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Why Fifth Harmony Mattered: Evaluating the Legacy of the Biggest Girl Group of the '10s

“Tenacity” is not a word often associated with girl groups in modern pop, but it’s the word that came to mind when thinking about Fifth Harmony, the biggest stateside female vocal group of this decade, who announced an indefinite hiatus to pursue solo projects on Monday morning (Mar. 19). 

When the 2010s are long gone, most music fans will look back on 5H’s run of success and lump in their lineage with that of One Direction, as a female counterpart to the defining boy band of this era. The juxtaposition is fair -- both formed on The X Factor early in the decade, both scored radio hits and droves of young fans as a quintet, both watched one member abruptly go solo, both soldiered on for one album as a quartet before going on hiatus.

Yet the key difference in those narratives is the nature of the come-ups. When 1D released their debut single, “What Makes You Beautiful,” the pop/rock gem quickly entered the top 10 of the Hot 100, and now stands as their biggest Billboard hit to date. Meanwhile, Fifth Harmony had to wait four years, after forming in 2012, before cracking the chart's top 10, with the indelible R&B-pop hit “Work From Home” (featuring Ty Dolla $ign). One Direction’s success was ensured with their first attempt; Fifth Harmony had to keep taking shot after shot, through failed radio offerings and multiple album delays, in order to incrementally grow their fan base with each new single and eventually start connecting on a mainstream level. While One Direction shot toward stadium status almost immediately, Fifth Harmony gradually worked their way into the consciousness of casual fans, buoyed by a rabid base of young supporters as well as their own collective determination.

During their first few years as a five-piece, Ally Brooke Hernandez, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane Hansen, Camila Cabello and Lauren Jauregui demonstrated remarkable persistence as they tried to become the defining girl group to a new generation of pop fans. A dearth of such vocal ensembles existed in the years following the runs of mid-'00s groups like Danity Kane and the Pussycat Dolls, and Fifth Harmony started out just as Little Mix, G.R.L., the Saturdays and Neon Jungle were all vying for radio play. They toured relentlessly from 2013 through 2016, as support to Demi Lovato, Cher Lloyd and Austin Mahone, before becoming headliners on their own; they pushed themselves, first to sharpen their choreography and stage presence, then to have more say in the sound of the studio output. "We finally have a damn voice,” Hansen told Billboard in a 2016 cover story prior to sophomore album 7/27. "We feel like actual artists. We were little babies in the ­beginning. Now we're becoming big girls.” 

After a pair of very good pop singles, “Bo$$” and “Sledgehammer,” became minor hits, the Kid Ink collaboration “Worth It" rode the short-lived saxophone-in-every-major-pop-hit wave (we see you, Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty”) and entered the top 20 of the Hot 100. “Work From Home” arrived less than a year later, as a slinkier, more cleanly produced assortment of sexy double entendres and declarations of self-confidence. The hook was massive; the Ty Dolla $ign guest verse was a charming counterpoint. Fifth Harmony became a household name as “Work From Home” peaked at No. 4 in June 2016, just six months before Cabello left the group that December.

Barring a post-hiatus resurgence, “Work From Home” will likely be Fifth Harmony’s biggest hit and lasting imprint on pop culture. Yet that one song and its ubiquity does not represent the group’s legacy. From their Better Together debut EP, when they were still figuring their shared voice post-X Factor, to their 2017 self-titled third album, when they were operating in their most mature and self-assured tone, 5H’s purpose of empowering young fans, especially young girls, has remained consistent. 

It’s in the poise of self-worth anthems like “Reflection” and “That’s My Girl”; it’s in the selflessness of every stage show and music video, where each member was given time to shine. It’s in the inclusive image of five non-white singers becoming American stars, and the passionate words the members have spoken in response to a wide range of social issues, from immigration to gun control. As a five-piece, but also as a quartet following Cabello’s departure, Fifth Harmony encouraged young women to embrace self-care and confidence with an effectiveness that few other pop artists have been able to match this decade.

"I am proud to be a woman,” Jauregui wrote for Billboard in November 2016, in an open letter to Trump voters following the presidential election. "Proud that the sex between my thighs provides a strength and resilience in me that only other women can feel, that my body curves in ways that allow me to create life within me, that my entire life is filled with adversity and doubt and people questioning my intelligence and my artistic potential and my expression of myself and my virtue and honor because I am too much woman. I am proud that I get to prove them all wrong. I am proud that I have to work even harder for it. I was raised to feel that I can do ANYTHING, and I will always believe that.” Jauregui also came out as bisexual in the letter -- a significant move for a member of a major pop group, and an act emblematic of the openness widely praised by 5H's fans.

Fifth Harmony had to exist under the hyper-scrutiny of social media; that circumstance amplified the fallout of Cabello’s departure in late 2016, as the split forced members of the same fan army to choose sides. But a large part of the group’s legacy remains the voraciousness of the Harmonizers, a support base that crystallized on Twitter and Instagram and helped the girls compete with the major pop acts far before their singles were connecting. Most pop artists in a major-label system have an extremely limited window to find a mainstream audience; by possessing that social footprint, Fifth Harmony had a passionate following before Top 40 started paying attention, and gave themselves time to become stars.

Social media also gave each member a platform to express their uniqueness and share themselves with fans in a way that no U.S. girl group had done before. Each 5H member revealed themselves as thoughtful, open and empathetic; they championed each other and the power of femininity as they grew into adulthood. While last year’s self-titled album was not as cohesive as the two full-lengths before it, Fifth Harmony also felt like a proper coda to the group’s experience, with fun, flirty tracks like “Down” and “He Like That” paired with romantic overtures like “Don’t Say You Love Me” and “Lonely Night” as well as the closing “Bridges,” a subtly political message of hope. With the announcement of their hiatus, it feels like 5H is bowing out after delivering a fully formed farewell and becoming vibrant individuals. 

Now, the future of Fifth Harmony becomes a question mark, and fans can look ahead to each member’s solo endeavor. Yet it’s worth noting that, to paraphrase Jauregui, the group did get to prove a lot of people wrong -- people who wrote them off as reality-show also-rans when they were struggling to break onto pop radio following The X Factor. In the end, Fifth Harmony did not have as many classic singles as turn-of-the-century stars like the Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child, but as millions of fans can attest, their message resonated with a clarity and conviction that set them apart from concurrent pop groups. Fifth Harmony represented much more than a handful of hits to a young generation of music listeners. They mattered, and they will for a long time to come. 

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