Sarah Harding’s voice, as fans pointed out on Twitter, was the first we heard on the debut Girls Aloud single “Sound of the Underground”, and the last we heard on “Every Now and Then”, the final track on the 2012 compilation album Ten, the group’s last release.
Harding, who has died aged 39 of breast cancer, was one-fifth of the British-Irish girl group, who, having been formed on Popstars: The Rivals in 2002, became one of the UK’s most successful acts. Girls Aloud – comprising Harding, Cheryl Cole (then Tweedy), Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh – were voted by the public as winners of the ITV talent show. This ready audience would then become the core of their adoring fanbase, and “Sound of the Underground”, with its peppy beat, twanging guitars and catchy chorus, became the 2002 Christmas number one.
Girls Aloud weren’t the first pop group formed on a reality TV show to achieve huge success. But unlike many of their peers, they proved that even talent shows, fickle as they may be, could create a lasting act: Girls Aloud were popular right up until they disbanded in 2013, with a string of 20 consecutive singles placing in the UK top ten. In 2012 they were named the biggest selling girl group of the 21st century.
Though its members were artificially brought together, in Girls Aloud’s music – particularly early tracks such as the fun-loving “Jump”, and their brilliantly unexpected cover of Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” – their vocal chemistry is audible. Songs with complex but compelling structures such as “Biology” and “The Show” proved talent show acts could have hits that diverged from the typical pop template.
On Popstars: the Rivals, Harding was the last member to secure her place in Girls Aloud. Because of this, she wrote in her memoir Hear Me Out, published in March this year, that she felt inclined to throw herself into all aspects of the lifestyle of stardom – including the parties – to prove she was good enough. Tabloids dubbed her a “hell-raiser”, and her bandmates nicknamed her “Hardcore Harding”, but that verve brought a feistiness to the group’s recordings, and gave her a boldness that helped her navigate an industry renowned for its toughness.
Girls Aloud had an alchemy that pop industry executives and talent show producers have tried to recreate again and again. Singles such as “Love Machine”, “Something Kinda Ooooh” and “Walk This Way” (an Aerosmith cover, in collaboration with the Sugababes) were impossible to avoid at the time of their release, and hold up today as addictive pop tracks that zing with attitude. Shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent chased after Girls Aloud’s early to mid-Noughties success, and the band paved the way for acts with similar origin stories: JLS, One Direction and Little Mix. When Little Mix became the first female band to win the Brit award for best British group in May 2021, its members paid tribute to those girl groups who had come before them, including All Saints, the Spice Girls and Girls Aloud. Twelve years earlier, when Girls Aloud won their first Brit award for their single “The Promise”, Harding made a similar statement: “It’s about time!” she shouted into the mic.
But Harding, however fierce and outgoing, had a genuine tenderness about her too. On the Girls Aloud single “Hear Me Out”, which Harding co-wrote for their 2004 album What Will the Neighbours Say?, she brings a rawness and vulnerability. Again, on this track, it is Harding’s voice that we hear first – at once assured, intimate and yearning.