FEATURE: Saintly and Supreme: Whatever Happened to Girl Groups?




Saintly and Supreme


IN THIS PHOTO: The Supremes/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Whatever Happened to Girl Groups?


THIS is another subject I have covered…


 IN THIS PHOTO: All Saints/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

before but, like any good journalist (if I can call myself that), some things are worth revisiting when the time calls! Tomorrow, I am going to talk about Lana Del Rey and her latest track – one that imagines an America without guns and chaos. It is an arresting thing and it makes me wonder whether musicians need to get more involved when it comes to raising awareness about what is happening in the U.S. Now, although some of the girl groups from my childhood are still around in some form, it seems strange that this scene died away. The Spice Girls have reunited and are performing but one wonders whether they will record new music – will it be as anthemic and spirited as their earliest stuff? One suspects now. Also, All Saints are around but, again, a more mature sound presents itself in their newest work; nothing quite like their regency back in the day. Apart from that, there are few remnants of the finest of the 1990s and earliest part of the last decade – I think En Vogue are still together but are hardly being talked about. Maybe there is something inherently un-PC about the term ‘girl group’: at a time when sexism and gender is being discussed and, in music, always present, is it demeaning and wrong to label like this?! I think ‘girl group’ is an old term that has been resigned but, in any case, what about the music that was being made? This feature from earlier in the year tells us where the girl groups of the past are.

I raise this subject for a couple of reasons – I shall get to the second in a bit. I grew up around a lot of music, but it was the music of classic 1960s girl groups that really caught my ear. Maybe it was the harmonies or the connection between the members; something magical that resonated and lingered between the notes. I recall hearing The Ronettes, The Shangri Las; The Supremes and The Shirelles for the first time and noticing how different they were to anything around. Maybe I am a sucker for the romance portrayed in the song but, really, it is the timelessness of the music that hit me – the fact it was passed from my parents to me and, in 2019, the music still sounds fresh and unique. This illuminating article dissects and revels in the extraordinary girl groups of the 1960s:

Girl groups of the 1960s were responsible for some of the catchiest hits of the day. Songs like "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" by The Shirelles, and "Where Did Our Love Go?" by the Supremes are pop-music diamonds, short and catchy with passionate lead vocals and sophisticated harmonies. The earlier wave of '60s girl groups included The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Blossoms, Shangri-Las, The Chiffons, the Dixie Cups, the Ronettes and The Cookies. Then later came the Motown sound with The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and The Supremes.

The Supremes were one of few girl groups that was able to sustain their success through the tsunami that hit American shores in the form of the Beatles and the British Invasion. It's conventional wisdom among some music experts that the Brits more or less "killed" the girl group phenomenon, or at least hastened the end of the golden age of girl groups. But let's be real -- it's pop music, considered a fairly disposable form of entertainment at the time, and nothing lasts forever. It's also worth noting that girl group never went away, it just changed with the music -- up through the Pointer Sisters to TLC to the Spice Girls.

One of the most famous of the girl groups that emerged out of Detroit’s Motown music scene in the mid 60’s, at the same time the Beatles and the British invasion were coming on strong in the U.S. and would go toe-to-toe with those groups on the music charts, was The Supremes. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard recorded “Where Did Our Love Go” in the summer of 1964, that particular song had been rejected earlier on by the Marvelettes. It went to #1 and sold over 2 million copies, so The Supremes were on their way to make music history! They quickly followed this with two more #1 hits: “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me”. The hits kept coming for The Supremes in 1965, 1966 and 1967. Between 1964 and 1967, The Supremes had one of the best all-time female track records in pop music history: they released 15 singles and all but one made the Top 10. Additionally, 10 of those songs were #1 hits!


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Bangles/PHOTO CREDIT: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty

I will bring in another article that examines the girl groups of the 1990s and early part of the last decade. It seems strange that bands of the 1960s such as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were so much more massive than girl groups like The Supremes, but I think the classic girl groups helped influenced generations of artists and, as I say, the music sounds so sumptuous, passionate and evocative today. Whilst so many modern Pop artists discuss love in negative terms of, when being positive, are quite trite and predictable, there is something inherently jaw-dropping and seductive when you hear the 1960s’ best girl groups. Of course, not all girl group-produced music was about love and loss: there were anthems of defiance and the subject matter was quite broad. I am going to briefly mention the 1980s because we cannot ignore bands like The Bangles and Salt-N-Pepa. In a way, the classics crafted by these groups were on the same sort of level as the 1960s’ best. Maybe the subject matter was broader and we got some slightly harder-edged bands but, essentially, the template was the same: an incredible tight band performing these incredible catchy and memorable song. I like The Bangles because they were one of the few girl groups who played and rocked hard – maybe girl groups never caught on as much as Indie and Rock bands because of the lack of guitars and riffs; The Bangles were a bit of an anomaly.

