Shortly after coming off stage from the final show of their twelve-date reunion tour, Girls Aloud tweeted a message to their followers: “We have now come to the end of our incredible time together.” Tributes came flooding in from fans, who gushed about the Girls’ assured legacy. But what, if anything, have they really given us?
Let’s start at the beginning.
The success of Girls Aloud cannot be separated from the explosion of reality TV in the early noughties. On 30th November 2002, 8.5 million viewers watched the final episode of Popstars: The Rivals to see be chosen to join the country’s newest girl band. Looking back now at the naive smiles and quirky hairstyles of the chosen line-up, who would have thought that they would go on to become the biggest selling girl band of the century?
Girls Aloud’s first single, Sound of the Underground, was almost immediately heralded as a game-changing song: rather than being cheesy or sugary-sweet, it was rocky and rhythmic, rough and ready. If you believed the lyrics, this was music that got into your veins and made you want to disco dance with the lights down low. The girls won the gender war, beating One True Voice to the Christmas number one. Their song stayed in the top slot for several weeks, eventually going platinum. “Buy girls, bye boys”.
Over the next few years, the band underwent a transformation, both physically and musically. Out went the barefaced innocence and feisty attitude; in came the glamorous (and revealing) outfits and ironic super-shiny plastic dance music. With a cover version of Jump, and the original tracks Love Machine and Biology, they became a “shining beacon of nostalgic pop with retro hooks”. The hits kept coming and by 2008, the stage was set for The Promise, a sixties-inspired number that clinched their fame. In 2009 they gathered the best bits together and released a greatest hits album entitled The Sound of Girls Aloud. After a hiatus, during which they focused on solo projects, they celebrated their tenth anniversary with a tour and another greatest hits album, entitled Ten.
Ten included the new song Beautiful ‘Cause You Love Me, which would become their final single. The song was a statement. Here were five girls who had lived for a decade under harsh media scrutiny. They had spent their twenties learning to withstand criticism – of their music, their personal lives, and particularly their appearances – from the same public that gave them their success. What did they have to say to sum it all up?
Their final conclusion was phrased as a surprised question: “[W]ho would have thought that I’d be so content in my own skin?”
‘Just be yourself’ is hardly a new message: in fact, it is perhaps one of the mantras that culture has most insistently and consistently repeated to us over the last decade. But in their mouths, it becomes a statement that public approval is not the be all and end all. It’s a surprising message from a band that gained their chance at fame thanks to a public vote. Girls Aloud may be the most financially successful of all the reality TV participants, made famous by public vote, but at the end of it all, they’ve learnt to find contentment beyond public approval.
So where does contentment come from? Here is the subversive message in a world of individualism: we were born to live in relationship. Freedom, acceptance and even glory are possible when we find someone who truly loves us, warts and all:
“Right now the whole world could call me ugly
So what, to you I’m not
You don’t love me ‘cause I’m beautiful
I’m beautiful ‘cause you love me”