Look Out Pop World, Here Come the Girl Groups

Little Mix, G.R.L. and Fifth Harmony are poised to fill the void left by the Spice Girls and Destiny's Child, with the industry hoping to cash in on today's boy band-heavy landscape.

In a pop climate big on sex, scandal and “grown up” Disney darlings, consumers could use a role model.

Enter: the girl groups, who are about to infiltrate the music world, if the industry has its way. Several newcomers, hoping to sing their way into the void left by the Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child and even Danity Kane, are primed for impact. They include X Factor U.K. winners Little Mix, who burst onto the U.S. charts with their wildly successful debut, DNA, X Factor U.S. alums Fifth Harmony and the Larry Rudolph-managed, Britney Spears-endorsed supergroup G.R.L.

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“It’s just a natural mirror to the pop movement,” says Scott Seviour, Epic Records’ EVP marketing and artist development, who works with Fifth Harmony. “I think it’s a reaction to the boy bands and that pop music has really hit a high again.”

Indeed, over the last year, boy bands One Direction and Wanted have seen impressive stats, with the former's sophomore album already certified platinum and the latter's “Walk Like Rihanna” video -- which parodies boy bands of yesteryear -- receiving more than seven million views on YouTube.

Both groups have ventured into multimedia territory in 2013 with a forthcoming concert doc, One Direction: This Is Us, and a (poorly rated) Ryan Seacrest-produced reality show on E!, The Wanted Life.

“Young girls don’t change,” says G.R.L. manager Rudolph, who nurtured Spears’ career from the beginning, and is now working with Miley Cyrus, as well. “There’s always a new generation of them, every six or seven years, and they don’t change. It’s human nature. They want their boys and they want their female role models.”

And the girls are keen to oblige. Little Mix’s “Wings” is saturated with “girl power”-themed lyrics, as is Fifth Harmony’s forthcoming “Me and My Girls” and G.R.L.’s debut single “Vacation,” which will be featured on The Smurfs 2 soundtrack.

“It’s nice that it’s coming back ‘round again, that feeling of girl power and girls supporting each other,” says Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall, who admits to being “obsessed” with the Spice Girls. “Not only because of their music, but I thought they were such good role models. They were so fun and you could really see their friendships.”

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While the pop divas of today have become larger-than-life figures -- Beyonce! Britney! Madonna! -- these girl groups strive to be not only relatable, but easily accessible. 

Keeping fans engaged is more important than ever in today’s digital landscape, with each group and the respective labels working tirelessly to build up their presence on social media. That's especially true of U.K.-based Little Mix, which counts 3.4 million Twitter followers.

“They don’t live in the U.S., so it is important that they use these social platforms to engage their fans,” says Doneen Lombardi, EVP marketing for Columbia Records, the label home of both Little Mix and One Direction. “Their fans really feel like the girls are accessible even when they are 5,000 miles away.”

Even stateside, Twitter has become a “crucial” aspect of Fifth Harmony’s promotional push, says Seviour. “It’s fundamentally the voice of the campaign,” he says. “It’s the most authentic way you can connect with the audience, and these fans demand it. Our digital campaign is front and center, and it expands from there.” To wit: Fifth Harmony’s Vine-inspired lyric video for their debut single, “Miss Movin’ On.”

Spurred by the international phenomenon that is One Direction, undoubtedly the Rolls Royce of today’s boy bands, Little Mix surely benefits from proximity to their famous labelmates, who were formed on the X Factor U.K. stage just one season earlier, but also from being the first out with product on the market.

DNA, the group’s first album, was released in November of 2012 and debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 U.S. albums chart, marking the highest first-time Billboard entry from a British girl group and breaking the record previously held by the Spice Girls’ 1996 debut Spice. The album’s success undoubtedly pushed plans forward for their sophomore effort, which the girls are currently recording.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” says Thirlwall. “Just because we got No. 4 doesn’t mean that we’ve made it. We’re still going to work just as hard as we did before that.”

She has a point -- and they have company. Fifth Harmony is hard at work on their first album, with bookings later this month on the Today show as part of a nationwide mini-tour and a featured spot as Radio Disney's Next Big Thing, while Rudolph says that G.R.L. is a  “nuclear bomb waiting to explode.”

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G.R.L., brought together by Pussycat Dolls mastermind Robin Antin, is currently in the studio with hit makers Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who, according to Rudolph, say the girls are “the best new artist [they’ve] worked with. Ever.”

“I am as excited about this as I was about Britney when I first got started with her,” says Rudolph. And for what it's worth, Spears isn't the only superstar to endorse the G.R.L. girls: Spice Girls' Mel B tweeted her feelings about the group, writing, "So love these @GRL girls Miss @BritneySpears has been tweeting about. Girl power!”

Kelly Rowland, of Destiny's Child fame, is also in the girls' corner, telling THR at the Los Angeles X Factor auditions, "I have seen Fifth Harmony and they are really great." Still, when asked about an impending resurgence of girls groups, she added, "I’m waiting for the right one."

Knowing that it’s going to take more than catchy hooks and good looks to reach the top of the charts, the singers pride themselves on being role models for their fans, prompting the industry to market girls to parents almost as much as the core audience.

“I fully expect that parents and their kids will love this group,” says Rudolph, but concedes, "There is a bit of a fine line that any pop act needs to walk when it comes to maintaining a multi-generational relationship with its fan base. ... If the group members are trying too hard to please the parents, they will end up being uninteresting to their real audience -- the kids. They still need to maintain the edge and excitement necessary to keep their fan base engaged.”

If it’s wholesome, sugary-sweet fare you’re looking for, look no further than YouTube phenoms-turned-Universal recording artists Cimorelli. Comprised of six sisters aged 13-22, the Sacramento, Calif., natives’ music videos for “Believe It” and “Made in America” could leave you with a toothache. With more than nine million views between the group’s two videos, there’s clearly a market for it.

“It’s hard to find good role models, especially for young girls and boys,” says Thirlwall, who says she takes the responsibility that comes with it very seriously. “We’re not saying we’re flawless -- we are normal girls, and I think that’s important, as well.”

If history has taught us anything, it’s that musical groups don't often last into adulthood, and usually it's only one member who finds massive solo success, be it Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce or Victoria Beckham.

Rudolph says that “growing up” in the spotlight can only happen “organically. ... There’s no such thing as a planned ‘OK, let’s figure out the plan for growing up.’ It doesn’t work,” he says. “The public sees through it in two seconds, and every artist who’s tried to do it has failed.

“You get to that point and you hope that it happens,” he says. “If it does, it does. If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t in cards.”

Not so, says Epic Records’ Seviour, who tells THR that there is already a “long-term plan anchored in the belief that Fifth Harmony will be one of the great pop groups of our time. ... I am certain their evolution will be constant as they transform into world-class performers,” he adds, “and we plan to support them throughout the process.”

Not bad for a group of teens plucked from obscurity just one year ago -- and, lest we forget, brought together by Simon Cowell for TV.

“They have their distinct personalities, but they’re not playing a role,” says Seviour of Fifth Harmony. “These are girls who, a year ago, were dreaming that they could be in a group. They were put together by Simon Cowell on TV, people witnessed the transformation, and they’ve now come to the other side and they are making their dreams happen.”

Now, as is tradition in the world of competing groups, it’s time to pick sides. To whom will you pledge your allegiance? Check out the groups’ latest offerings in the videos below.

With reporting by Cortney Wills

E-mail: Sophie.Schillaci@THR.com
Twitter: @SophieSchillaci