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

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.