All-girl groups Fifth Harmony and Little Mix have been making waves in the charts for all of 2015 and most of 2016 now.
With their rise comes the inevitable question of how women are represented in the music industry. On any given day one can hear me constantly complaining about the lack of girl-groups in mainstream pop music, but the arrival of Fifth Harmony and Little Mix, far from being a comfort, has become a source of concern. In fact, the fast-rising all-girl bands could actually do more harm than good for women in the music industry.
My main issue with Fifth Harmony and Little Mix is the fact that both the groups present themselves in a hyper-sexualised manner.
From one perspective, this could be considered a win: what’s not to love about a group of women openly celebrating their sexuality? Surely one can find liberation in that. But the hesitancy to embrace them begins to set in when one considers factors such as the objectification and fetishization of women’s bodies in pop music.
Do these women really have much say in how their bodies and personalities are packaged and presented to audiences and media?
The openness of their sexuality is equal to liberation only if the choice to thus drive their representation is their own. If the choice has been made for them by their label and the men behind their label, the victory is not only hollow: it is not a victory at all. The diktat therefore sent out by the label and, by extension, the music industry, is that women artists’ groups may not be visible unless they present themselves in a sexualized manner.
The conspicuous absence of any other kind of girl groups in mainstream pop lends evidence to this.
For every One Direction or 5 Seconds to Summer– pop groups that don’t necessarily talk about the heaviest issues in the world- there is a the 1975 or Years and Years: young, rapidly rising bands that, while unabashedly talking about sex and sexuality, get the chance to talk about a lot more through their music. The number of all-male bands out there tackling a diversity of topics along with the all-male bands that primarily create ditties of doting and heartbreak and sex is literally uncountable. When it comes to girl-groups, however, there is a glaring lack of alternative representation, and the gap has persisted throughout the decades.
Since the advent of doo-wop groups like the Crystals, the Ronettes and the Supremes, the topics girls have been allowed to sing about have usually been limited to love and its multitudinous ramifications.
The 70s saw the rise of all-girls rock bands such as The Runaways who embraced and propagated sexual liberation in how women represented themselves. Artists like Madonna were paramount in the coming decades in creating the space within pop music in English for women to inhabit and exhibit their sexuality freely. And then came the 90s supergroups: Destiny’s Child, the Pussycat Dolls and- of course- Spice Girls.
So the liberation that groups like Little Mix could represent has already been achieved, amidst much stricter norms, when it was truly path-breaking for women to be explicitly sexual on their own terms.
The question is, what now?
An extremely important way in which both these groups could come to represent the new face of pop would be to attempt subversion in the content of their music.
The restrictions in pop music on female artists and the topics they deal with are conspicuous in their invisibility. One only needs to scan through the top 40 hits over the last few months to notice the pattern: songs about love, sex and heartbreak dominate, especially as a combination of all three. The pattern is particularly noticeable for women artists.
By breaking these norms, girl groups could finally break out of the hyper-sexual mould they have been stuck in since the 1990s. If all the boys get to talk about a myriad issues, even if it is more as fanbase hits rather than chart toppers (although Twenty One Pilots recently proved this assumption to be very wrong), why do the girls stay silent? As Matty Healy put it, there is no reason for pop to be devoid of meaning.
And here’s where Little Mix and Fifth Harmony fall woefully short of the mark.
Their last two hits could hardly be called the most ground-breaking of all songs. The lyrics, especially, are confusing, incoherent and mind-numbingly generic. The concepts of their songs are heard-of and over-tired. There is no depth and very little thought.
An artist can only be called an artist so long as they express something through their art.
As an artist, one has the responsibility of communicating some sort of a message through their creations. What that message is- personal, social, political- or what it stands for is entirely up to the artist. As long as it is an honest, authentic expression, regardless of the quality of that expression which can inspire endless debates and is a separate subject altogether- it can be called a work of art. Anything short of that and it is simply a product or a commodity, especially when it is being sold as capitalist goods.
I do not know how far the members of Little Mix and Fifth Harmony are responsible for the production of their music. No doubt, sonically, the songs have great merit, with catchy hooks and a thudding bass that immediately attracts one’s attention. Lyrically, however, the songs are very, very far from being artwork and sound very much like generic, typical products.
Their videos are indicative of this problem.
Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home” is an ideal exam of a music video that fixes the women in its gaze, although arguably it does the same to its male subjects.
Most girl-group videos tend to avoid the “Frozen Woman” syndrome common in representations of women throughout Western visual art and culture that depict women in supine, lethargic poses, passive and immobile. The videos are usually frenetic, filled with high-action choreography. But often they tend to swing to the opposite extreme, and the end-result is the same: the woman is no less an object of the hyper-sexualised gaze in either case.
The lack of real communication in their music is the most major hindrance in the potential of these girl groups to truly subvert pop culture.
Their representation of female sexuality is dangerous; by failing to articulate anything of substance through their presence so far, they are simply perpetuating a sexist and captitalist narrative of female artists that sustains itself and ultimately takes the form of an unbreakable monolith.
I feel guilty not supporting them, as a fellow woman and as representatives of the female artistry I so ardently desire to see in pop culture. Repeatedly, I am forced to probe my own feelings, wondering if this is not simply internalized misogyny acting up. And as a woman, for women, I want to support them.
But ultimately, the girl groups on the rise again are simply failing to bring anything new or paradigm-changing to the table in terms of the feminist movement. Their sexual expression may be occurring from a liberated standpoint, but the rampant objectification of women’s bodies in mainstream pop culture means that their liberation is occurring within the boundaries of the existing socio-political structure of how female musicians are represented. Their image is no different to the onslaught of images that portray a one-dimensional hypersexualised version of female sexuality. Thus their choice ultimately subverts nothing and is, in fact, likely to be rewarded by the existing hierarchy.
There can be no liberation in the face of this fact.
So while on a Friday, when I’m tired of worrying about the pervasiveness of sexism in pop culture, you’ll find me humming along to the tune of “Worth It”, it’ll be quite a while before the all-girl bands on the rise can truly be embraced as worthy proponents of women’s empowerment in pop culture.