FEATURE: The ‘Classic Girl Group’: Time for a Return?




The ‘Classic Girl Group’:


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Time for a Return?


THAT might seem like an odd headline…

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IN THIS PHOTO: Fifth Harmony

given the fact we have girl bands performing at the moment. Whilst the likes of Fifth Harmony and Little Mix are in operation; it seems like the ‘fad’ has gone out of fashion. I wonder whether the girl group had its moment and the focus is on other areas of music?!

In 2017, we are seeing a lot of great solo artists and bands being celebrated but very few girl groups.

It might seem quite irrelevant: do we need them and is there really a big gap in the market? I feel, in a way, music is losing a lot of its characteristics and having a detrimental effect on young artists. I am not a fan of boy bands as, to me, they are too commercial and do not have that special ‘edge’ that the girl groups do.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Baby Queens

Right now, there are not many great options and acts you would say are inspiring the young generation. I have reviewed girl groups in the past but the last time might have been a couple of years back – there are few coming through right now that really excite me.

There are a lot of Pop stars and manufactured acts; we have some awesome bands and solo talent worthy of massive love but that girl group dollar seems to be an inactive currency.

Again, many might debate there is not a real need for them: we have survived without them for a long time and there are no big demands out there. Whilst older acts like Bananarama are reforming – maybe a bit of a cash-in rather than a genuinely exciting proposition – there is, I feel, a need to promote and encourage the kind of girl band that inspired and motivated young listeners.

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Let’s go back to the 1990s when, I feel, we hit the peak and gave the music world the best girl groups ever. I want to mention Destiny’s Child, En Vogue and Spice Girls as an example of girl groups that have left a legacy and really made a mark on music – a bit about All Saints (and) Salt-N-Pepa.

To me, there are few better examples of the ‘genre’ than En Vogue and Destiny’s Child.

Both American acts; between them, they penned some of the most defiant and compelled anthems of the 1990s. En Vogue are still active today but, like Banarama, they are past their best and seem to be prolonging a career that hit its heights years ago. Their 1990 debut, Born to Sing, impressed critics and sported the standout track, Hold On. It has become a staple in their catalogue and spoke to so many young women.

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IN THIS PHOTO: En Vogue (2016)

In fact, I am a fan of their work so it was not a case of campaigning to women: their messages spread across genders, races and nations. All four members of the group – Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron, Maxine Jones, Dawn Robinson – showed they could handle lead vocal duties and were stunning when mixed in harmony. The girls had their own style, sophistication and ethos and were not a marketing force designed to sell records to young women – a cynical case of marketing ‘strong’ singers and seemingly deep messages with the intention of making millions and becoming as commercial as possible. Funky Divas, their stunning second album, was the one that really put them on the map.

There was sexiness, sassiness and strength right through the record.

My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It) was that clear signal to the over-eager man: cool your jets and treat me with respect. That defiant and strong-willed attitude not only resonated with the listeners but inspired similar-minded girl groups and female singers to inject more confidence into their own music – straying away from predictable themes and by-numbers songwriting.

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It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sings boats the histrionic range of the group – some sumptuous harmonies and gravelled vocals in the chorus – whilst Hip Hop Lover is as catchy and body-moving as they come. To me, the album is defined by Free Your Mind: a rebellion against racist and sexist attitudes.

The song, as the title suggests, is a plea to stop seeing colour – as a negative thing and barrier – and seeing behind the person.

Whilst a lot of the girl groups I will mention are black – and there is a political and social element to their finest songs – what marks En Vogue out, aside from their mature and thought-provoking lyrics, is the connection and genuine friendship between the girls. Whilst EV3 reduced the band to a trio; they still proved they could pack a punch and remain a tight unit – Don’t Let Go (Love) one of their staples and best moments. Sure, like Destiny’s Child and The Spice Girls; losing a member weakens the band but it did not destroy them. Dawn Robinson left the band to peruse a solo career but, as we now know, En Vogue will release Electric Café in August.

