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7 December 2022

Why Girls Aloud were the most inventive act in Noughties pop

Twenty years since the release of their debut single, it’s clear that this talent show girl group rewrote the rulebook of British pop music.

By Fergal Kinney

As was a common sight on British television in the early 21st century, the studio audience hushed as Davina McCall prepared to announce the winner of ITV’s Popstars: The Rivals. When Girls Aloud’s single “Sound of the Underground” was named the victor – winning 2002’s coveted Christmas No 1 position in the UK singles charts – it signified a changing of the guard in British pop.

The song, an audacious fusion of Nineties jungle and twanging Fifties surf guitar, jump-started an unimpeachable run of top 10 singles that continued through the decade, up to the group’s eventual split in 2013. Girls Aloud are releasing a special 7-inch vinyl edition of the track for its 20th anniversary to raise money for the Sarah Harding Breast Cancer Appeal. Harding, one of the group’s five singers, died last year aged 39.

Popstars: The Rivals was engineered by ITV producers to capitalise on the intense tabloid rivalries that sprung up around the winners of 2001’s pioneering Saturday night contests Popstars and Pop Idol. Audiences rang premium phonelines to assemble by vote the membership of a boyband and a girl group, both led by celebrity judges. In November Harding, Kimberly Walsh, Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Cheryl Cole as the fixed line-up of Girls Aloud.

Their male counterparts, One True Voice, represented the affable pop orthodoxies that had kept their manager Pete Waterman an imperial industry force since the contestants had been infants. Spooked by the success of “Sound of the Underground”, Waterman – who is named in the credits on more than 100 top 40 singles – cried foul play and would never again have a hit.

Girls Aloud’s manager, Louis Walsh, barely expected his group to last beyond Christmas leftovers. In a rare gambling mood, he took a punt on a demo that had been circulating around the industry for at least a year for their first single. It was the product of an unorthodox production house from Kent.

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Under the name Xenomania, Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper had spent half a decade on pop’s margins fantasising about how they might bury that era’s formulaic R&B template. Emboldened by “Sound of the Underground” topping the charts, Xenomania went on to write and produce most of Girls Aloud’s output, shaping that decade’s pop in their own image as they also produced glitzy smash singles for artists such as Sugababes, Rachel Stevens and Gabriella Cilmi. 

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Even their name – which means the opposite of xenophobia, “a love of all cultures” – was a manifesto. “What we stand for,” insisted the enigmatic Higgins in one of his rare interviews, “is everything about the interesting side of music, but with tunes the postman will whistle.” Listen closely to songs such as “Love Machine”, “Biology”, “Something Kinda Ooh” or “No Good Advice” and a signature Xenomania sound begins to emerge, cutting up multiple pop styles in the same track. Punk, bubblegum, rave, electroclash, glam, whatever – this was music to be sold on Woolworths CD racks with a pick’n’mix attitude to genre.

Nadine Coyle said that on first hearing “Love Machine” the group thought it was “career suicide”. Higgins would later describe it as “the Smiths bumping into the Sweet”. Harding remembered the group being “freaked out” when they first heard “Biology”, Xenomania’s rule-shredding masterpiece that Higgins had Frankensteined together from hundreds of vocal fragments. Both became signature hits.

The Spice Girls mania of the mid-1990s did not initially change the British girl group as much as one might expect. All Saints, B’Witched and Atomic Kitten all followed in their wake as increasingly dreary variations on a well-worn theme. Girls Aloud were among the first generation to have grown up with Girl Power, meaning their achievable high-street glamour was suffused with an onstage feistiness and offstage lairy rancour that made them instant fodder for the tabloids.  

The breadth of their appeal was, in retrospect, remarkable. As well as finding fans among a primetime Saturday night TV audience, they were a perennial favourite of the cultural theorist Mark Fisher. On his influential blog k-punk he noted approvingly “the whiff of scandal and violence” around a group he perceived to have “twisted the puppet strings” of reality television.

Not everyone was convinced. The first question that Jonathan Ross asked the group when they appeared on his chat show in 2006 was about how little clothing they wore on stage. In the Observer Paul Morley wrote that the “gaudy, vulgar starlets” were “spooky, enslaved hooligans”.

Media culture in Blair’s Britain was shaped by a cruelty towards working-class women, such as Kerry Katona and Jade Goody, that was both parasitic and hypocritical in its commodification and mock outrage. Girls Aloud, all women from working-class backgrounds, were no exception to this ugly moral panic. Cheryl Tweedy married the footballer Ashley Cole and faced a misogynistic backlash following the English national football team’s poor showing in the 2006 World Cup, which was blamed in the press not on the players but on their wives and girlfriends: WAGs.  

Even the British music establishment could be remarkably haughty about its most bankable stars. Only in 2009 would the Brit Awards buckle under the invincible, shimmering sophisti-pop of “The Promise” to award Girls Aloud their award for best British single.

The UK print music press barely noticed Girls Aloud’s progressive pop revolution, instead giddily cheering a Libertines-led guitar rock revival – now celebrated as “indie sleaze” – that was trudgingly conservative by comparison. “I’ve heard a Babyshambles album and it was like, ‘What am I listening to’?” mocked Coyle in a 2006 interview. “We could make a record that sounded like that, but could [Pete Doherty] make one that sounded like us?”

Some contemporaries understood, however. Arctic Monkeys recorded a thrillingly scrappy “Love Machine”, and the Pet Shop Boys wrote the elegiac sad-banger “The Loving Kind” for the group in 2009. That track would be the last entry in an unbroken run of twenty top 10 singles before the group went on hiatus, returning for a short-lived victory lap in 2012 before splitting up. Their members have found more success in television than their respective solo music careers, while Xenomania lost their mainline to the British public.

In 2020 Harding announced that she was receiving treatment for breast cancer. She published a memoir, Hear Me Out, and encouraged her female fan base to check for the signs of the disease. Ruling out a reunion without Harding, the four remaining members have instead joined forces for various charity fundraising events.

Harding’s death came at a time when much of Girls Aloud’s cultural climate had been reappraised. Online pop culture archivists such as the popular Love of Huns Instagram account have helped to affectionately memorialise the group and their showbiz peers. A #FreeBritney-literate pop audience understands more acutely the pressures on female pop stars, while Y2K contemporaries – and fellow Xenomania alumni – Sugababes were the surprise hit of this year’s Glastonbury festival. Perhaps some of this is because, as Alim Kheraj wrote in the Guardian following Little Mix’s split this year, there is now a rare drought of UK girl groups.

Some of this too is simple nostalgia for the bright hits of the flip-phone era. In their output and in their innovation, Girls Aloud redefined and sculpted the pop music and celebrity culture of a singular moment in British history.  

[See also: An ode to the Great British music festival]

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