The similarities are striking: Two groups of five aspiring singers, brought together in the opening rounds of the X Factor to form a teen supergroup. As their season went on, both groups overcame their issues with dancing and a few bouts of pitchiness to place third, and were quickly snapped up by a record label. Even the names sound the same: One Direction, Fifth Harmony. With Simon Cowell’s boys becoming transatlantic superstars, is it possible for his girls to follow in their footsteps and become the US X Factor’s first bonafide success story?
That’s the question posed by a recent MTV.com story, which was optimistic on the five girls’ chances:
But will 5H, just like 1D, succeed? The last time an all-female group topped the Billboard albums charts was with Danity Kane in 2008, another female group formed on a reality TV show.
Since then, there has been dearth of female pop groups on the market, a vacuum that Simon Cowell, snarky TV judge by day and ruthless music executive and mogul by night, would be more than happy to exploit, something he did extraordinarily well in the boy-band market with One Direction.
It’s this final point that will be crucial for Fifth Harmony’s chances at emulating One Direction’s success. Though the boy-band model was sagging in relevancy before One Direction burst onto the scene, the lads had the benefit of following the clearly defined path for success laid down by their predecessors: Four or five crushworthy guys, cute but not intimidatingly masculine, all of them just different enough that girls could pick their favorite. The model could be tweaked in important ways, particularly when it came to the music, but 1D enjoyed the same fundamental appeal as boy bands have had for generations.
Fifth Harmony, by contrast, faces their future career with a dispiriting lack of musical role models. The US pop industry, for whatever reason, hasn’t warmed to a girl group in a long time. 5H would likely have better chances for success had they appeared on the original X Factor, and not just because of that show’s greater skill at launching artists; girl groups catch on in the UK in a way they just don’t in America. The Brits have a thriving tradition running from Atomic Kitten to Sugababes to Girls Aloud to Little Mix. In the US, it’s basically Danity Kane, the Pussycat Dolls and that’s it—and neither of those acts had much of a musical identity for Fifth Harmony to follow. You have to go back to the Spice Girls, 15 years ago, to find a girl group worth imitating.
Can Fifth Harmony pick up where the Spice Girls left off? Maybe that’s a better question. They certainly want to, if certain post-performance invocations of “Girl Power!” are to be believed. But while the Spices excelled at branding themselves, both as a unit and individually—think of those wonderfully evocative names Posh, Baby and Scary—much of Fifth Harmony’s brief career has been marked by the struggle to figure out exactly who they are. (In a scant few weeks in the public eye, they’re already on their third name, having discarded LYLAS and 1432.) For many of their televised performances, the girls seemed stuck in an aesthetic no-man’s-land. They mostly sang ballads, and seemed too young for them; when they tried their hand at age-appropriate fare like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” an odd sort of adult seriousness took them over, stripping the song of its giddy immaturity.
Fifth Harmony’s semifinals performance, though, pointed a way forward. They took on Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen” and nailed it (piercing oohs and all), bringing an Alice-in-Wonderland surrealism to the song that, surprisingly, worked. For a flash, their path was clear: They would be Katy Perry mixed with Cher Lloyd, with a touch of English ethereal nicked from Goulding and Sia.
Is that barest seed of an identity enough? It was for 5H’s British boy band counterparts. Those guys spent the better part of their X Factor run cycling through various genres, looking for one direction (sorry) to follow. It didn’t always work—check out their attempt at Coldplay, it’s awful. But along the way, someone noticed that 1D performed best when covering the uptempo guitar pop that had previously been the domain of female singers like Kelly Clarkson and Natalie Imbruglia. Months of studio retooling later, a sound was born. If that was enough to bring the boy band trend out of its decade-long slumber, who’s to say that Fifth Harmony, with Cowell again steering the way, won’t be able to carve out their own niche?