THE HISTORY OF GIRL GROUPS
Girl groups are the backbone of the music industry. You may think that’s a joke, but the deeper you delve into the history of the girl group, the more you realise just how much of not just music culture, but pop culture in general initiated with popular girl groups.
The girl group is defined as a group of all, generally young, female vocalists who sing in complex harmonies with one another.
Generally the phrase ‘girl band’ refers to bands that have all female members, but are the traditional type of band with a vocalist and then other members on instruments.
The birth of the girl group: 1920s and 1930s
Much like with boybands, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when girl groups originated as people have been singing together since the beginning of time.
However, it seems to be the 1920s when girl groups really became significant in the music industry and found their way to radio airwaves. The original big girl groups tended to consist of white women, who were taking influence from both white and black music and fusing it together to create jazz-like music.
The Andrews Sisters, The Three X Sisters, and The Boswell Sisters were all significant players in this genre. All of these groups were very similar, came to fruition at similar times, and even looked pretty similar physically. There was clearly a style of successful girl group, and these trios initiated and embraced it.
The Boswell Sisters in particular are considered one of the major players of the jazz world in their time (1920s and 30s), and really brought jazz music to the mainstream. The trio was from New Orleans, so it’s unsurprising that they were influenced by jazz, but they made it more mainstream by blending it with classical sounds, which allowed their sound to be incredibly successful.
The rise of Motown saw the rise of girl groups that were at the centre of this genre and sound.
The Marvelettes were the first-ever successful artist from Motown Records, and their infamous track ‘Please, Mr Postman’ is still listened to to this day. The release of this song allowed the group to be the first truly commercially successful girl group, but a lot of their fame was overshadowed by The Supremes.
At the peak of their success, The Supremes were as widely revered as The Beatles. The line-up featured the iconic Diana Ross, and both the influence of the Supremes and Ross are still found to this day. The Supremes were such cultural influences that they went on to inspire the musical and movie Dreamgirls.
The decade also saw the success of The Ronettes, who to put in perspective their fame, had The Rolling Stones open for them on their UK tour. The Ronettes are in the vocal group hall of fame, and they have songs that you would undoubtedly know if you heard them. Girl groups were everywhere in the 60s, yet somehow it feels that it’s only the white male.
It won't be surprising that with the rise of disco in the 1970s, also came along a new genre of black girl groups at the frontline of the genre.
The Emotions were one of the most significant disco-era groups. The band worked alongside a lot of other famous artists from the genre, including Maurice White from Earth, Wind & Fire. Although not the most recognisable name in the industry, they went on the win a Grammy, an AMA, and several RIAA accreditations.
Also big in the disco were Sister Sledge, who released the iconic track 'We Are Family' in 1979. They also partook in the trend of working with big-time producers, and their producer of choice was now music legend Nile Rogers. The group even still perform today, but without Joni who sadly passed in 2017.
The 80s was a bit of a quiet decade for girl groups. Although the bands that did make it were incredibly successful, it seems that all-female rock bands really rose in success this decade.
There were no girl groups that significantly influenced pop culture or move music forward, but there were definitely groups that were commercially and critically successful.
Bananarama, a British girl group formed in 1980, believe it or not, are in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most charting singles by a girl group. The band charted throughout the 80s and were still performing as of 2018.
The Pointer Sisters were also one of the incredibly successful girl groups of the 1980s, winning multiple Grammys and being incredibly commercially successful. The band were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2005 for their contribution to music.
However, these bands can easily be overshadowed by the next band that rose to fame in the 1990s.
To talk about the history and influence of girl groups, and to not mention the Spice Girls, would be like making a pizza without a base.
Of course there were more girl groups around in the 90s which we’ll briefly talk about, but none of them even begin to compare to the success that was the Spice Girls, and quite frankly, no other band since has either.
