The year is 2003. Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena and Siobhan Doherty of the Sugababes are on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, dressed in matching low-waist, stonewashed bootcut jeans, black T-shirts and hoop earrings. They sway their hips from side to side, as thousands of gooey-eyed fans chant their lyrics back to them. Their harmonies are bewitching; choreography slick; style unmistakably Noughties. This is the era of the Great British Girlband.
This weekend, the original Sugababes will reunite on the stage of Glastonbury for the first time in 19 years. They’re the only UK girl group on the lineup, and are performing just over a month after pop trio Little Mix went on hiatus to pursue solo careers. At first glance, the future landscape of girl groups in contemporary pop looks decidedly flat. Is there any hope of a renaissance?
Girl groups once ruled the UK Top 40, along with our CD collections, pub quizzes, karaoke nights and wardrobes. In 2002, you could turn on the radio to hear Girls Aloud’s raucous “Sound of the Underground”, Atomic Kitten’s cover of “The Tide Is High”, or Sugababes’ assertive “Freak Like Me”. All best-selling singles, and all songs that championed rebellion and good old-fashioned Girl Power.
Publicist Simon Jones remembers that era well. How could he not? He’s worked with some of the UK’s biggest pop bands: Mis-Teeq, Blue, McFly, One Direction and Little Mix. “The landscape has changed so massively that I don’t know how a group like [Little Mix] would break through now,” Jones, who runs his own PR company, tells me. “We don’t really have a massive reality competition that launches TV stars anymore. The X Factor was a showcase to the nation. Every Saturday and Sunday night, you’re building a ready-made fanbase for when you leave the show.” Like clockwork, the final would air on a weekend, with the winner’s single released on Monday: “Everyone would go out and buy it and you’d see these massive amounts of sales.”
When Little Mix won The X Factor final in 2011, they sold 210,000 copies of their winning single, a cover of “Cannonball” by Damien Rice. They were the last new girl band to enter the UK Top 40. “Maybe for those artists to flourish, we need that sort of platform again,” Jones suggests. Right now, he would be reluctant to introduce a new girl band to his star-studded roster. Gone are the days when a feature in Smash Hits or Top of the Pops could launch a new act. “I’ve been offered a lot in the last five years that I’ve just said no to,” he says. “Because those avenues of launching those acts don’t exist anymore.”
The British wave of girl groups in the Nineties and Noughties were often manufactured by their labels. Sugababes were put together in 1998 by Ron Tom, six years after he founded All Saints. Mis-Teeq were formed with the help of Louise Porter and her production company Big Out Ltd (at one point including Tina Barrett in their lineup, before she joined S Club 7). The future members of the Spice Girls turned up to audition at London’s Danceworks studios in 1993, after managers Bob and Chris Herbert placed an ad in the hopes of forming a girl group to compete with the boy bands of the time.
Breaking into a market dominated by solo artists is challenging commercially and economically, according to Adam Klein, who works with Fascination Management, the label responsible for Girls Aloud, All Saints and The Saturdays. “It’s easier to make a living from selling records and touring when you’re sharing the proceeds with less people and less other band members,” he says. “Not to mention the choreography and vocal coaching often needed to finesse a group of people who may start off as strangers into sleek chart-conquerors such as Little Mix, Blackpink or Girls Aloud.”
But there is hope. Steadily growing their fanbase are FLO, who look set to pick up Little Mix’s sparkly baton. Formed of Renée Downer, Stella Quaresma and Jorja Douglas, all 20, the trio met in school and bonded over a shared love of singing. But it wasn’t until they bumped into each other at an audition that they chose to start performing together. Now signed to Island, FLO’s debut single “Cardboard Box” already has over four million streams. It’s a very promising start, says Jones. “They broke through because they’ve got a really brilliant song and everybody is excited [about it].” A tale of post-breakup vengeance, “Cardboard Box” trades in fluttering harmonies, captivating solos and the kind of inspiring, empowering defiance that made stars out of their predecessors.
“There’s nothing more powerful than talented women coming together to create music,” the group’s members tell me over email. “We felt the world really needed a new group making great music – so why not take it into our own hands!” They grew up listening to Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child, combining their love of both to create a fresh R&B sound. Though the trio admit that breaking into the industry is never easy, the unity of being in a girl group keeps them going. “We feel grateful to be navigating the more challenging parts together,” they say. “Being a successful girl group is not easy but we love what we do and can only hope everyone loves our music as much as we do.”
Jones is adamant that there is still huge demand for this kind of group among music fans. “I think the audience and the appetite is always there,” he says. “The Spice Girls, Sugababes, Girls Aloud and Little Mix, all had a dual fan base – a lot of young girls and a lot of teenagers. But at the same time, they’ve got a massive LGBTQ+ fan base.” For Klein, the recipe for success is in a breakout single. “It only takes one truly great single from a believable band to turn the tide back towards girl bands again,” he says. “I’m confident it will happen, and the next great girl band is no doubt around the corner.”
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