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It may not have the same clout and relevance of their early albums but is a welcomed return of a group that have shown what a great girl group is: one that is able to appeal to a wide range of listeners and tastes without sacrificing sharp and meaningful lyrics and natural, soulful vocals. Like En Vogue – and I forgot to mention them earlier – TLC arrived in the ‘90s and inspired so many young women with their incredible bond, fantastic songwriting and instantly recognisable hits.

They might seem very similar to En Vogue but, in most ways, that were very different.

Sadly, the group disbanded when Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes was killed in a car crash (in 2002) but the legacy the girls laid down cannot be ignored. In fact, like En Vogue, they are back: in 2015, following touring and new excitement in the ranks, the girls successfully funded their eponymous album after with the help of a crowd-funding pitch. On 30th June, the girls will release their first original album since 2002 – unveiled a few months after Lopes died – and it will be exciting to see them back. It is interesting seeing classic girl bands return and I wonder why – I shall examine that more, later.

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TLC, on 1994’s CrazySexyCool and 1999’s FanMail, created two of the strongest albums of the decade. Despite Lopes’ struggled with alcohol – which created tensions in the ranks – the recording sessions were completed and, aside from those production setbacks, the album gained big reviews and a lot of positivity.

Established producers like Dallas Austin, who worked on TLC’s debut, were back but new contributors like Sean ‘Puffy’ Combes helped bring in new Hip-Hop elements and fresh insight.

The mid-tempo grooves, Prince-esque funk and Hip-Hop beats – combined with rousing, effervescent horns – captivated critics and saw songs like Waterfalls elevated to huge heights. Throw in the provocative and unforgettable Red Light Special and Creep – plus a stunning cover of Prince’s If I Was Your Girlfriend – and you have an album that remains one of the most astonishing follow-ups in music history.

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The girls displayed incredible vocal talents and kinship throughout and, considering the tensions that arose from Lopes’ addiction issues, it is a cohesive and unified work. FanMail received eight Grammy nominations and, whilst only winning three, was another huge commercial success and critically-approved record. The album’s ultra-modern approach – the girls in metallic colours on the cover; futuristic styles and a progressive, forward-thinking sound – was a departure from their previous release. Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes, like their previous albums, coined the title and showed, in spite of past issues, was one of the most compelling and consistent voices in music.

Huge tracks like No Scrubs and Unpretty proved they were in no shortage of bangers and many critics were seduced by the contrasts and nuances – steely and strong songs against sweet reflectiveness; woman-of-the-earth consciousness and sisterly defiance.

They are back and, like En Vogue, seemed to define themselves by their independence and strong wills together with songs that were ethical and compelling but had Pop catchiness and were accessible to all. They were not the only girl group of the decade that deserve mention.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Destiny’s Child

We are all familiar with Beyoncé’s solo work but, back in 1998, she helped introduce the world to Destiny’s Child. Although their eponymous debut boasted quite a few producers and helping hands; it is the girls’ talent and connection that resounds and endures. If their introduction was not quite as distinct as other female R&B acts of the time, it gave us a glimpse of what was to come. Rodney Jerkins and Missy Elliott (among others) came in for The Writing’s on the Wall and strengthened the songwriting and sound. The vocals, from all four, were stronger and the tunes – there were some weaker ones – more memorable and instant.

Although there was a line-up shift, too, and some controversy around the album – members of the band claiming that were disproportionately paid – tracks like Bills, Bills, Bills, Bugaboo and Say My Name are anthems from the girls.

Jumpin’ Jumpin’ is popping whilst Hey Ladies is confident and standout track. Throughout the album, themes of empowerment and equality were investigated: the group always eager to promote female solidarity and defiance. It is not cliché and false: the songs stem from four women who use their music to speak to young women and (try to) affect change.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Destiny’s Child

Survivor, like their previous albums, spoke out against cheap women, dishonest boyfriends and doubters but, unless you are looking for extreme depth and philosophy, the songs were effective and hugely catchy – lodging in the mind and shouting their messages every time you listen. Even today, songs such as Survivor, Bootylicious and Independent Women Part 1 are worthy of modern-day updates.

That is the issue really: do we have any act like Destiny’s Child around today?!

