Pop For Skeptics #6: Where Have All the Girl Groups Gone?

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I’ve always seen all-girl pop groups as a great way to put otherwise mean-spirited members of the high-school pep squad to work, supporting the global economy, while giving something (songs catchy enough to dance along to, branded merchandise, etc.) back to the community. Unfortunately, America as a whole hasn’t always shared my enthusiasm for girl bands. Sure, we went through a full-blown love affair with the Spice Girls, but many of us were begging those British pop conquistadors to sail back to England 18 short months after they washed up on our shores. Back then, however, there were a roughly equal number of girl groups being marketed to pop aficionados as boy bands. For every Spice Girls, there was a Backstreet Boys; for every All Saints, there was an ‘NSYNC; and for every B*Witched, there was an O-Town.

But the latest wave of boy bands breaks this trend. With The Wanted and One Direction both cracking America, there’s a similar pop renaissance currently underway, albeit with a glaring exception: The girl groups are missing. This throws the pop ecosystem off balance; it disturbs the cultural cosmos. The gods are furious. Aphrodite’s calling up Athena on her mobile and shrieking, “Are you seeing this shit? What gives?” After the jump, in an effort to appease the goddess of love, we point a few explanations heavenward as offerings.

The new girl group currency

What’s remarkable is that as pop has evolved, sex has stopped working as an effective way to market girl bands. Owing to a number of pop milestones in the past few years, like the enduring success of Kylie Minogue, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, and Nicki Minaj, pop stars who have valiantly fought to realign the media narrative of their careers around their body of work, not their bodies, women in pop are enjoying more success for what they’re releasing and not how they look releasing it. These days, when we do talk about female pop stars’ appearance, it’s usually because they’re wearing a meat dress or a chicken-wing necklace.

This breakthrough — and it’s odd that in 2012, this kind of struggle has to be considered a “breakthrough” — has made it increasingly hard for the people who bring you One Direction to devote the same resources to importing a girl band like their countrywomen, The Saturdays.

In order to break this new market, a band like The Saturdays will need something besides incredible pop songs and rockin’ bodies to win a new audience. Girl groups can’t be sold like they were in the days of the Spice Girls. Pop fans have become sophisticated and expectations have become nuanced. You can’t just send out a pop troupe in bikinis and franchise them into irrelevance; the Spice Girls did that (lollipops, scooters, Polaroid cameras, Barbie dolls, and even a movie) and reached a saturation point so quickly that they left America with a vague aversion to girl bands.

TLC and En Vogue, and later, Destiny’s Child, lasted much longer in the US because, unlike the Spice Girls, they had to work their way through the urban pop scene before ending up in Top 40 — there were soulful harmonies, earned street cred, and very little kitsch. This wasn’t the case with the domestically manufactured girl bands that followed the Spice Girls, like Dream, Eden’s Crush, and Danity Kane.

Further, our post-Spice Girls aversion to girl bands who sell sex explains why the Pussycat Dolls were widely regarded as nameless strippers who happened onto a recording studio, never as musicians. No matter what you think of their music, it would behoove us all to acknowledge that at the very least, Nicole Scherzinger does have some singing chops.

The limited longevity of groups like the Pussycat Dolls can also partially be explained by identifying the primary audience for pop music: young girls. Couple that with a music industry culture that is constantly compelled to sell popular music on its easiest currency — sex — and you end up with a flawed business model. Boy bands, with their young, frenzied female fans, find it much easier to sell sex appeal (and romantic fantasy) with a side of music: Members of the groups can be sold as heroes, rebels, and princes. There’s a flavor for whatever the band’s target audience is craving on a given day.

But you can’t push the sexy women who appeal to men on a predominantly heterosexual audience of tween girls unless they come packaged with something else that appeals to them. For the Spice Girls, this was “girl power,” the vague feminist values that they passed on to their younger listeners in a gently didactic way. If boy bands could easily sell themselves as ideal crush objects for their target demo, then girl bands had the most difficult task of having to position themselves as the women that the same target demo aspired to become. The Pussycat Dolls never quite succeeded at this, and that’s why they’ll be so quickly forgotten. I mean, can you imagine their reunion tour generating as much enthusiasm as the Spice Girls’ did in 2008?

So, if sex appeal isn’t exactly the strongest currency for girl bands anymore, what is? For all female pop stars who don’t happen to be Rihanna, it’s empowerment, feminism, and a sense of worldliness. This is the recipe that accidentally worked with the Spice Girls, armed with Buffy-inspired bon mots about girl power and an affinity for Margaret Thatcher. A smart label might take a girl group like The Saturdays, continue to dress them up as if they’re perpetually going to or coming back from the clubs, but then train them to speak to younger listeners who — by virtue of liking boys like Justin Bieber — still yearn for female role models.

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.