When I think of the second wave of girl groups and the ones who I still listen to, it is the 1990s that comes to mind. Groups like All Saints and Destiny’s Child continued into the next decade, but I think the 1990s was this decade where girl groups held as much sway as boy bands. If the 1960s was defined by ‘boy bands’ like The Beatles courting more fevered and vocal fanbases than girl groups, there was a time when girl groups were on a level par with the men. What I like most about the 1990s’ girl groups was the fact that there were these different camps. If you wanted something a bit more commercial and sweeter, you had the Spice Girls and Sugarbabes. If you wanted something sassier that possessed a bit more clout then Destiny’s Child, TLC and En Vogue were on hand. Depending on your age will dictate whether the strongest girl groups were the legends of the 1960s or their grandchildren of the 1990s. I will end by asking where the girl groups have gone but I am not surprised the 1990s was such a fertile period for them. Even though genres came and movements evolved – we had Grunge and Britpop; U.S. alternative and all sorts at that time – girl groups seemed to be a constant that were unaffected by tastes, markets and trends. Some say girl groups aren’t prevalent today because the music is not enduring and seems uncool. I disagree. Listen to the very best girl group music of the 1990s – including All Saints and Destiny’s Child – and there are plenty of indelible tracks that added something bright and brilliant to the scene.



In America, you had these independent, pioneering and strong girl groups like TLC, Destiny’s Child and En Vogue who, to me, were about projecting these messages of strength against suppression; encouraging girls and young women to stand tall and believe in themselves. In a sense, the 1960s’ girl groups, whilst talking about love and heartache, were promoting the same thing: the new breed of the 1990s were updating those messages and giving them a bit more kick and swagger. Personally, I was a bigger fan of the U.S. best compared with our version: the Spice Girls, All Saints and Eternal were great but not quite as intriguing and nuanced as their U.S. sisters. Just as I write this, I am seeing a report that suggests Destiny’s Child might reform and tour together. They sort of came together for Beyoncé’s epic headline set at Coachella last year – few can forget that incredible performance. It was great to see the group back together and storming it like they did back in the 1990s and early-2000s. I digress. I think, though, there is an appetite for revival that extends past nostalgia and rehashing the past. Today’s music lacks potent girl groups and a sense of swagger, punch and pop. Think back to the 1990s and some of the anthems that came out. Destiny’s Child provided (from the 1990s to the next decade) Bills, Bills, Bills and Say My Name; the brilliant Lose My Breath and Jumpin’ Jumpin’. The Spice Girls had their fair share of brilliant tracks: Wannabe, Who Do You Think You Are and Say You’ll Be There among them.

Look at the En Vogue camp and some of their biggest numbers. Who can ignore the prowess and charge of Free Your Mind and My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)?! I really loved a lot of All Saints’ music and feel they are underrated. There was something about girl groups’ music that resonated more than simple Pop. Maybe it was the harmonies or, perhaps, the subject matter was more interesting. I was never into the branding; I never had a favourite member of the groups and, whilst I have great affection for the TLCs and Destiny’s Childs of the world, my love was purely musical – whereas a lot of fans identified with the imagery and messages being projected. I could definitely appreciate the lyrics but I understand male listeners might get something different to girls and young women. Certainly, one cannot refute the addictiveness of the music and the fact so many of the songs from the 1990s and early-2000s are revered and played today – that is the case with girl groups’ music of the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s, too. So, then…why have girl groups sort of faded away?! The Fader discussed the subject last year and stated that, whilst there are modern boy bands like BTS, girl groups are barely visible:

BTS, with their distinguishing nicknames, hairstyles, and personalities, model a dynamic homosociality in the same mold set by The Beatles over fifty years ago. Like the now-hibernating U.K. group One Direction, they present an array of types from which young fans can choose a favorite member. When a straight or bi teen girl undergoes the process of finding out what kind of boy she finds most attractive — a clean-cut beach blond like Niall Horan or a tattooed enigma like Zayn — she also begins to construct her own personality. Boy band fandom has served as an easily accessible identity-building exercise among teen girls for decades.

At the turn of the millennium, girl groups and boy bands had nearly equal sway over American culture. Singles from the Spice Girls, TLC, and Destiny's Child brushed up against hits by Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and NSYNC on the radio. With bubblegum tracks about female friendship in a world that prioritized men, '90s girl groups preached a newly accessible pop feminism. "Girl power" resonated among pre-teen and teenage girls, and it succeeded largely due to the social dynamics on display in girl groups.

Whether there is room for the girl group in the contemporary neoliberal imagination remains to be seen. Non-male bands command attention in more niche genres such as indie rock, where groups like Camp Cope and Cayetana challenge the patriarchal vision of the rock stage as a male domain. The sound of female camaraderie remains a powerful one for certain audiences, yet it remains a challenge for groups of women to attain mainstream sway. If girl groups are to see a resurgence, they’ll have to prove to the market what we already know to be true: female friendship is worth looking at”.

I do think it is changes in scenery and tastes that have seen girl groups’ numbers reduce rather than them being of a particular time. There are a lot of great female artists out there now and so many of them are in very innovative and stunning bands. We still have close-knit female groups but, rather than it being displayed through R&B/Pop with melodies and harmonies, things are more varied; perhaps the commercial demand is not there just yet and, with so many of the established girl groups either disbanded or less active than before, maybe we will see another wave in years to come. I do like the fact groups like the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child have reformed and are/will play together again. Maybe it, as the article above claims, time for the industry to recognise female power and talent out there. Whereas we had a fair few great girl groups in the 1990s and last decade, things sort of petered out. With Pop evolving and the mainstream shifting, maybe the new breed of girl groups will be an entirely different proposition to the ones who have come and gone. I am buoyed by the news Destiny’s Child might record more material and, with one of the iconic girl groups gearing up for their next phase, does this mean that other girl groups, new and established, follow in their wake? At a time when music lacks a distinct energy and fun, I think girl groups’ music has…


 IN THIS PHOTO: The Shirelles/PHOTO CREDIT: CSU Archives/Everett/Alamy

A vital role to play.