Although Destiny Fulfilled (2004) was a disappointing farewell for the girls – too many songwriters and a rehash of their previous albums – what they left behind not only led to Beyoncé’s extraordinary solo career but inspired a generation of girls and young women. Like their peers, their music spoke to men and appealed to a range of other music-lovers; unlike their peers, they have not attempted a reformation.

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I guess the other girl groups worth a mention were based closer to home. Sure, we had U.S. group Salt-N-Pepa whose contribution to music should not be overlooked.

More of a Rap act than R&B than Pop; their confidence and sassiness really struck on debut Hot, Cool & Vicious.

Maybe not as virtuoso as their Rap peers; the thing about the group was how much they improved and strengthened as they progressed. Their first two albums arrived in the 1980s but Blacks’ Magic came out in 1990. A lot of the song were written by Fingerprints (Hurby Azor) and cementing them as a credible and serious act. Not merely a crossover act with a few good hooks – Push It, perhaps their most-famous track, was more about its synth. hook than the rapping – Blacks’ Magic was them arriving. Empowerment, sexuality (safely-promoted) and self-confidence were all over an album that had more than its fair share of standouts. Let’s Talk About Sex, the song that was plastered all over MTV, was a paen to safe sex and caution; a look at censorship and loose morals. 1993’s Very Necessary continued the great work and helped get their music to new audiences.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Salt-N-Pepa (2016)

Opposite to those U.S. girl groups talking about feminism and female empowerment were British alternatives who made a big impact on the charts in the 1990s.

The Spice Girls are (possibly) the biggest British girl group and, that said, had their own brand of female unity and strength: Girl Power.

That was, perhaps, best represented through songs such as Wannabe. Some critics felt that track was false confidence and too commercial but The Spice Girls’ debut, Spice, was a fascinating and popular work that launched them to the world. Say You’ll Be There was the girls’ bonding and overcoming tough times; 2 Become 1 about lovers so powerful and together they were a single unit – messages about contraceptive and safe sex included. Who Do You Think You Are? about the shallow celebrity lifestyle and needless fame. Maybe the lyrics were not as deep and provocative as their U.S. rivals but, what set the group aside was their infectious fun and irresistible charms. Unlike many of the U.S. girl groups, Spice was not laden with songwriters.

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IN THIS PHOTO: The Spice Girls

It was an impressive and addictive debut that was bettered by Spiceworld. It is a catchier and more rounded work that saw the girls trade verses and improve as vocalists – Mel C was especially lauded and praised.

Maybe the ideals of Girl Power were traded for sexiness and a sense of maturity but one can argue that was a reaction to commercial pressures – not repeating themselves but still retaining that sense of strength and feminism.

Spice Up Your Life brings Latin and Bollywood influences – the colours and vibrancy of those films – into a song that, despite some recording issues (interruptions and chaos whilst the girls were trying to get it down) it proved to be a big commercial success. We all know there were tensions in the group and Geri Halliwell’s departure did cause weakness and doubts in the camp. Many felt the group would not survive and that was the end of things.

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Spiceworld was such a huge commercial success and found the girls on nearly every radio station around the world. That sort of pressure, coupled with gig demands and endless promotion, would be enough to strain any bond.

The girls, unlike a lot of today’s girl groups, were not overly-manufactured to sell a brand: there was respect and love among them and a real sense of friendship.

Post-Geri efforts were, for the most part, a bit of a failure. Forever, released in 2000, lost a lot of the enthusiasm and catchiness of their earlier albums and put too many cooks in the kitchen. It was a valiant effort but not fitting of a Pop phenomenon that helped change the face of music in the mid-late-1990s. Those always-rumoured reunion talks have been flying – they might happen one day – but it is best leave The Spice Girls on the rack: one of those incredible groups that, whilst not incredible singers or profound songwriters, created music that got into the head and was bloody fun!

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All Saints, the British-Canadian quarter, released Red Flag in 2016: a harmonious and impressive album that hinted at a new phase of confidence from the girls. In the girl group clash in Britain between The Spice Girls and All Saints – the Blur vs. Oasis of that genre – there was a definite difference.

