I came to London for a lot of reasons — to interview some very big English pop stars (more on that to come!), to hear new music from some of my favorite acts from this side of the pond (including the incredible comeback of Mutya Keisha Siobhan), and for an immersive British pop experience — but most of all, I came to see Girls Aloud live in concert on Friday night.
The iconic girl group, formed on a reality show called Popstars: The Rivals in 2002, went on to release six critically hailed albums, 21 consecutive Top 10 singles (including four #1 hits), and receive five BRIT nominations including one win for their single “The Promise.” (Americans, for a point of reference, their origins story matters because that would be like if Eden’s Crush or Danity Kane had gone on to become one of the most sonically innovative, universally adored, critically hailed, Grammy-winning bands of all time.) After going on hiatus in 2008, they reunited last year for a greatest hits collection and the release of a few new singles, culminating in their Ten Tour, which stopped at London’s packed O2 Arena for three shows this weekend.
I had already seen pictures of how the show opens, with the girls descending from giant letters suspended over the crowd, but I still gasped unselfconsciously when it happened, as that woozy opening surf rock riff from “Sound of the Underground” blasted from the speakers and the crowd erupted into rapturous cheers. As always, de facto lead singer Nadine Coyle stole the show, her hair long and tousled and constantly flipping; at times, her body appears to be about 80% legs, in a good way. Cheryl Cole radiated likability, Nicola Roberts was typically quirky, Kimberley Walsh was as ebullient as ever and Sarah Harding seemed stabler on her feet than she has in awhile.
Unsurprisingly, given the fact that Ten is a reunion tour of sorts, they stuck to the hits: After “Sound” led into their ballad “Life Got Cold,” after which they changed into ornate, white and pastel feathered costumes that resembled the runway outfits of Victoria’s Secret angels to perform “The Show,” “Love Machine” and “Can’t Speak French.” “Whole Lotta History” was set to footage of the band together over the years, which was appropriately sentimental given the crowd.
The production values were uniformly dazzling and the choreography was nimble, if not particularly strenuous; they used chairs as props to great effect for a lively performance of “Biology,” and a darkly sexy S&M-style rendition of “Sexy! No No No” harkened back to the song’s video. Later, on a runway in the middle of the arena, they performed “Untouchable,” “On the Metro,” and the blissful “Call the Shots.”
After the dizzying euphoria of “Something Kinda Ooh,” a cover of Carly Rae Jepsen‘s ”Call Me Maybe” felt like something of a misfire (I think most fans would have preferred an obscure B-side) and the not-particularly-well-received “Beautiful ‘Cause You Love Me” saw the crowd get a little bit sleepy, but their comeback single “Something New” was a shot of adrenaline to close the show. For an encore, they returned in sleek red gowns to perform “I’ll Stand By You” and the dulcet Phil Spector-style ”The Promise,” a fitting end.
After the show, I went to say hello to the girls; Nadine, who I met several times when she was recording in New York during Girls Aloud’s hiatus, greeted me warmly, like an old friend. I gushed. “I’ve never seen someone flip their hair like that in my entire life,” I said. “Do you have a wind machine in your head?”
“Really?” she laughed. “I wasn’t sure if I was flipping enough.”
I asked her how the tour had been, wondering privately if maybe it felt like a slog to reunite after several of the girls (Nadine, Cheryl and Nicola, most notably) had launched out on solo careers, with varying degrees of success. “It’s been amazing,” she said with complete sincerity. “Every single second of it.” I believed her.
Nicola was charmingly off-kilter; I told her that I had come from America to see the show and she looked flabbergasted. There was a part of me, too, that was shocked — shocked that I’d crossed an ocean to see a band who had never even tried to break my home country, who had never seemed particularly interested in American success. Most acts who experience such meteoric levels of domestic stardom try to crack the United States — as solo artists, the girls had made gestures to that effect, Cheryl’s X Factor venture being the most salient — but Girls Aloud, on Friday night more than ever, struck me as a distinctly British institution. There was a part of me that liked that I’d had to travel such a long distance to see them: It made it all the more special.