Empowerment as a long-term business model
Sometimes trends become lucrative before the people in charge of making money off those things figure out how to do so. I think girl bands’ embrace of female empowerment is one such trend.
Let’s not dance around this: Boy bands and girl groups ideally serve as a pipeline for any major label to prime a big superstar to launch a solo career on their imprint. They’ve invested heavily in these pop acts with the hopes that even after they reach their inevitable point of dissolution, at least one member will be primed to become a heavyweight. On their own, these acts are not sustainable. Members grow up, throw tantrums, and eventually tire of the rigorous working conditions of being in such a band. So it’s kind of baffling that major labels continue to be skittish about positioning girl groups on a platform of empowerment and self-reliance when those are the ideals that will so obviously set them up for solo success.
Make no mistake, it’s in the solo second phase of their careers that the members of girl groups rule over the guys in boy bands: 11 years after the band’s dissolution, the Spice Girls continues to be a lucrative brand for all involved. Whether through the highly anticipated musical that’s currently in the works or Sporty Spice’s prolific solo career or Scary Spice’s brash quips as a judge on X Factor Australia, this is one girl band that will end up financing the futures of all the Spice Girls’ grandchildren, despite the original band’s limited repertoire. A bigger success yet: Beyoncé, who made world sit up and take notice with “Crazy in Love” and is now most famous for her many declarations of independence.
Then she parlayed that into a solo career so grand that it now eclipses the work she did with Destiny’s Child (apologies to Kelly Rowland, who did manage a single hit after the band broke up). Admirably, from the Pussycat Dolls, Nicole Scherzinger continues plying her pop trade despite career setbacks. Even across the pond, two of the UK’s other big pop phenoms have spawned solo successes. Girls Aloud has given rise to Cheryl Cole, who seems ready enough to breakthrough into America, and Nicola Roberts, who came out with a Pitchfork-friendly pop proposition.
Let’s look at how members of defunct boy bands have fared by comparison: Since the dissolution of New Kids on the Block, Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre managed some Top 40 hits, but found no long-term traction. The Backstreet Boys tried solo projects before being forced into a reunion. Then NKOTB and BSB partnered up and proved that their best option was to rehash old hits. Justin Timberlake was a notable exception, parlaying his days in ‘NSYNC into string of hits, but then defected into acting and start-up culture; J.C. Chasez stuck to writing pop songs for other artists. Even Menudo’s once-successful Ricky Martin is now more famous for being famous (and gay!) than for any new pop music he creates.
Perhaps that’s because sex appeal, even for boy bands, is an ephemeral sales pitch; when members outgrow their boyish charms, they end up stuck in a solo pop career that eventually runs out of steam. Two of the lone exceptions to this pattern are Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow of Take That — but neither has penetrated the American consciousness on a scale that compares to even Cheryl Cole.
Maybe that’s because, in having to work harder to get their audience’s attention, girl groups gave us something less ephemeral and more valuable. The Spice Girls’ cries of “girl power!” may have been part of their marketing scheme, but it also made a lasting impression in a way that boy bands’ vacant smiles never could. These values are the building blocks on which a singer named Beyoncé Knowles can slowly construct herself as an icon like Beyoncé.
But when the people in charge can’t get a handle on how to make lasting career for the groups of girls who meet singing in high-school choirs and auditioning for roles in musicals, then what’s on the horizon for them?
Girl groups gone indie
This brings us back to One Direction, The Saturdays, and the unbalanced ratio of boy bands to girl bands. It’s not exactly secret news that The Saturdays are gunning for some stars-and-stripes fame by way of an E! reality television series. That makes us wonder, though, is this the best way for emerging and struggling girl groups to be required to secure an American fan base? Should they all have to bare their souls on cable to demonstrate how likable they are when their male counterparts are getting playlisted and earning SNL guest spots by doing far less work? Isn’t there a better way?
Well, here’s an alternate idea: What if girl bands tried to align themselves with smaller labels that might stray from the tried-and-failed models for selling pop stars and use something other than sex and overexposure to make their names? Maybe they should start to go indie and, in doing so, gain the freedom to do dress the way they want to and make the music they actually care about.
The idea the indie world embracing girl bands is likely to make snobs and purists cringe, but for adventurous labels, it offers the opportunity to appeal to a market that is now largely going ignored by the majors. Icona Pop, the duo whose infectious electro-pop single “I Love It” is well positioned to become one of this summer’s sweatiest dance-floor anthems, has generated far more attention from the indie press than from more mainstream outlets. In fact, in expanding the definition of the girl group from the Top 40 out into other modes of music, we find that many girl bands are already shirking majors and putting out music through smaller or more niche-driven labels. This sea change has given rise to a more eclectic class of all female-fronted pop acts, bands like the Vivian Girls, CocoRosie, Cherise & Nadia, NERVO, and The WooWoos.
They may well teach a lesson to the majors that are still trying to, and sometimes finding apparently random success at, selling girl bands. Last year, StooShe went from DIY YouTube sensations to major label success story thanks to this single song; and this year finds 2011 X Factor UK winners, Little Mix, on the eve of their first proper debut, after taking a cover of Damien Rice’s “Cannonball” to #1 last December.
No matter who manages to make girl groups a reliably profitable commodity again, one thing is clear: With or without the major labels and success in America, girl band culture is vibrant and alive if you’re willing to look for it, and discerning pop fans may well need to expand their horizons to find what big business can’t figure out how to sell us.