All Saints were seen as a tougher, more credible alternative to The Spice Girls.

With some bold covers (Under the Bridge and Lady Marmalade) and incredible one-two-three – Never Ever, Bootie Call and I Know Where It’s At – it was a stunning album that might not have reached the heights of Spice but provided a viable option for those who wanted a sexier, bolder version of The Spice Girls. Given their tabloid infamy and meteoric rise; Saints & Sinners (2000) was, to me, one of the last truly great efforts from a girl group – appropriately arriving at the start of a new decade.

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The superlative singing, incredible sisterhood and unique personalities made the album more than a commercial exercise. The girls were individuals and proved, perhaps unlike The Spice Girls, they were all strong and capable vocalists – providing a honeyed and sumptuous sound when unified. Pure Shores and Black Coffee were not only two of the finest tracks from All Saints but two of the best songs of the early-‘00s.

Perhaps having William Orbit at the helm – who provided a similarly magic touch for Madonna’s Ray of Light – would have seen their debut album much stronger and assured – the same can be said of the follow-up, Studio 1.

In a bid to evolve and stay fresh, the girls employed Reggae and Ska touches and stripped a lot of their identity with it. Although Red Light is a brilliant return-to-form; it seems Studio 1 is a bit of a lumpen statement from a group who needed time to retreat and rethink. Whether you prefer to the fun and addictiveness of The Spice Girls or the more sensual and mature work of All Saints: both groups showed the British (and Canadian) alternative was capable of impressing critics and providing serious, long-lasting work.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Fifth Harmony

Of course, the girl group has been around for decades and not a phenomenon of the 1990s. Whether you are a fan of Diana Ross and the Supremes or The Bangles; there have been options since the 1960s – even earlier, in fact. One can argue The Andrews Sisters, the close-harmony/Doo-Wop group of the 1930s (they endured into the ‘40s and ‘50s) were a ‘girl group’.

We have seen an evolution over the past seventy/eighty years – which is probably not a surprise.

One can argue The Bangles are the finest example of the girl group. Their 1984 debut, All Over the Place, was a stunning introduction to the girls and marked them as a serious musical force. Perhaps Different Light (the 1986 follow-up) was a bit more commercial and less solid but was no failure either. Everything arrived in 1988 and produced one of their biggest tracks in Eternal Flame. Surprisingly, the band produced 2011’s Sweetheart of the Sun and created something that sounded very similar to their best work. It was a modern record but nodded to 1960s Pop and could have arrived in their ‘80s heydey.

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I would argue the girl group is a relevant proposition today but has changed nature and sound. Maybe we should not see them, now, as girl groups but ‘girl bands’. There are Pop/R&B alternatives like Little Mix, Fifth Harmony and (Wales’) Baby Queens but, in my view, there is not the same kind of strength and memorability as the 1990s’ alternatives.

Fifth Harmony, to be fair, speak of female unity and independence in 2015’s Reflection.

There are myriad sounds and genres from the U.S. group but, as they were born from U.S. X Factor, one can hear too much gloss and a lack of identity. The girls have incredible voices and their songwriting range is impressive but there is something lacking. Last year’s 7/27 was less fun than their debut but, perhaps, more sophisticated and mature. Regardless, there are elements of 1990s girl groups in Fifth Harmony but that secret ingredient is missing. One can tell they are manufactured – not that some of the 1990s’ groups weren’t – and there are few anthems that can rival the likes of Free Your Mind (En Vogue), Let’s Talk About Sex (Salt-N-Pepa) and Wannabe (The Spice Girls).

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Maybe the times have changed and tastes have with it. It would not be inconceivable to discover a group like En Vogue that could retain those themes of empowerment and independence and couple that with fun and swagger. Groups like that could talk about sex, race and feminism without making it sound like a shrewd commercial move: it was a natural part of their make-up and one of the reasons they went into music.

Now, the equivalent group seems pressured to address these issues in an attempt to seem mature and inspiring.

