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What is it about girl groups that fascinate so many music fans? Maybe they offer more bang for the buck or are just plain sexy — and talented, of course.
“What do men like best?” asked David Wild, a
contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the host of the Bravo cable TV program “Musicians.” “Watching women together. Unfortunately, that explains so much in our world.” Including, as Wild would have it, the genesis of the girl group phenomenon.
It began with The Shirelles over 40 years ago. As the first-ever female supergroup, these debutante-styled coeds doo-wopped their bouffants into the public’s hearts, producing six top-ten singles between 1960 and 1963, scoring a number-one record and inspiring a legion of knockoffs. Their hits like “Will You Still Love Me?” and “Soldier Boy” paved the way for those forgettable acts with memorable names like The Dixie Cups and The Chiffons, and the unforgettable ones to come like The Supremes and the Spice Girls.
But what did those superstars have that the rest of the girls didn’t? Of course, a great sound is vital, but the legends are inextricably linked by one factor: a distinct image. “You can’t underestimate the importance of the image, especially with girl groups,” said Hayley Hill, a stylist who has worked with Britney Spears, ’NSYNC, No Secrets and Vanessa Carlton. “That’s how their fans identify with them, relate to them and connect with them.”
Not to mention the power of good looks. “Being ugly never helps your career and it’s never going to,” said Greg Heller, a story editor for VH1’s “Behind the Music” and “Ultimate Albums” programs. “Even girls that weren’t particularly attractive can be made to look as such. Debbie Harry’s a good example of that. The same things that help every group help girl groups: the ability to play and the ability to deliver a song, but so much of it is about selling sexuality.”
In the Sixties, The Shangri-La’s pioneered the sexy, tough-girl prototype. While their contemporaries chirped puffy harmless lyrics, The Shangri-Las (“Leader of the Pack”) sported tight leather outfits, knee-high boots and unstyled hair, and sang woeful tales of heartbreak.
Still, it was The Supremes — led by Diana Ross — whose drop-dead glamour redefined the girl group’s status. Beautiful, sleek and sophisticated, they became instant style icons and catapulted themselves to the top of the charts, scoring 12 number-one hits in the Sixties. Their fans mimicked their trendy frosted lips, kohl-lined eyes and mod wigs. But the girls’ upbringing in Detroit was far from such excess.
“We were surrounded by pimps and hustlers,” Ross told WWD in 1972 of her childhood. “There’s a possibility I would have been a prostitute for a period of time, too. That’s a terrible thing to say, isn’t it? But they were always the beautifully dressed girls who seemed to lead such a glamorous life.” Despite the hard knocks of those years, Ross still nurtured her flair for fashion. Voted best-dressed in her high school, she even sewed the group’s costumes in the early days, before buying off the rack at Saks Fifth Avenue — and eventually collaborating with Bob Mackie.
“[The Supremes] were the first group that people were really interested in what they were wearing,” said Mackie, who dressed them in the flashiest ensembles he dreamed of, from gold lamé bat-wing sleeves to feathered hemlines. “That had a lot to do with Diana, who loves clothes and loves theatricality. To come out and have the audience react immediately was very important.”
As The Supremes procured their glitzy pedestal in history, the Seventies witnessed the rise of their meat-and-potatoes-styled antithesis: the Pointer Sisters. Dubbed the “pretty-female version of the Harlem Globetrotters” by WWD, these preacher’s daughters from Oakland, Calif., donned kitschy Depression-era dresses out of necessity and sparked a Forties revival around the country. “We’d go to thrift shops and the Salvation Army,” Ruth Pointer told WWD in 1972. “People brought us boxes of stuff to wear…even the pastor’s aide gave us things because we were so poor. That’s all we knew as kids.”
Eventually the Pointer Sisters traded in their choir-girl look for some Eighties flash, but it was the Go-Go’s, those beautiful bad girls, who crossed L.A.’s punk scene with their bubblegum pop. Outfitted in boots, miniskirts and candy-colored hair, they were the original rocker chicks, notorious for popping pills, snorting cocaine and trashing hotel rooms. The Eighties also produced the Bangles, a squeaky-clean janglepop band eventually plagued by the same curse that unraveled The Supremes (and, if history repeats itself, Destiny’s Child): the most charismatic member splits from the group to pursue a solo career. “They were just destroyed by the Susanna Hoffs sex machine,” said Heller. “The rest of those girls were unable to keep pace. She was just incredibly beautiful. When I was growing up, there were very few things I wanted more than Susanna Hoffs.”
Punk soon lost its edgy appeal to hip-hop, and Salt ’N Pepa introduced the public to girly street style, as did TLC, the highest-selling girl group of all time, whose member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was killed in a car accident in April. Touted as the post-hip-hop version of the Supremes, they sold 20 million albums wearing — at times — baggy clothes with condoms displayed on them, an unglamorous means to reinforcing their message-driven lyrics.
Perhaps the most fascinating girl group phenomenon was riot grrrl. Started almost exclusively in Olympia, Wash., with pockets in Washington, D.C., in the early Nineties, riot grrrl was a political and intellectual underground movement with a musical wing, which Heller described as “if Susan Sontag and Gloria Steinem were to start a punk rock band. It was very articulate and pretty radical — kind of a ‘suck my left one’ response to boneheadedness. As opposed to turning around and telling a construction worker, ‘stop looking at my ass,’ they took up guitars as weapons.” Bands like Bikini Kill and later Sleater-Kinney de-feminized themselves, sporting combat boots, multiple body piercings and even knocking out their own teeth, anything to appear unladylike.
These antiestablishment bands led the way for the commercialization of the movement (riot grrrl became girl power) which peaked with Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls, whose girl power is as much about marketing as it is about empowering women. The Spice Girls’ individualized looks spawned a generation of teenage wannabes, whether they preferred tracksuits, pink hair, baby-doll dresses or Adidas stripes. “We all look up to ’NSYNC and Spice Girls, even though they’re not around anymore,” gushed Jade of No Secrets, one of today’s teenage Spice Girl-esque girl groups. “When we do photo shoots, we put on their music and dance around. A lot of our personalities are like the girls.”
As for the next superstar girl group: Clive Davis recently signed Lyric, a TLC-styled trio to his J Records, but forecasting the music business is as tricky as navigating Wall Street these days. According to Wild, one thing’s for certain, rock ’n’ roll is no longer a boys’ club. “Women rocking is exciting because it’s an expression of power,” he said. “What could be better than a girl who’s Keith Richards?”