Girl Group Tragedy: Inside G.R.L.'s Slow Healing Process
The death of a member forced a promising pop group to hit the pause button. The future is uncertain for G.R.L., but its message remains positive.
It's the morning of January 15, and the members of G.R.L. have woken up to a slew of encouraging social media comments. The music video for the girl group's new ballad, "Lighthouse," has just been unveiled online; captioned "G.R.L. 'Lighthouse' -- In Memory of Simone Battle," the four-and-a-half minute clip is a tribute to the 25-year-old member of the group, who committed suicide four months before its release.
The video is comprised of happy memories of Battle, flashing photographs of the singer perched at a piano as an adolescent, beaming with family members as a sharp-dressed teenager, and then posing alongside the other G.R.L. members as a wiry twenty-something, often with a warm grin planted on her face. "If you ever need me, know I'll be there/Don't you ever be afraid to call," the group's Lauren Bennett intones on the bridge, the camera swiveling around her and the three remaining members of G.R.L., interconnected in a break from the collage. "I'll be waiting over the horizon/Don't you worry, I'm not very far."
"Lighthouse" is the first piece of new G.R.L. material since Battle's death, and while the girl group is proud of the video and appreciative of the kind words coming in from fans in the hours since its release, its unveiling also marks an uncomfortable occasion. "It's bittersweet, I think," Bennett tells Billboard. "I mean, obviously we're happy to be moving forward, and we really love the video and love the song. The response has been good. But it's just sad. It's a sad reminder of the reality."
"Personally, it feels like I'm opening up a wound that has started to heal," says the group's Paula van Oppen, when asked if the "Lighthouse" video has given the members of G.R.L. any sense of closure since it was finished. "It's a little painful for it to all be out. But I definitely am in it for the positive effect it can have on other people."
This is the new reality of a girl group that had formed as a quintet in 2013, and whose previous singles had focused on partying with the girls, celebrating love and ditching lame dudes. G.R.L. had achieved minor success in the U.S. by the time Battle -- who had been a finalist on the U.S. version of The X Factor in 2011 and had released a cheeky solo single titled "He Likes Boys" -- was found dead in her West Hollywood apartment on the morning of Friday, Sept. 5. Her death put the remaining members of the group in an unprecedented position from which to move forward. How does a girl group return to making fluffy pop material after something like this happens? The "Lighthouse" video is a reflection of Battle, but is also a reintroduction of sorts for a quartet that now must figure out where to go next.
"I've been doing this for 25 years and I've never seen anything like this happen," says manager Larry Rudolph, who has overseen longtime client Britney Spears' comeback and recently helped reinvent Miley Cyrus as an adult superstar. Rudolph has worked with veteran choreographer/director Robin Antin on G.R.L., which was originally conceived as a reboot of the Pussycat Dolls following that group's disbandment in 2010. In November 2011, Bennett -- at that point fresh off of a feature credit on LMFAO's No. 1 smash "Party Rock Anthem" -- became the first member confirmed for the new girl group, and a painstaking process of cycling through potential members finally ended in 2013 with Bennett, Battle, van Oppen, Natasha Slayton and Emmalyn Estrada as the final lineup. The name G.R.L. was chosen instead of PCD 2.0.
With Rudolph and Antin at the helm, G.R.L. signed to Kemosabe Records, Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald's record label, in conjunction with RCA Records. Columbia had Little Mix, Epic had Fifth Harmony, and G.R.L. was to become RCA's next-gen girl group, with the flashiest producers of the three behind their sound. Case in point: the quintet's first single was "Vacation," a bubbly dance tune produced by Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Henry "Cirkut" Walter. The track appeared on the soundtrack to The Smurfs 2 in July 2013, which also featured the Spears single "Ooh La La," and work began on a debut album.
"Vacation" was not a successful first look for G.R.L. -- the Smurfs 2 soundtrack has sold just 15,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Music -- but "Wild Wild Love," a single by Pitbull featuring the group and released in February 2014, became a modest hit, peaking at No. 30 on the Hot 100 chart and selling 767,000 downloads.
Pitbull and G.R.L. performed the song at the inaugural iHeartRadio Music Awards last May, and one month later, the group released "Ugly Heart," a triumphant sneer of a pop single produced by Dr. Luke and Cirkut, with a ukulele riff that coalesces with the stomp of the percussion. The song did not chart on the Hot 100, but sold 113,000 downloads in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music; perhaps more importantly, "Ugly Heart" took off overseas, reaching No. 11 on the U.K. singles chart and peaking at No. 2 in Australia in the first week of August, according to the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA).