The Spice Girls were formed in 1994, and their debut album Spice released just 2 years later in 1996 sold 31 million copies, which became the best-selling album by a female group in history. Their second album Spiceworld then went on to sell 20 million copies, and since then the Spice Girls have sold a total of 100 million records worldwide. The band are the most successful British pop act since The Beatles. The sheer scale of their success is truly almost unbelievable, but their success went beyond music sales.
The Spice Girls were credited with bringing the phrase ‘girl power’ to the masses, therefore inspiring a lot of young women that followed them to become feminists which was in its significant third wave movement in the 1990s, alongside ‘Cool Britania’, the explosion of youth culture in the UK, which the Spice Girls were also a significant part of.
Although it may seem like it, the Spice Girls weren't the only prevalent band in the US, because R&B girl groups were also on the rise and reaching major success in the 1990s.
TLC, formed in 1990, were an R&B girl group that had hits that are still infamous today like ‘No Scrubs’ and ‘Waterfalls’. TLC are still the best-selling American girl group of all time and were also incredibly well-revered critically, receiving many career awards over the last few years like Outstanding Contribution to Music at the MOBO awards, and Legend award at the VMAs.
We also had Destiny’s Child form in the 1990s. Although the most successful line-up wasn’t in place until 2001, the group were influenced highly by the R&B groups of the 90s. And of course, Destiny’s Child brought to fame the modern music icon herself Beyonce, so when it comes to influencing the music industry as a whole, Destiny’s Child’s career is pretty significant.
If we’re talking in terms of bands that helped shape a generation, then you can’t mention the Cheetah Girls. The group was another purposely manufactured band, which you see a lot of throughout the history of girl bands, but this time the powerhouse behind them was Disney. The group and the movies they starred in had a huge influence on young women in the 2000s, especially as they were girls of different shapes, sizes, and races.
Also in the 2000s we saw many British girl groups trying to recreate the success of the Spice Girls and not quite succeeding. Both Girls Aloud and The Sugababes were successful in their own right though, and are considered a staple of British pop music.
Fifth Harmony and Little Mix
In both cases of Fifth Harmony and Little Mix, it was clear record labels, Simon Cowell in particular, was trying to recreate his success with One Direction with a female group. Although neither group quite reached the highs of 1D, both groups have been incredibly successful and have had several hit songs.
Little Mix were recently the first girl group ever to win the BRIT award for best group, which caused a lot of controversy but was well deserved for the successful career they’ve had.
It’s unfortunate the Little Mix never quite managed to crack the US, as they undoubtedly would have been successful if they had the right marketing and dedication put in.
Fifth Harmony, however, did have a string of hits worldwide like ‘Worth It’ featuring Kid Ink and ‘Work From Home’, the video for which has amassed over 2.5 BILLION views.
With the rise of KPOP, it was only a matter of time before a girl group came into the mix, and here BLACKPINK are. BLACKPINK have broken all kinds of records due to their dedicated fanbase, and have fans from the likes of Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa, as well as having performed at major American music festival Coachella. The band are the most followed girl group on Spotify, and broke the VEVO 24 hour view records for ‘How You Like That’ and ‘Kill This Love’.
The success of BLACKPINK also shows an interesting shift to 'idol' culture for girl groups too. It shows that this type of fan-band relationship spans across genders and genre, which may mean a shift of fan culture as a whole in the near future.
What’s next for girl groups?
It’s difficult to tell what’s next for girl groups. With the resurgence of 00s and 90s culture, we’re likely to see a rise in R&B groups, similar to the likes of Chloe and Halle, but it’s difficult to figure out what the longer term will be for pop girl groups.
There’s not as consistent of a fanbase with girl groups as there are with boybands, and whilst young fans are always looking for someone to look up to, it still feels like girl groups aren’t taken seriously enough musically, despite having born some of the best solo artists of recent years such as Beyonce.
The world would be a worse place without having fun and bubbly pop groups for young girls to look up to and enjoy, so here’s hoping that the girl group doesn’t fade in to the background.