The girl band is in crisis. Ace LittleMix go on their hiatus and tie up their confetti tourtouted as their last shows “for now”, the UK finds itself without a major girl band for the first time in nearly 30 years.
It is a bleak prospect, as girl bands have often acted as agitators in the UK’s male-dominated music scene. Spice Girls are the most obvious example of this, arriving in 1996 amid lad-heavy Britpop, but groups in their wake have similarly disrupted the status quo: Girls Aloud‘s rambunctiousness cut through the mid-00s indie explosion; All Saints and sugababes offered sophistication instead of bubblegum Europop; and Mis-Teeq brought bold sexuality to UK garage.
But for every success story, there followed half a dozen failed attempts to capitalize on it. After the Spice Girls’ ascent the major label machine pumped out various groups, but, despite some decent hits, the likes of Atomic Kitten, B*Witched and Honeyz never achieved the same cultural dominance. The situation is worse post-Little Mix: the girl bands hoping to fill the void are, frankly, lacklustre.
SVN, a group made up of the original cast of the musical Six plus an understudy, are peddling trite girl boss empowerment anthems that, in an era of Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo’s weighty emo pop, feel dated. The atrociously named CuteBad, a new group backed by Girls Aloud hit-makers Xenomania, feel as if they’re desperately chasing K-pop maximalism but are already struggling to keep hold of band members. Another Xenomania outfit, Unperfect, split up before they got going, while groups like Ring the Alarm and Four of Diamonds have tried and failed to capture pop fans’ attention.
Only the London trio FLO have sparked any excitement. Their debut single, Cardboard Box, produced by MNEK, is a fun hit of nostalgic 00s R&B, although it lacks the sizzling originality of overload by Sugababes, a group that FLO are heavily-handedly styled after. It might be unfair to write these groups off before they’ve had a chance to thrive: a large part of their failure is down to a simple lack of good tunes. Yet they also seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a girl band great.
Twenty-five years ago, Sporty, Scary, Posh, Ginger and Baby were as recognizable as a red doubledecker bus. The Spice Girls’ message of girl power, lifted and commodified from its riot grrrl beginnings, signified a new era of empowerment for women and girls that prioritized independence and female friendship, and helped to push third-wave feminism – increasingly sex positive and racially inclusive – into the mainstream.
Aiding this was the group’s anarchism: from those first few frames of the wannabe video, invading the posh halls of London’s St Pancras building, they disturbed the priggish elitism that typified British culture, Mel B turning to the camera and ushering the viewer to follow suit. This behavior spilled into real life, too: interviews with the band were disorderly, with them interrupting the (usually male) interviewers and cackling with laughter.
Mockery, of each other and whoever was interviewing them, was also common, although the silliness was almost always punctuated with emotional sincerity, or seriousness on topics such as sexism and misogyny, spoken without media-trained polish. Such unfiltered charisma is absent in a band like SVN, whose basic feminist bromides feel better suited to advertising moisturiser than resonating with a more sophisticated generational understanding of girl power.
The individualization of the Spice Girls’ five members gave fans multiple access points, too. If you didn’t relate to Mel B’s scrappy truculence or Geri’s confident vampishness, then Emma Bunton’s geniality, Victoria’s detachment or Mel C’s determination might better fit your temperament. But, when taken as a whole, they represented the diversity of female friendship groups up and down the UK, where each person had something unique to give. Today, record labels seem set on marketing girl bands as single units, a fatal misunderstanding of girl group dynamics – and of individualized social media culture: it was impossible to differentiate the members of Four of Diamonds, while CuteBad’s emphasis on party-girl aesthetics has so far stripped the members of their personalities.
Spice Girls wouldn’t have mattered if their music was garbage, but, unlike the Hi-NRG dance pop and new jack swing that typified most pop bands of the time, their music spanned groove-filled R&B, disco, funk, 60s girl groups and, later, Latin-inflected pop. Aside from FLO’s throwback R&B, an outlier in a pop landscape that now favors moody singer-songwriters and 00s samples, all other recent UK girl bands have produced music without any identity. CuteBad’s You Don’t Really Wanna lacks any discernible melodic thread, while Gots to Give the Girl, the debut single by Unperfect, attempted relaxed California breeziness to the point of narcolepsy.
