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12 October 2021

Jesy Nelson, Little Mix and the ruthless churn of the music industry

The controversy over Nelson’s new music video highlights how, despite public consciousness of mental health, female pop stars remain vulnerable.

By Emily Bootle

In August 2021, all the posts on the singer Jesy Nelson’s Instagram – previously populated with glamorous selfies and, if you scrolled a little further down, shots of her performing with the girl group Little Mix – were suddenly deleted. Eight months after leaving the band in December 2020 to protect her mental health, Nelson signalled the start of a new chapter – again – by presenting her 8.4 million followers with a blank canvas for her public identity. A couple of weeks later, she began to post again, with teasers of her new song, “Boyz”, and its accompanying video. In between posts, she appeared in Glamour, the Guardian and in various broadcast media giving interviews about social media addiction, confidence and the happy, comfortable self she had found since departing the band. A new Jesy Nelson had been born.

Yet it appears that the industry she inhabits is exactly the same. The video for “Boyz”, which samples P Diddy and features Nicki Minaj and was released on 8 October, is not dissimilar to the Little Mix videos that contributed to Nelson’s decision to leave the band after she had a panic attack on set. It is a run-of-the-mill pop video: high colour saturation; multiple outfit changes; choreographed dance routines; heavy makeup. The song is a 2010s-style club anthem about liking “bad boys”, all tongue-out innuendos, with an R&B inflection and a lacklustre verse by Minaj. It’s not the upbeat empowerment harmonies of Little Mix, but nor does it seem like a real departure, in any meaningful sense, from the world that was making Nelson ill.

Nelson told the Guardian in August, “I never said I’m coming out of the band to never be in the public eye again. I said I’m coming out of Little Mix because I could not deal with the pressure of being in a girl band, not that I can’t deal with the pressures of being in the spotlight or being famous.” Since Little Mix won the X Factor in 2011, Nelson – as she revealed in her 2019 documentary Odd One Out – was bullied on social media for her weight and appearance, which she felt was always compared with the other three women in the band. After a period of sustained weight loss (which prompted Katie Hopkins to tweet that Little Mix “still [had] a chubber in their ranks”), Nelson attempted suicide.

The pressures of a harsh, fickle pop music industry are intensified when one is being directly compared with one’s bandmates. But you are still open to scrutiny on your own. You can still be dropped by your label, you can still be bullied online, you can still have vicious tabloid articles written about your body and your personal life. It was Nelson’s mother who ultimately told her she had to stop being in Little Mix after she was hospitalised again in 2020. What level of protection does the industry owe a musician like Nelson when we know what we know?

It was this question that led to my discomfort on Friday when Nelson released “Boyz” and her name began to trend on Twitter. Just a few days previously she had been on the cover of Glamour for the second time since leaving the band – the face of the magazine’s “self-care issue”. She projected an image of herself as being at the pinnacle of contentment and confidence: she no longer needed lip fillers, diets or corsets to be happy, proclaimed the cover line. Taken at face value, she seems ready for anything. And so when “Boyz” disappointed listeners for various reasons, they said as much.

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The prevailing criticism of Nelson and “Boyz” is that she is “blackfishing”: altering her appearance to the extent that she looks black or mixed race, despite being white. In the “Boyz” video she does this in several ways, including her hair, makeup and clothes, but also by adopting a “blaccent” and singing about men who are “so hood” – despite, as people were quick to point out on Twitter, having a dating history of clean-cut white boys. In an Instagram Live video on 11 October between Nelson and Minaj in conversation, they both appeared to mock such criticisms, including those supposedly made by former bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock in unverified leaked DMs in which she seemed to call Nelson a “horrible person”.

Pinnock made a documentary earlier this year about her own experiences of otherness and online abuse as the only black member of Little Mix: Nelson’s integrity is now being called into question, not only for her lack of sympathy to racial sensitivities but also because her own experiences of online abuse mean that she should know better than to ridicule her ex-bandmate.

Commenting on somebody’s work is different from commenting on their appearance. Music, including commercial pop, can and must be engaged with critically in order to keep it alive, in order to push it into different, interesting, relevant shapes. The question is whether Nelson is ready, less than a year after stepping back from what was making her ill, to face any criticism at all, in a world where social media causes vicious, potentially false feuds to emerge and justified scrutiny to lean into snark. She is an adult who can make her own decisions about her career and her life, and of course her experience of mental health problems does not take away her right to pursue a successful pop career.

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But the music industry often conflates real people with sales and hits. Years after Lily Allen released Sheezus (the video for lead single “Hard Out Here” faced similar accusations of racism and cultural appropriation) she said she felt its marketing campaign was inauthentic – that she simply “did what I thought pop stars should do, and it was very wrong”. “Boyz” was received poorly by many because it similarly appeared to be a hollow attempt to jump on a pop bandwagon, and it has already backfired.

Though Nelson appears at ease in video interviews, we have to be cynical about the extent to which the industry is protecting her – and her former bandmates, who are now involuntarily involved in an online war. She says she no longer needs dieting and lip fillers but is doing video and cover shoots in which she is groomed to meet the industry standard of physical perfection: slim, toned and pouty. She says she is making the music she’s always wanted to make, but despite previously feeling dissatisfied with Little Mix’s relationship with RCA, is signed with another major label.

The internet has not become less vicious since 2011, when Nelson was flooded with abuse on Facebook the night she became a pop star. Nor has the music industry become less volatile: it relies to an increasing extent on quick hits and brand partnerships to keep money coming in. Online culture breeds overexposure, pile-ons and soapbox critique, which undermines the importance and legitimacy of genuine criticism. It is also leveraged by pop execs to gain clicks, cash and clout. Though many people are now preoccupied with proclaiming themselves as part of “team Jesy” or “team Little Mix”, taking sides is just a distraction. The real question is: who is responsible when it all goes wrong?

[See also: Grimes, the Communist Manifesto and the literary celebrity photoshoot]