Maybe the likes of Fifth Harmony bring these ideas to the table but one senses marketing men and record labels directing their sound. Smaller production teams, a tight group and intelligent songs defined the best of the ‘90s and I feel there are few modern alternatives. British acts like Little Mix are proving popular but pale in comparison to the U.S. girl groups that caused such a buzz a couple of decades ago. I yearn for a 2017 girl group that instilled the virtues and potency of Destiny’s Child, En Vogue and TLC together with some All Saints/Spice Girls blends. Maybe talent shows are becoming too popular and threatening to produce the same sort of clones that have been circulating the last few years.

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There have been attempts at genuine girl groups but it seems the form is not as strong as it was. With Fifth Harmony, at the moment, the strongest example on the market; I am seeing a lot of girl band around. The Nyx formed in London last year and are, fundamentally, a fierce and powerful Rock group. Their twin lead songwriters have distinct styles and aim to change perspectives about female artists.

Maybe that is what we are seeing today: a natural evolution and development of girl groups.

There are Pop/R&B options but a lot of the best female groups today are channelling Grunge, Rock and Alternative sounds instead. A minor side-note but I am impressed by the amount of mixed-race girl bands/groups around. In an industry where there are issues of racism and inequality; I admire how many of today’s girl groups – IV Rox, Baby Queens; The Nyx and Fifth Harmony – like The Spice Girls and All Saints, are mixed-race and set an example. Maybe race is not a relevant discussion point for girl groups but it is pleasing seeing fewer all-white groups – too many of today’s Rock bands suffer homogenisation.

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The Nyx are leading a charge for powerful female Rock bands who are skewing expectations and dispelling preconceptions about female musicians. Honeyblood, Warpaint and Haim are fellow female bands who are not what you’d normally expect. Not to be an iconoclast but it seems like the Pop girl group is an obsolete force now.

There is, as there has been for decades, sexism and inequality in the industry: today’s girl bands are reacting with more force and directness than ever before.

It is interesting seeing those sonic shifts and the way things are changing. Maybe that ‘type’ of girl group – Pop and R&B-sounding – is a product of the 1990s, largely, and would be less effective today. There is a tendency to promote and celebrate the mainstream Pop artists and chart acts: would a genuine attempt at a serious Pop-inspired girl group really stand out and inspire?! It seems like, with this in mind, the best girl bands are picking up guitars and taking a more personal approach to music – writing their own songs and taking control of their art. It is good seeing fewer hands (men, at that) writing and dictating the music; that sense of talent and individuality is impressive too. That rebellion against sexualisation and over-exposure – too many modern female Pop acts too willing to strip and tease without reason – side required and burning bright. We live in a time when there is body-shaming and sexism; racial tension and political turmoil. I love the fact there are so many strong female bands coming through. I always worried Rock and Alternative were too male-dominated and defined by a real lack of diversity and variety. Now, with the wave of female bands emerging; it seems there is a bit of a mini-revolution. It is encouraging to see and will help fight the sexism and misconceptions in the industry.

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I would, however, like to finish by stating there is a big gap left following the 1990s. I know All Saints and TLC are still around but their work is more mature and changed since their golden, early days.

I would love to see a girl group come along that can match the best of that decade and the kind of songs that were emerging.

Given the political state of the world, it is left to solo artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to document subjects like racial tension and solidarity. Maybe there are few Pop/R&B girl groups that have the authority and credibility to pull off a credible attack. Perhaps there is too much commercialisation and preference of the grittier, Rock-based girl band. I am not sure but still think there is a market for a genuine girl group that picks up where the likes of En Vogue left off. It might be the case there is not a huge demand for that music anymore but I am not so sure. I am really pleased there are some fantastic female Rock/Indie/Alternative bands but I miss that sense of fun and addictiveness we saw in the 1980s and ‘90s. Music can be effective and appealing but present a serious message. Let’s see how things go but I yearn for a girl group that can evoke memories of the past but remain current and relevant. Fifth Harmony and their contemporaries produce some good music but seem rather slight compared with the legends we grew up to. If there was a way of reintroducing the classic girl group, with as little commercialisation and manufactured talent show input as possible, I believe that would help create…

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IN THIS PHOTO: En Vogue (2017)

A stronger and more intriguing music industry.


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