From the Shangri-Las in the mid-60’s to Bananarama in the early 80’s to Destiny’s Child at the turn of the century, girl groups have a long history of helping shape the sound of U.S. pop music over periods of waxing and waning popularity. Girl groups have triumphantly returned in the 2010’s, but girl group music exists in a strange place: it’s massively popular online, yet nowhere near the top of the charts.
There are a number of promising modern girl groups, but Fifth Harmony and Little Mix are easily the most high-profile groups in the U.S. right now (coincidentally, both were formed on The X Factor — 5H on the short-lived U.S. version, Little Mix on the long-running original U.K. edition). Both have insanely active fan bases — if you don’t believe that, go their respective Twitter accounts right now. The last five tweets from the Fifth Harmony account (1.89 million followers) have anywhere from 3,000-10,000 retweets within a 24-hour period, and same goes for Little Mix (6.62 million followers). That kind of fan support is comparable to a pop superstar like Katy Perry. For comparison, an artist like Meghan Trainor — who has a No. 1 single and album to her name — earned about 200-300 retweets on her last five tweets.
Yet neither Fifth Harmony nor Little Mix have enjoyed a top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart thus far, despite multiple attempts at unlocking their “All About That Bass”-esque breakthrough single. Yes, they’ve had success on the Pop Songs chart: 5H’s “Sledgehammer” (co-written by Trainor, incidentally) hit No. 21, and Little Mix’s “Wings” went to No. 26. But neither of those tracks came close to crossing over into mass cultural consciousness. “Wings” peaked at No. 79 on the Hot 100, and “Sledgehammer” just barely scraped the top 40, peaking at No. 40 before slipping (the song falls to No. 91 on this week’s chart).
Meanwhile, the boy band counterparts of these groups continue to find easier access to the top 40. While it’s true that One Direction‘s singles aren’t always radio staples — their current offering, “Night Changes,” peaked at No. 31 on the Hot 100 — they’ve certainly had their fair share of radio hits, from “Story of My Life” to “What Makes You Beautiful” to “Best Song Ever.” “Steal My Girl,” from latest LP Four, hit No. 13 on the Hot 100, and they’ve earned seven top 20 hits to date. As for the non-1D boy bands, now-defunct U.K. group the Wanted reached No. 3 with “Glad You Came,” and the non-boy band boy bands (younger all-male collectives that play instruments) like Rixton and 5 Seconds of Summer have been able to earn substantial radio play.
It’s not that girl groups albums are landing with a thud — Little Mix’s two albums, DNA and Salute, debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200, and Fifth Harmony’s debut EP and just-released debut album Reflection did the same. Likewise, the groups are bringing crowds to their shows: Fifth Harmony is selling out shows on their current headlining theater tour, and although Little Mix hasn’t toured much in the U.S., they play to sizable audiences in Europe. If either of them had a radio hit or two in the U.S., however, it’s not impossible to picture them playing to arenas or even stadiums, like 5SOS or 1D. So why can’t either group find that radio hit?
Part of the reason is simple: Internet popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to real-world popularity. YouTube plays don’t have much of an effect on radio play, and rabid tweets from fan groups to radio programmers don’t alter a station’s playlist.
“We get tweets from Argentina and people who can barely put English sentences together [asking us to play Fifth Harmony songs],” says Mike Biddle, assistant program director/music director at WPLW in North Carolina. “We don’t see those tweets and go, ‘Oh wow, we’re getting blown up, we better play this record from Fifth Harmony more!’ We look where they’re coming from.” In other words: a tweet from France, New York or Dallas won’t change a radio playlist in Raleigh, N.C.
“We all have Twitter notifications on our phones,” Biddle says. “When a new Fifth Harmony song would come out, it got to the point where we had to turn it off, because we were getting tweets [about it] every second. I’m sure their social media base will be all over us when their new one goes to radio. They’re relentless.”
Regardless, Biddle’s station played Fifth Harmony’s “Sledgehammer” 49 times in the seven days ending on March 4, according to Nielsen Music — more than any other U.S. radio station last week. But it wasn’t a deluge of tweets from Harmonizers that changed things — it was old-fashioned consumer research. WPLW invests heavily in radio callout, and not the purely Internet-based variety: they rely on a screening process that involves two people actually speaking to each other over the phone.
According to Biddle, positive response to “Sledgehammer” based on callout research is what made him put the song into regular rotation.
“We played the last Little Mix record [‘Salute’] for a second, but I don’t recall us getting much callout on it. And we messed around with the previous Fifth Harmony record [‘Bo$$’] and didn’t see enough interest,” Biddle says. “But this popped for us. I think it’s been their best song to date. Especially with new artists, you gotta have a strong record.”
Sharon Dastur, former program director of New York’s influential WHTZ (Z100) and current senior vice president of programming integration at iHeartMedia, also emphasizes the importance of a strong single.
“When it comes to insane social followings, both girl groups such as Fifth Harmony and Little Mix — and boy groups [like] One Direction and The Wanted — have seen similar online footprints, but top 40 is a song-driven format,” Dastur tells Billboard. “Possibly one of the reasons some of the boy band songs have fit better is because their songs work with the other music being played in the current music cycle. It’s not necessarily about a ‘boy band’ song or a ‘girl band’ song, but more about the actual song.”
So is that the problem facing modern girl groups — they’re just not getting the right songs? That could be. In an era where solo female pop stars are plentiful and comparatively well-established, it stands to reason that they get first pick at the catchiest songs — leaving the less radio-friendly material for up-and-coming artists like 5H and Little Mix.
Similarly, a girl group isn’t as easy to promote as a boy band. “In terms of teen magazines, the idea of marketing different members of boy bands is easier,” says Anna Louise Wiegenstein, a former pop culture instructor (and Little Mix fan), who’s giving a talk on One Direction fan culture at the National Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference in April. “There’s the ‘funny one,’ the ‘mysterious one’ — it’s easy to make quizzes and profile pieces around them.”
When marketing a girl group to teenage girls, Wiegenstein continues, it’s harder to tap into those teenage hormones. “When you’re talking about a group of girls, they target the brands around personalities,” she says. “It’s more like, ‘Which one would be your friend?’ And there’s less of a fantasy aspect to that.”
Last year’s aborted Little Mix concert is a testament to that. Although the quartet officially cancelled their U.S. tour to prioritize “creating an amazing third album,” skeptics can be forgiven for wondering if ticket sales influenced the decision to postpone a proper U.S. tour. Meanwhile, One Direction are on their fourth headlining U.S. tour in as many years.
When I asked Biddle why he thinks One Direction enjoy more stateside success than girl groups, he echoed Wiegenstein’s sentiment. “I don’t know 100 percent. I guess it’s because those boys are ‘cute’? It could be as simple as that.”