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2014 columns, Pop Culture

Girl bands: where did they go?

by Julia Tulloh , February 19, 20142 Comments

TLC

 

Where have all the girl bands gone? I mean those all-girl pop music groups (rather than guitar bands) who dominated the charts until about twelve years ago. There aren’t any nowadays. Unless you include HAIM – who are brilliant, but not really a pop group – or the Pussycat Dolls – who officially disbanded in 2010 – or the Saturdays, whom I doubt anyone reading this post has even heard of.

My first awareness of a girl group was Australia’s very own Girlfriend. The videos for ‘Bad Attitude’ and ‘Take It From Me’ catapulted me into the technicolour world of young women performing dance routines in matching overalls, replete with midriff tops and flower hats (you know, like Blossom used to wear). I was hooked. I asked my parents for cassette tapes from groups like En Vogue (responsible for the best pop song of the 1990s), TLC, Salt-N-Pepa, All Saints, Eternal, the Spice Girls (of course), and later Destiny’s Child. I also recorded tunes straight from the radio, by Blaque, Atomic Kitten, S.O.A.P., Mary Mary, and Bardot.

These days, female pop singers like Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and even Lorde are somewhat marketed with the tween girl demographic in mind. That’s not to say to that young teens and children only listen to pop music (my other favourite groups as a kid were Nirvana and Soundgarden), nor that they are the only demographic interested in these artists – I simply mean that solo artists have almost totally filled the space girl groups previously occupied.

A couple of years ago, a Flavourwire article suggested that girl groups have ceased to exist because they’re too hard for record companies to market:

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) 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.

There is some truth in the above. Most female solo artists today have their own brand of independence and self-determination. However, there are a couple of problems with this argument. Firstly, women’s bodies are still used to sell music all the time, and the female solo singers listed above are still subject to merciless criticism of their looks (see here, for example).

Secondly, the argument assumes that progress for women in the pop industry is solely the domain of solo artists. The Flavourwire writer notes that some of the 1990s girl bands heralded messages of empowerment (the Spice Girls’ motto was ‘girl power’) but doesn’t explore just how much the success of women today is built on the ideology of past groups. En Vogue’s anti-prejudice anthem ‘Free Your Mind’ demanded that women not be judged for what they wear or who they date; TLC critiqued the expectation that women conform to a certain body type in ‘Unpretty’; Salt-N-Pepa were one of the first female rap groups; and Alisha’s Attic sang, ‘This girl’s a person, you know?’

The idea of girl bands might seem daggy and dated nowadays, but today’s Taylor Swifts and Katy Perrys are able to brand themselves as independent women, in large part because of the girl groups who came before them.

Julia Tulloh is a Melbourne-based writer and is currently working on a PhD in American Literature. 

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  • Pat

    Unless you’re strictly referring to the Western music industry alone, what about K-Pop girl groups? (e.g. 2NE1, Girls’ Generation) They’re hugely popular and interestingly enough, (if I’m not wrong) at least within the domain of female pop stars, K-Pop is dominated by girl groups rather than female solo artists. I think that the choreographed style and strong visual elements of K-Pop girl groups is definitely worth looking into as well.

    • Julia Tulloh

      Hi Pat,
      Thanks for raising this! You’re quite right, K-pop girl bands pretty much constitute today’s most successful girl bands. It was actually remiss of me not to mention them – a few people have mentioned it to me since I wrote this piece. I guess I was more focussing on bands that are or have been popular in the Aussie mainstream – which is mainly American groups – even UK groups like Little Mix haven’t taken off here in the way they have in their native Britain. Maybe this says something interesting about the West – we’re way more into single solo artists, as if there’s something not quite as successful about ‘making it’ as part of a group (ie. sharing the success around). K-Pop groups, though, could actually warrant their own column altogether – which is something I could write about in the future.

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