From ‘Popstars’ To Pop Rebels — How Girls Aloud Manufactured Authenticity
When Cheryl Tweedy, Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts, Kimberley Walsh, and Sarah Harding won Popstars: The Rivals in 2002, people gave them about two months in the pop business. No one thought that Girls Aloud would keep disco dancing with the lights down low for ten years and notch up no less than twenty-one UK top ten singles.
In 2007, Guiness World Records awarded the band the title of ‘Most Successful Reality TV Group’. They have become a beacon of British pop music and they have managed what most casting show acts fail to do: achieve a certain level of authenticity.
Girls Aloud had three strikes against them in the fight for authenticity. They were a pop band. They were a girl band. They were a casting show band. How did they manage to rise above their original image to turn the tables on Britain’s “indie clones”?
Authenticity In Popular Music: The Ancient Battle Of Pop vs. Rock
“The basic distinction […] is that which originated in the mid-1960s between a popular music centre (‘pop’) and periphery (‘rock’), concerning as it did the nature of the commercial enterprise surrounding examples of each particular style: the degree to which it could be perceived as ‘authentic’. Dispassionately speaking, of course, this commercial/authentic polarity is illusory, since all mass-mediated music is subject to commercial imperatives, but what matters to listeners is whether such subjection appears to be accepted, resisted, or negotiated with, by those to whom they are listening.” (Allan Moore, ‘Authenticity As Authentication’, 2002, p. 218)
According to Allan Moore, the main distinction between rock and pop is the degree of perceived authenticity. Rock music is authentic. Pop is not and does not claim to be. Add to that the lack of authenticity typically ascribed to casting show acts, who are generally thought to be controlled by their respective TV channels and music labels, and you are led to see Girls Aloud as five pop culture puppets with little to no agency.
The girls themselves openly refute such claims in their book Dreams That Glitter. Cheryl, for instance, says, “we learned along the way. We weren’t groomed to perfection and we were allowed to do and say what we wanted” (p. 240). Sarah acknowledges that “it’s difficult as a girl band to be accepted and seen as credible.” She then adds, “but I think we are now” (p. 241f).
Needless to say, it takes more than a simple statement of (relative) independence to change the image of a pop band. Over the course of their long and hugely successful career, Girls Aloud have stood out from other pop acts in several remarkable ways. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.
Xenomania’s Left-Of-Centre Pop: Edgy And Catchy
Girls Aloud are unique in managing to be both as pop as it gets and distinctly edgy at the same time. Nadine referred to their sound as “left-of-centre pop, fun, but slightly on the strange side” (Dreams That Glitter, p. 13).
While the five girls have amassed their fair share of co-writing credits, the true masterminds behind their outstanding discography are others, namely Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper of songwriting and production team Xenomania. Few, if any, relationships in the pop business are as close and long-lasting as the union between Girls Aloud and Xenomania. With the exception of a few tracks on the band’s very first and very last releases, Xenomania are responsible for the signature sound of every single Girls Aloud hit.
Among the daring releases that shifted Girls Aloud’s image are the uptempo bangers “Biology” and “Sexy! No No No…”, the lead singles of the studio albums Chemistry and Tangled Up. Both songs break the typical verse-chorus structure and were written hook-by-hook instead of top to bottom. Then there’s the sublime album track “Graffiti My Soul” that was deemed too risky by Britney Spears’ management and the dark synthpop epic “Swinging London Town” that no other girl band could have pulled off.
With the help of Xenomania, Girls Aloud threw pop culture caution to the wind and established themselves as one of pop music’s most rebellious and revolutionary acts. Their winning formula was: poppy, edgy, catchy.
Pride And Prejudice: Pop In A Manufacturing Country
“They call it manufactured pop, as if that were something to be ashamed of — but we are a manufacturing country. Down our conveyor belts come cars, and shoes, and biscuits, and guns, and pop bands. Useful things and beautiful things.” (Girls Aloud, Chemistry press release, 2005)
These are the opening lines of a refreshingly honest and confident press release that is essentially a meditation on the nature and meaning of manufactured pop music. One of the unwritten rules of pop is that music acts — especially girl bands — don’t openly talk about the way the business works. They release pop, they don’t disect pop. But Girls Aloud, your not-so-typical girl band, did. And they went in.
Why shouldn’t singers be casted to form a band on television, the girls wonder. Music is always manufactured, as is everything else in our modern society. The beauty of it is that in ‘the factory’, anything is possible:
“Sometimes the people working on the floor come cruising in on a monday morning, still wearing saturday night’s make-up and sunday morning’s smile, and say, ‘Sod this.’ They pull off their hair-nets and jump on the conveyor belt themselves. They announce that they are pop stars, now. They make a band. That’s allowed in the factory because we are a manufacturing country, and that means we are also allowed to manufacture ourselves. We are allowed to change our futures. We are Girls Aloud.”
Not only do Girls Aloud take pride in their casting show origins. They also fiercely declare their independence and take their reputation into their own hands by showing their metaphorical middle fingers to those who dislike them:
“If you know someone who sounds like us, we’ll give you a tenner. If you like someone better than us, frankly, we don’t care.”
Dear Indie Clones: When A Pop Band Fights Back
“I don’t know your name. You’re just another band with a different game. And you’re all the same. You said you played at Reading, then you chart at fifty-seven. You’re off your face like you’re number one. How many tracks have you sold? Mmmmm, none!” (Girls Aloud, ‘Hoxton Heroes’, 2008)
When Girls Aloud’s single “Can’t Speak French” was released in 2008 it contained a short, energetic b-side called “Hoxton Heroes”. That monster of a pop song represents the ultimate rebellious move against pop music clichés.
It’s often part of a rock or indie musician’s image to look down upon pop acts because of their manufactured nature. With “Hoxton Heroes” Girls Aloud fire back at ‘indie clones’, triumphantly turning the tables on boys in parkas with guitars. In a highly interesting and decidedly un-pop move, the band direct the criticism they received right back at the indie scene.
By denouncing indie musicians’ lack of authenticity, the girls elevate themselves to a position of power in the battle for authenticity — the very battle they should already have lost when they formed a pop band on TV. Essentially, Girls Aloud challenge wide-spread perceptions of indie and pop music, showing self-awareness and confidence in their own craft.
Here we have a pop band taking a stand and proudly portraying itself as more authentic than indie musicians. This is subversion at its best.
The Leaders Of The Pack: Challenging The Image Of Pop Music
“We’re gift-wrapped kitty cats. We’re only turning into tigers when we gotta fight back.” (Girls Aloud, ‘Love Machine’, 2004)
These lines from the strange but brilliant hit single “Love Machine” describe Girls Aloud perfectly. Over the course of their impressive career the five girls have turned pop music on its head and established themselves as authentic musicians that should be taken seriously.
Cheryl, Nadine, Nicola, Kimberley, and Sarah strayed just far enough from formulaic pop to be considered edgy and openly voiced their opinion of their own place in the music industry. They took pride in their origins and hit back hard at judgmental yet uncreative indie musicians.
All this boosted Girls Aloud’s perceived agency, individuality, and — ultimately — authenticity. It allowed them to rise above their casting-pop-girl-band image and turned them into one of the most intriguing bands the music industry has ever marketed.
It’s time for another pop act to call the shots and walk down the road Girls Aloud paved. You can’t mistake their biology, so be inspired by the way that they talk, the way that they walk.