Girl Groups Never Seem to Last: Long Live the Pop Girl Collective

Dua Lipa IDGAF Charli XCX, Zara Larsson, MØ, Alma
Courtesy of BBC Radio 1

Dua Lipa, Charli XCX, Zara Larsson, MØ, and Alma perform "IDGAF" in the Live Lounge for BBC Radio 1.

In 2018, the most exciting girl group wasn't even a girl group at all.

The most exciting girl group of 2018 wasn’t the newly re-reformed Spice Girls. It wasn’t the return of their fellow Brits, the relentlessly likeable Little Mix. It wasn’t South Korea’s BLACKPINK, which set the record for the highest-charting hit by a K-pop girl group on the Billboard Hot 100 this year. It wasn’t even an official girl group at all, really. It was a collection of peers and sometimes collaborators coming together in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge for a one-off performance in February. Dua Lipa, Charli XCX, ALMA, MØ and Zara Larsson joined forces for a never-to-be-repeated rendition of Lipa’s hit single “IDGAF,” then scattered back to their individual careers -- free to sing whatever they like, release whatever they fancy and mold the future of pop as they see fit.

The following month, Fifth Harmony announced an indefinite hiatus so its members could pursue solo projects. The news came a little over a year after original member Camila Cabello left the group to kickstart her own solo career -- and just a few months after the group’s third album, Fifth Harmony, arrived with more of a whimper than a bang. The contrast between the Live Lounge performance and 5H’s decline was striking. If traditional girl groups rarely last under the weight of members’ solo ambitions, is this fluid pop girl collective the future of girl groups? It should be.

In 2018, it’s fair to say that the girl group was going through a fallow period. While bands like Brockhampton and BTS are redefining what it is to be a boyband and reaching new commercial heights -- and while bands like PRETTYMUCH, Why Don’t We and CNCO are waiting in the wings for One Direction-level superstardom -- girl groups aren’t making the same waves. Outside of K-pop, where girl groups are in no short supply, it’s tough to name more than a handful. Really, it’s tough to name more than two. In the wake of Fifth Harmony, Little Mix are the most successful at keeping the traditional girl-group flame burning, churning out killer singles and a prolific stream of albums while preaching messages of solidarity and female empowerment in a radio-friendly package.

What’s surprising about Little Mix, who formed on (and won) the eighth season of The X Factor in 2011, is that there have been no whispers of solo ambitions. (The quartet even make fun of appetite for such drama on a song from their new album.) Throughout history, the desire to “go solo” and the well-publicized tension that develops as a result has been the undoing of countless girl groups, including The Shangri-Las, The Andrew Sisters, The Nolans, The Ronettes, The Supremes, The Shirelles and The Pointer Sisters.

Often, there’s one member who hears the siren call of the solo spotlight, or a handful who can no longer stand to be in the same room as each other; even if they weather the friction, the dynamic is rarely the same. The Spice Girls fell apart after the departure of Geri “Ginger Spice” Horner, who cited “differences between us” as the reason for her split in 1998. Even TLC’s fiery intra-band relationships resulted in Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes publicly challenging her bandmates to all make solo albums to settle who was best after T-Boz and Chilli claimed in an interview that "Left Eye is only concerned with Left Eye” and that "she doesn't respect the whole group." Girl groups burn fast and bright, right up until a Notes app missive appears on Twitter, and then it’s all over.

It’s not that boy bands don’t experience the same growing pains -- like when Zayn quit One Direction in 2015 ahead of the group’s own hiatus -- but the scrutiny facing girl groups has been more intense, with a media landscape that has historically pitted women artists against each other and jumped on any whiff of conflict. Thankfully, those tired narratives have lost credence as a new era of millennial female pop stars have made supporting one another a priority, from Taylor Swift’s “squad” to increasingly regular, all-star team-ups like Rita Ora’s “Girls,” which also featured Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha and Cardi B. “It’s helping create this tighter-knit community, at least in my eyes,” Rexha told TIME earlier this year about this shift. “A lot of the girls are being warmer. I used to be more in my own lane -- my own world. Now I feel a closeness.”

But the pop girl collective does more than just ease the simmering resentment that can form during the tug of war between solo ambitions and group obligations. Girl groups are often assembled by outside forces -- whether it’s as part of a talent show (Little Mix, Fifth Harmony, Girls Aloud) or by label execs (Spice Girls, Sugababes, TLC) -- and even when the members get along, they tend to move at the rate set by an industry still governed by the physical release cycle. Meanwhile, the most exciting solo artists in pop are moving faster and experimenting more. In the streaming age, proper studio albums are no longer the only option -- there are mixtapes, one-off singles, remixes and “living” albums and EPs that change over time.

Charli XCX, arguably the ring leader of this new generation, seems to write eight songs before breakfast and hasn’t released a full studio album since 2014’s Sucker. Instead, she spent 2018 firing off singles as soon as they were ready; the year before, she also released two critically acclaimed mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, which mixed Top 40 hooks with edgy, futuristic beats from the likes of A.G. Cook and SOPHIE. The mixtapes didn’t just come together on the fly in a matter of weeks, they also were also chock full of collaborations with artists from across the pop spectrum, including several of the women from the Live Lounge session.

Industry titans are catching on, too. This year, Ariana Grande, one of the biggest solo stars in the world right now, released Sweetener, an album that was a few years in the making, then immediately usurped it with “thank u, next,” a track written and recorded in a creative post-breakup flurry. “My dream has always been to be -- obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does,” she said in her Billboard Woman of the Year interview. “I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren't. We have to do the teaser before the single, then do the single, and wait to do the preorder, and radio has to impact before the video, and we have to do the discount on this day, and all this shit. It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?’ So I do and I did and I am, and I will continue to.” (A full album, also titled Thank U, Next and mostly written in the span of a week, is expected in early 2019.)

As those singers rewrite the rules of releasing music, other artists are rewriting the rules of group membership. Brockhampton officially boasts 14 members, who all take on various creative roles in the group, but only about half perform live, and not every member who contributes vocals appears on each song. The phenomenal success of AKB48, the 130-plus-member J-pop “idol band” made up of rotating teams of girls who perform out of a theatre in Tokyo’s area Akihabara any given day, also shows that you don’t need a fixed lineup to become a successful girl group.

The pop girl collective is a natural extension of all these developments. Instead of waiting to go solo, everyone starts out solo and teams up only when they can or are inspired to do so -- at the pace they’re creating, there’ll likely always be an opportunity to jump in. At the same time, there’s an element of quality control: Although Dua Lipa’s ability to assemble ALMA, Charli, MØ and Larsson via text is deeply impressive, the logistics of various’ stars schedules means making an entire album-length project together is unlikely. Instead, every collaboration or live performance becomes a Big Moment -- the kind that only come a few times in any given record cycle for a traditional girl group, who are rarely known for being album artists anyway. There are so many exciting women rethinking pop right now -- why not reshape the girl group in their image?

When a photo emerged of Carly Rae Jepsen, Lorde and Charli XCX together at The Ally Coalition's third annual Talent Show in January of 2017, Twitter erupted in an frenzy of longing for a collaboration. Charli XCX tweeted at the other two: “WE ARE A HOT GIRL BAND!!! promise me no ones gonna go solo????” The beauty of the pop girl collective is that they won’t need to: They already are.