the 90s has been brought to us that way. Each member originally a soloist, Little Mix were piled together during the audition process on The X Factor. The same thing happened with Fifth Harmony on the show’s US version. And whilst the producers on The X Factor might have wanted to try and pull the wool over our eyes for a bit, 2016’s breakout girl band on the show, Four of Diamonds, also came to fruition in the same manner. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of: so much of what makes a great artist is the standard of their showmanship, not whether their songs are self-penned or not.

‘Woman Like Me’ – Little Mix

The trajectory of Four of Diamonds’ career post-The X Factor has been a confusing and muddled one. Having signed to Virgin Records shortly after the show, becoming the first girl group since Spice Girls that the label has laid their hands on, the quartet have spent the best part of two years slowly climbing pop’s ladder, patiently waiting to crack the mainstream. But quite why they haven’t broken out and made it big by now is something of a mystery. The trio of singles they’ve released since the summer – ‘Name On It’, ‘Stupid Things’ and, most recently, ‘Blind’ – are shining commercial songs that would have a chance of reaching the top 10 if given to an artist with a fair amount of public exposure. But none of them have cracked the charts, despite following the traditional pop formula and being produced by mainstream darling Jonas Blue. Most people could probably name ten women doing massive things in pop music right now; breaking a girl group, on the other hand, is seemingly impossible when one already has the entire industry’s unwavering attention.

Boy bands don’t seem to have to deal with the same kind of autonomous, unrivalled control of their side of the industry. The Vamps, Five Seconds of Summer and One Direction once all rode the nu-boyband wave simultaneously, and have been afforded far more patience and control than their female counterparts. Perhaps that’s because men are traditionally considered ‘low maintenance’ in music spheres: the only thing that makes them more of a liability is their tendency to carry huge egos with them wherever they go. But an ego isn’t a financial burden – instead it helps men (who are infinitely more pathetic when it comes to their creative persona) distance themselves from the concept of being a ‘boy band’. Five Seconds of Summer in particular, despite carrying all the hallmarks of a boyband, famously hate being labelled as such, as if it’s something to be ashamed of. It’s worked for them so far, but they’re also one of the few pop groups who had truly organic beginnings. On the other end of the spectrum, you have BROCKHAMPTON: a rap collective who actively like to be referred to as a ‘boyband’. In one way, it can almost be seen as a synonym for brotherhood, but as soon as women enter the equation, rumours of vitriol and rivalry do too. The coexistence of women within girl bands, as well as amongst other girl bands in the charts, is something plenty of people struggle to wrap their heads around.

The issue here lies not with the music itself, but with the gatekeepers and the changing economic nature of the industry. There’s a huge financial risk involved in launching a girl group: few stay together longer than a few years – even if the success is sweet – and it costs more to manage five artists rather than one.  But the biggest barrier for those already hustling in 2018 is, despite what some may think, radio play – if an artist fails to secure that, the likelihood of them having an impact on streaming and chart numbers is practically zero. This week’s Radio 1 A-List consists of six women solo artists, two producers (including Jonas Blue), six men and one girl group: Little Mix. In fact, of the 45 songs that Radio 1 currently has playlisted in total, ‘Woman Like Me’ by Little Mix really is the only girl group-helmed song gaining any kind of attention.

Contrary to popular belief, multiple women, especially those running together, can succeed in pop music if they’re given the chance to. What we need to see more of is a tangible support for those already out there; a belief from gatekeepers and journalists that young people benefit from seeing alliances and friendships – not the petty spats we vacuously live for – presented to them on pop cultural platforms. If we see these artists as a necessity, rather than mere fodder tailor made by a record label (like all pop still is anyway), maybe we can stand a chance at democratising the girl group platform and see several of them do their thing at the same time.