Something promising -- not superstardom, but maybe a legitimate mainstream look -- was building for G.R.L. last summer. Then Battle's death on the Friday of Labor Day weekend put the group's entire future in limbo. "I didn't know what to expect, and I think everybody tried to stay ready for anything," says Paul Kremen, a consultant at Kemosabe Records. "Nothing surprised me, nor did I have any idea what was going to happen."
Instead of tearing G.R.L. apart, however, Battle's death has brought the four members closer together. "There was never a question that we weren't going to break up," says Bennett. "We didn't know what was going to happen -- we really didn't even think about it. We just got back together and just continued to do what we're doing today, to stay close, and that's just how it is. That's where we are now."
Robin Antin got the call at 10:00 in the morning on September 5, a few hours before the G.R.L. members were supposed to meet at 3rd Street Dance studio in Los Angeles for a rehearsal, just as they had done the day before. Rudolph had dialed Antin, and it sounded like something was wrong -- but then again, things were often wrong in the world of girl groups, which the 53-year-old dancer-choreographer-designer had inhabited for decades. Antin had founded the burlesque troupe-turned-pop franchise the Pussycat Dolls in the mid-90s, and moved on to short-lived projects like Girlicious and Paradiso Girls in the late 2000's before becoming the den mother of G.R.L..
"I've created quite a few girl groups, and in every single one of them, there's always been a situation -- human beings make a decision to do something in their career, and then things change and they decide to go a different way," says Antin. "I've experienced that plenty of times, and I've gotten calls that quick, where it's like, 'Robin, I need to talk to you, I don't want to be in a girl group, I don't want to be a singer anymore.' I got the call -- it was Larry saying, hey, I need to talk to you. And it was almost like I knew that tone.
"He said, 'I need to tell you something,' and I said okay," Antin continues. "And he kind of got quiet and he said, 'This is the worst news I've ever had to deliver in my life.' And when he said that, immediately I thought -- I just didn't think of anything like that, and I didn't think of death. It was something maybe having to do with one of the girls, but I didn't think it was anything like that. I just kind of took a breath. And he said, 'Simone,' and when he said Simone's name, it still didn't register. In my eyes, Simone has always been the most powerful -- she's just full of life. So he went, 'Simone,' and I had no idea what he was going to say. And then he said, 'She took her life this morning.'"
Antin started shaking, and blurting out questions -- what do you mean? How? Are you sure? What happened? Her next instinct was to call the rest of the girls, who were still getting ready to go to rehearsal. "We called them and we got them all on the phone together and we told them over the phone," Antin recalls. "It was just screams and cries and shock. And all we said was, 'Get in your car and come over here. Come to my house, come to my house.' Probably within twenty minutes, everybody was at my house."
Immediately, Antin started questioning herself, as she and the other G.R.L. members had been unaware that Battle had been struggling so mightily with her emotional issues. The day before her death, Battle was in rehearsal with her group mates, dancing and singing and laughing, like always. Everyone who spoke for this story describes Battle as strong, talented, passionate and kind. No one knows why she chose that day to be her last rehearsal.
"I keep going around and around with these questions. How did I not see this or that?" Antin says. Instead of dwelling on those questions, however, Antin, Rudolph and members of Kemosabe and RCA had to make sure the four members of G.R.L. had time to mourn the loss of their friend, and the tools to recover from the shock.
G.R.L. has been attending group therapy since Battle's death, "like a family," says Slayton. Some of the girls took separate vacations last fall -- van Oppen visited Nepal, Estrada headed back to Canada to see her family, Bennett joined her family on a cruise -- to reflect on the situation individually. Mostly, however, the four members have been spending even more time together, helping each other heal before even considering turning back to their musical opportunities. "We all took it very hard," says van Oppen, "and it took a lot of time for us to even focus on what we were gonna do as a group."
For their part, Kemosabe (which has had to deal with Battle's death concurrently during Dr. Luke's legal war against Kesha) and the group's management has acted as "one big family" with the girls, says Slayton, and given them the space they've needed to cope with the loss of their friend. There have been grief counseling sessions, extended meetings and a lot of concern for the singers' well-being, but no pressure to get back to work, according to Kremen. "These were girls that had traveled together, worked together, been intimately involved in each other's lives," says Kremen. "This was not a casual tragedy -- this was a very deep rending of their reality."
