There is an irresistible power in a great girlband.
Think of the lasting impact of The Supremes. Think Destiny’s Child rocking up at the Super Bowl and owning the Coachella stage. Think the Spice Girls skipping around a luxurious hotel while proclaiming, “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.”
One of this generation’s biggest girlbands is undeniably Little Mix. Ever since they won the UK X Factor in 2011 (back when people still watched The X Factor, that is), the foursome of Perrie Edwards, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Jesy Nelson and Jade Thirlwall, despite having never properly ‘broken America’, have sold more than 30 million records worldwide. Their fourth album, Glory Days, is the longest running album by a girl group ever on the official UK charts. Their Get Weird tour was the highest-selling UK arena tour of 2016. Their Glory Days tour in 2017 ranks fifth in the highest grossing girl group concert tours of all time, trailing behind only the likes of the Spice Girls, TLC and Destiny’s Child.
There is a tendency for people to scoff at things young girls love or embrace. In this vein pop music is often disregarded as shallow or superficial. But the way young girls and women have rallied around girl groups throughout the decades – be it the Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child or Little Mix themselves – is more proof than ever that young girls’ appreciation for the image of female unity runs deep. Above all else, Little Mix’s appeal, other than their many catchy pop hits, is in how they have always functioned as a solid unit.
Make no mistake: these girls can sing and harmonise their hearts out. Their acapella game – beat box and all – is incredibly strong. But it is glaring, albeit in the best positive way, that there is no Beyonce or Diana Ross in the group. Even when X Factor judges criticised their performances and told them to make Perrie the group’s lead singer, they insisted on sharing vocals. They are, like they keep telling everyone for years, “stronger together”. They know, very exactly, the strengths and weaknesses of each of their voices and how they should all be blended together. Whether they are executing a dance routine while belting out their anthemic hit “Power” or delivering a cover of a Whitney Houston song backed by a gospel choir, they make sure they move – physically and vocally – as one.
This is the most impressive thing about the four of them: ever since they appeared on The X Factor years ago, as girls barely out of their teen years, apparelled in ‘street’ clothes and trainers, and flinging themselves on each other in group hugs after every performance, they have remained resolutely united. It is rare for a pop group, especially one not formed organically by the members themselves, to be so free of internal drama. Fifth Harmony and One Direction, also formed by The X Factor, have since disbanded or gone on hiatuses, with many of their members embarking on solo careers. Even legendary groups like Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls went through periods of members dispute. With Little Mix, however, it just somehow feels different.
You believe them when they say they are the best of friends or that (for now) none of them particularly want a solo career. You believe them when they titled a song about their friendship “We’ll Always Be Together”. Or when Jade commented on Leigh-Anne’s Instagram post celebrating their seventh year together as a group: “Wheel me in when I’m 70, I’m ready for the choreo.”
Female pop stars are usually untouchable, glamourised figures who make you feel a little bit bad about yourself as a woman – how you look, how you sound, how you move through life. Little Mix, however, have gone the route of creating a gang of friends who listeners and audience members can feel surprisingly included in. You get the feeling that these are four girls with four very distinct personalities who you’d be friends with in real life. That they’d be fun to get sloshed with at fancy events or at dance parties. They remind you of your best mates who you’re comfortable enough to be silly with or cry with. Who wouldn’t mind if you were to invite yourself over for a sleepover. The kind that’d hold your hair back while you vomit into a toilet because you’ve had a little too much to drink.
Of course, cynics will say girl groups and boy bands can never exist outside of their original manufactured states. (It is, after all, the nature of the pop beast.) But after turning 25-27 there has been a shift in Little Mix’s confidence and maturity that is hard to miss. Getting more educated about politics and social issues seems to have become a greater priority. They’ve openly discussed how damaging it was to be thrown into the limelight at such a young age – how being scrutinised relentlessly for their outfits and appearances affected their self-esteem. Now more than ever, they are becoming increasingly outspoken about LGBTQ rights, and are using their music and interviews to promote messages of self-love, body positivity and female friendship.
In a recent interview with VICE, as promotion for their new album LM5 (in which all the features are women), Jade addresses their new-found “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” vibe: “I don’t know if a switch happened… but it felt overnight. All of a sudden I’d see an article online about how rotten I looked and instead of going to the comments to see what people were saying, I’d just think, ‘Look a bit shit there, not really arsed, I’m now going to eat a cookie.’” While Perrie describes them as “four women with big mouths” who have “strong opinions.”
Yes, Little Mix aren’t going to revolutionise the whole pop industry nor will their new album bring forth a new age of feminism. They are not out to change the world’s political landscape, solve Brexit or impeach Trump. But sometimes, as a woman, it is enjoyable and strangely empowering just to see genuine sisterhood on display: four girlfriends just having fun, being confident in who they are and helping each other figure things out. “We embrace who we are,” Jesy says. “We’re not perfect and we know that.” There is something refreshingly uncomplicated about the whole shebang: young women simply exploring our spaces and existing in them unapologetically.
It will be interesting to see where Little Mix go next. Girl bands and boy bands don’t have a particularly long shelf-life as it is always difficult for pop groups to grow and evolve along with their core audience. But if history proves anything, it is not to bet against Little Mix. Especially when they’re still generating such force by being together.