The Pop Economy: The Troubles With Girl Groups

Rohin Guha | October 23, 2009 12:00 pm

Behind Sugababeslatest lineup machinations, which make one wonder if the group is shape-shifting into a sort of female British Menudo, is a trend piece about enough slant histrionics to make Ken Russell films wilt. There’s even something telling in the yearlong break rival girl group Girls Aloud announced in July, following on the heels of some of their strongest offerings yet. If the crown jewels in Britain’s pop tiara are wont to defect so quickly — and leave us with The Saturdays — shouldn’t it be time to reassess the girl group as a business model? Perhaps, with pop going the way of our economy, we probably shouldn’t be turning to something as volatile as singer-stuffed girl groups for a bailout.

Boybands and even male-fronted rock bands seem to enjoy some sense of longevity. But why do their female counterparts seem to have all the reliability of AIG? Below, a categorical look at five iconic girlb(r)ands for whom dissolution was all but foretold.


The white-hot center of every Sugababes cock-up. Founding member Siobhán Donaghy exited in 2001, claiming Buchanan was bullying her. But she abhorred the bubblegum pop-and-B sound the group was teetering toward, and artistically thrived once out of the band.

Think back to a previously small-time R&B all-girl quartet that went by the name Destiny’s Child. After their first album, half the members were dismissed, and two new ones were drafted — then one of those girls was let go. With each of these shakeups, Beyoncé was pushed more and more toward the frontwoman role. When she had outgrown even that, Beyoncé went solo and basically went onto fill the boots that Janet Jackson had abandoned. Rowland and Williams were both rewarded with solo careers following the band’s split, but it stands to reason that what would’ve been best for all three members was the very thing that B eyed as a career roadblock for herself. (Although perhaps Rowland felt the same way; after all, real solo success didn’t come until she completely severed all professional ties to Beyoncé, Inc.

Then there’s En Vogue — or, more specifically, Dawn Robinson. One of the R&B vocal outfit’s four original members, she quit En Vogue after they had scored their biggest single in order to pursue a solo career, and the band carried on as a trio until she returned in 2008.

Sick Leave

Peculiarly enough, the Sugababes never employed the “s” word when recent replacement Amelle Berrabah failed to show up at a pre-Keisha-departure gig. Originally, she was rumored to be the one getting the All About Eve treatment, but when you’re the only member of a group to have a hand in a recent UK No. 1 single, management’s probably going to fire not you, but the employee who hasn’t scored the No. 1 but acts like she has. Though Berrabah’s now a confirmed no-show for at least the next three weeks—not a good omen considering the band’s next album is due out in November.

Then there are some ladies who leave their respective girlbands at the height of their success. So drunk on fame, or those little bottles of red wine they give you in business class, they undo their Union Jack corsets and then mouth off about “wanting to be real” and “discovering themselves.” They’re a lot like Geri Halliwell. She cited “personal health reasons,” when abandoned her former bandmates on the eve of their first world tour. She had found that to be an opportune moment to chat about her own cancer scare. Sure, Halliwell was only second to Victoria Beckham when it came to which Spice Girl was the worse singer, but she was the band’s charisma, as evidenced by this load of crap that the band unleashed in 2000.

Meanwhile, Halliwell did the whole cancer awareness song-and-dance, racked up some bogus goodwill at the UN, and wished Prince Charles a happy birthday. Then seven months later, she returned. In order to demonstrate how much our precious Ginger had “grown up” and “evolved” in that forever-ish span of a half-year, she had reverted to blonde hair, stopped wearing platforms, and eventually emerged from a giant pair of spread legs during an appearance at the BRIT Awards. Her solo career was later marked by having a hand in the creation of Girls Aloud via her appearance on Popstars: The Rivals and putting out a few yoga DVDs.Motherhood

In 2005, founding Sugababe Mutya Buena — who supplied the bulk of the group’s street cred with her thug princess mien — left the band, wanting to be a mother. (She also invariably went the solo route, even teaming up with Amy Winehouse along the way.) In 2001, after Robinson had left En Vogue, another founding member, Maxine Jones, also left to spend time with her family and two new singers were drafted. But motherhood is also why the Spice Girls half-assedly reunited in 2007 — they wanted their kids to know what their mothers did for a living. The lesson here: When you lure young girls into the music biz, the abstract fear that they may want to leave the band and make something of their lives always lurks. Some like to do this by rearing children, getting married, and other such bizarre things. Perhaps large men in gunmetal suits micromanaging the affairs of women an eighth their size would do well to remember that they only own the rights to the singing voices of the women they hire.Clinical Insanity

The only Sugababe to ever sport the crazy-eye was Berrabah, but all of her antics weren’t horrible enough to get her the boot.

But long ago, we learned that burning down your boyfriend’s house did not prevent you from being one-third of a leading pop group. TLC‘s late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was incendiary, especially when she lit her boyfriend’s house on fire. More odd is when she teamed up with a Spice Girl and all the universe could do was cosmically shrug. Still, it was a tragic car crash in Central America that rubbished out one of the critical pillars of TLC. Although this ill-conceived do-over of “Ladies’ Night” did not do much to inspire faith, nor did sorry time when her bandmates decided to replace her by way of a reality show on UPN. Never has the dismantling of such a cultural hallmark been so swift.

The Stealth Break-Up

After Halliwell’s departure from the Spice Girls, a two-year period of inactivity followed, with other members temporarily exploring solo careers to varying degrees of success. When they regrouped in 2000 for Forever, their charisma and spark had fizzled out—and wasn’t properly reignited until they, along with Halliwell, were lured back to the ranks in 2007 to the tune of $20 million a head.

A much more amicable version of this is currently playing out within Girls Aloud. With the band quietly agreeing to take a yearlong break, member Cheryl Cole is making good on her promise to dabble in solo pursuits, with “Fight For This Love” leading the campaign for her first record Three Words — which has already courted less-than-favorable first impressions. Cole faces the same problem Berrabah did earlier this year: If “Fight For This Love” lands within spitting distance of No. 1 and the album goes onto sell well, then Cole’s ego will bloat proportionately; she’ll be armed with a contingency plan should Girls Aloud’s next album suffer the same cracks and breaks that the Sugababes have faced as Sweet 7 stumbles toward the public.

Conclusion We’ve all seen Mean Girls, right? In the same way that peace of mind was achieved when The Plastics dissolved, so will harmony be restored when members of the Sugababes go the way of those of Destiny’s Child and their predecessors: with few stars carving out careers (Mutya, we’re still rooting for you!) and others settling into bland, bourgie domesticity.

Perhaps one day suits will learn that you cannot seal teenage impulses within iron-clad contracts, because then your primary asset will evolve into Lindsay Lohan — times three, four, or five, maybe — and render itself totally, utterly unprofitable.