The first step back towards the studio came when Dr. Luke approached the group with a song co-written by Cirkut and the songwriting team Rock City. G.R.L. recorded "Lighthouse" in late 2014 after gravitating toward the song's uplifting message, but Rudolph had concerns about how a commercially released tribute track would come across.
"Everyone's initial instinct was to stay away from the idea of doing anything that might seem exploitative with respect to Simone," says Rudolph. "And then we started talking with her mother, Donna, who's a wonderful woman and obviously very distraught over the loss of her daughter. At the same time, she felt like she really wanted her daughter to be remembered, and didn't want her daughter's death to be in vain. She thought if there was something good that could come out of it, she'd like it to happen."
Battle's mother provided the home movie footage for the "Lighthouse" video, which ends with the message, "If you or someone or know is suffering, please visit GRLgivesanhour.org." Mental health awareness will play a prominent role in G.R.L.'s future, and the group has teamed up with the D.C.-based non-profit Give an Hour, which focuses on the signs of mental illness and encouraging those who are emotionally suffering to seek help. On Wednesday (Mar. 4), G.R.L. will perform at Give An Hour's Campaign To Change Direction summit, a forum for mental health discussion that will include a speech from Michelle Obama, in Washington, D.C.
"There's a lot of young people who are taking their own lives, and the music industry is so influential on youth," says Bennett. "Hopefully, for us, we would love to help at least one person."
It's the afternoon of January 26, and G.R.L. is back for the first time in the 3rd Street Dance studio, the last place they saw Battle and where they won't be able to forget their final goodbyes to their group mate. The girl group and their team had a small meeting the day before their studio return, to prepare everyone emotionally. The girls walk in, take a breath and get to work; they will spend the next week and a half focusing on their choreography, tweaking some of their patterns, adjusting formations which used to call for five dancers and now must rely on four.
Antin is there as well, helping the girls refine each movement, a perfectionist working with four younger perfectionists. Later that night, she says that she was constantly remembering things that reminded her of Battle during the rehearsal. "I was walking to the bathroom I remembered a moment standing with Simone in the hallway," she says. "Little things like that… just take you back for a second. As we move forward, those moments stop us in our tracks. And then we continue to move forward."
So how exactly will G.R.L. move forward? The members want to continue recording and eventually release a proper album, but no one seems sure of when that will happen. When asked if it's possible that a G.R.L. album will be released by the end of the year, van Oppen says that it's still too early to say. "We had songs that we recorded," she says, "but now that everything is new to us, we are just trying to get back into the swing of things."
"Being a marketer, sure, I've got a timeline," says Kremen, who confirms that Martin and Dr. Luke will continue working with the group on future music. "But … the only constant in the universe is change. In a situation like this, flexibility and pliancy is demanded, because you're dealing with a very dynamic situation. Any kind of hardened timeline would be futile."
For Antin, one of the hardest parts of dealing with Battle's death is seeing the effect it has had on four singers who should all be reveling in such an enjoyable phase of their careers. For the members of G.R.L., finding a home in the girl group after years of experiencing varying degrees of success as solo artists -- Estrada had popped up in a bit part on Bates Motel, van Oppen had spent time as a backup dancer -- has been a deeply rewarding experience. Months have been spent recovering from the shock of Battle's death, and Antin hopes that tragedy won't always define the young group.
"At some point, we want to start to have fun again," says Antin. "We want the girls to experience life in your early 20s! This has been such a heavy thing for everyone, we want to get to a place where we can celebrate Simone's life and laugh about all of those unbelievable moments, and cry, of course, but maybe dig through that heaviness."
Watching footage of G.R.L. performing at We Day, a global music event based on positive youth outreach, in San Jose on Feb. 25 points to a future in which the four-piece can enjoy themselves. The group opened up about Battle's death during an onstage Q&A at the event, and dedicated a performance of "Lighthouse" to the singer they called "our angel in heaven." They also played "Ugly Heart" after wiping away tears, displaying the refined dance moves that had been hammered out in the studio in the weeks prior to the showcase, and nailing their first official performance of the song without Battle by their sides.
G.R.L. will move forward with new music eventually, and although the group may always feel as if it's "missing a piece," as Bennett puts it, the hurt will surely lessen over time. For now, the girls sound comfortable taking some extra time lingering on the promotion of the "Lighthouse" single and video, which has collected over 1.9 million YouTube views to date. The song may not be a Hot 100 hit, but it means much more than that to the four remaining members of the girl group.
"She really was such an amazing person," says van Oppen of Battle, "and she deserves to be celebrated."