British girl bands conceived in the wake of the Spice Girls often failed to capture their lawless ebullience. This was sometimes by design: All Saints, with their sophisticated trip-hop, were like a Silk Cut and a glass of wine compared with the Spice Girls’ candyfloss. Effortless cool was the initial MO for Sugababes, too, although they also arrived with an angsty sense of disaffected ambivalence and an innovative sound in the shape of Overload. (You wonder whether the Spice Girls’ anarchy – stealing their pre-fame master tapes, sacking their manager – made the record industry exert a tighter grip on the doggedly kid-friendly girl bands who came in their wake, such as B*Witched. )
Only Girls Aloud came close to recapturing the spirited chaos 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 … stitched together nonsense hooks and textures. Distinct identities helped sell these pop curios: Cheryl Tweedy and the late, great Sarah Harding became tabloid fixtures, famous not only for their late-night antics but also their gobbiness (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 greater.
Little Mix took longer to prove themselves: as the first band to win The X Factor, they had a harder time distancing themselves from their reality TV beginnings, especially as they arrived when One Direction controlled the world of pop. What they had was a sense of sisterly solidarity not felt since those early days of the Spice Girls: the band members cared deeply for one another (although the departure of Jesy Nelson has brought to light some discontent they had previously kept hidden).
Like many of their fans, Little Mix fell victim to the public abuse and bullying potentiated by Instagram and Twitter: that Little Mix would then get on stage full of confidence and sexiness helped others feel that they, too, could take control and conquer their lives . And that’s exactly what Little Mix did, hitting back against jibes from Noel Gallagher and Piers Morgan, and splitting from Simon Cowell’s record label.
Little Mix also leveled up the UK girl band. Performances by groups such as the Saturdays and even Girls Aloud had a ropiness to them (arguably this was part of their charm) but Little Mix threw themselves into precise choreography and powerhouse vocals. Although vocal strength has never been a prerequisite for the girl band, the low-key, low-energy, girl-next-door styling of this new crop will feel very drab after Little Mix’s explosive arena finale.
However, the Spice Girls, Girls Aloud and Little Mix all benefited from a pop market that wasn’t as saturated with artists as it is today, and in the case of the latter two, a big reality TV springboard. Today, TikTok’s guileless stars have created a growing distrust of artifice – something that is incompatible with manufactured girl groups. Anyone with a whiff of label interference is swiftly shot down as an industry plant. As Dorian Lynskey wrote in the Guardian of the wider malaise surrounding the band format, in rock or pop, the limited size of a phone screen, and the portrait format of TikTok, favors the solo artist. Shrinking budgets at record labels may also be to blame – girl bands, with their multiple members, glam squads, choreographers and travel needs are a poor investment – and with musicians making so little money from music these days, why would any singer want to split their royalties four ways?
So in the era of the solo artist, the closest we have to a girl band is when these solo artists collaborate. Sometimes, such as Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek’s various team-ups, these are explorations of simpatico pop sensibilities; others, like Dua Lipa and Megan Thee Stallion’s collaboration Sweetest Pie, are calculated positioning exercises. Supergroups such as US-based Boygenius, comprising Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, could also signify the next iteration of the girl band: the thought of Bree Runway, Raye and other UK pop stars going full Avengers is certainly appealing. k popof course, is a space where the girl band is thriving: groups like Blackpink, Twice and Everglow offer whiplash-inducing choreography, bombastic bangers and luminescent visuals with astonishingly high production values that make UK efforts look embarrassingly budget by comparison.
But a new girl band is what Britain needs. If the Spice Girls took the lairy masculine energy of 90s Britain and powerfully feminised it, whoever follows Little Mix needs to similarly tap into the spirit of the age. They will require chemistry, strong personalities, irreverence, a cache 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 Brexit and vicious culture wars. Bleak times, currently soothed by the sad girls of bedroom pop, also need brightening with bold, dynamic talent, not the second-guessing of major labels. It is a mighty task, but only then will the UK spice up its life once more – Lord knows, we need it.