Girl Groups

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Girl Groups

"Girl group" is a popular descriptive term referring to a genre of all-female singing groups and to the distinctive style of music such a group performs. Sexual desire is essential to the girl group image and sound. The genre was nonexistent in the sexually restrictive, first half of the twentieth century, although some all-female groups (like the Boswell and Andrews Sisters) existed. The rise of the genre helped challenge sexual mores in society and helped nurture the growth of a youth-driven culture in America. By 1960, the image of the girl group was everywhere in popular culture—spread across the nation through radio and television. The genre had its ultimate expression in the Supremes in the 1960s. By the 1990s, the image of the girl group, such as the Spice Girls, had become an established musical and cultural symbol.

The girl group image alludes to both youthful innocence and sexual desire (desire usually for the heterosexual men for whom the groups were originally marketed). Traditionally a trio or quartet in number, members are young, attractive women who are groomed in a noticeable way—they appear in matching clothes, for example, or wear designer dresses. Their hair is styled fashionably and members often wear makeup. The image is one of a young woman representing the heterosexual man's ideal woman or Dream Date. She is pretty, she is all made-up, and she is dressed for a lovely dinner, a night of dancing, or a romantic movie. Sex is always a part of the image, although this theme has been used in different degrees throughout the genre's history. The Dream Date is multiplied in the image of her sister singers, and so, together, the group appears as a harem of sorts, ready to entertain and please the man lucky enough to choose (or be chosen by) the women.

Musically, the girl group sound is meant to complement this narrow but highly identifiable physical image of youthful, desirable women. To emphasize the notion of youth, all members generally have young-sounding voices: thin, high alto to soprano range, sometimes nasal in tone. The thinness of each woman's voice allows for easy blending and a uniformity of tone. A voice that is low—say, tenor range—or too full or distinctive is uncommon in the genre, as such voices are considered too mature to convey qualities of youth or too individual to blend invisibly into the sound of the other members' voices. To emphasize the notion of sex, sometimes the voices are decidedly breathy—borrowed from the popular images of the Hollywood sex symbols (such as Marilyn Monroe) of the first half of the twentieth century. As with much popular music, the songs themselves are short and repetitive, therefore memorable, and usually address or convey a situation or emotion right away, allowing the remainder of the song to be used as a showcase for the group's romantic or sexual appeal. The lyrics of girl group songs deal with predicaments of love and sexual relationships, often revolved around precoital stress. Before the "Sexual Revolution," many lyrics were controversial, for it was not considered proper for a woman—whose cultural image in America had long been synonymous with virginity—to consider or voice her own thoughts about sexual intercourse, especially in a public forum.

The barriers to what was lyrically acceptable had come down in the 1950s with male musicians such as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, solo artists who were writing and performing songs that entertained and were relevant to teenage experience—particularly the desires for freedom and sexual expression that teenagers were developing from beneath the oppressive morality of the 1940s and early 1950s. By the mid-1950s, these themes of love and sexual relationships were being explored by groups of male singers, and the genre of all-male singing groups became popular. Finally, five classmates at a school in Harlem decided to form an all-female group similar to the male groups that were so popular. Known as the Bobbettes, they recorded their smash, top ten hit song "Mr. Lee" in 1957. The song had both the flavor of doo-wop (a style many male singing groups were having success with at that time) and many of the characteristics of what would become the "girl group" style: the lyrics were simple and repetitive, and the song emphasized youthful innocence and budding sexual desire. In this case, the song concerned a girl's affection for her favorite teacher. The Bobbettes' later recordings never achieved the level of success that their first single had reached, but another girl group called the Chantels released their first song only a few months after the appearance of "Mr. Lee," and so a trend had begun.

A year later, four other high school girls formed a group of their own. Fans of the Bobbettes and the Chantels, they called themselves the Shirelles and soon became one of the most popular girl groups in the rock 'n' roll era. Their biggest hit was "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" The lyrics described a young girl musing on the loss of her virginity and were well ahead of the times. The song raced to the number one spot on the record charts, making the Shirelles the first black all-female group to have a number one record. Within a few years, dozens of girl groups formed and recorded records, all with varying degrees of success. All followed the girl group format, using slight variations to distinguish themselves from one another. Some of the most popular groups were the Crystals, the Marvelettes, the Chiffons, and the Shangri-Las. Two groups—Martha and the Vandellas, and the Ronettes—brought their own self-confident, "tough girl" innovation to the girl group sound.

Prior to the 1960s, audiences knew a singer's physical image from the live performance. Records were popular, but artists were, in the beginning, rarely shown on the covers of rock 'n' roll records. As girl groups began to appear more regularly on teen-oriented television shows such as Dick Clark's American Bandstand, and as their pictures began to show up on record covers, the idea of developing a visual image that supported either a group's tough or softly sweet (but in any case, sexually appealing) sound also became common.

The Motown Records company knew exactly how to use public visual image to their advantage. With shrewd business savvy, the company turned the Supremes—one of the many groups they managed—into the most successful girl group in popular music history. The Supremes capitalized on the use of a group name that implied divinity, on a public image that strove for larger-than-life beauty and sexual appeal, and through the sheer number of record-breaking achievements (including 12 number one hit records). A charm school run by the company taught the three young girls how to behave, dress, dance, and present themselves as young ladies. The Supremes' music was true to the girl group mold—simple, highly repetitive songs about love, yet audiences all over the world took notice of lead singer Diana Ross's breathy, seductive voice—light and thin but unquestionably distinctive. Their performances showcased their graceful, thoroughly choreographed routines and their often dazzling designer dresses. Motown owner Berry Gordy assembled a gifted team of writers to supply the Supremes with an almost endless stream of popular songs. The Supremes also appeared almost weekly on television variety shows and commercials, so by the end of the 1960s their name was household, and their image had become almost the sole representation of the term "girl group": three beautiful women, shining in sequined dresses, singing seductively to the listener. So completely did the Supremes seem to embody the concepts of the girl group that all other girl groups were subjected to a doomed comparison. Through the 1970s and 1980s a number of innovative all-female or female-led groups appeared (the Pointer Sisters, Heart, the Go-Gos, the Bangles), but these were of a very different sort. Any female group performing in the "girl group" style—now embodied by the Supremes—was guaranteed to fail in the public's eye as mere imitators.

Girl groups were often hired by other musicians to perform as background singers, so even when the genre began to move out of the public's eye, its influence was present in much of the subsequent popular musical work that was done in America. By the 1990s, the term "girl group" had developed a negative connotation for some, drawing on the worst stereotypes of the style: music thought of as shallow, low on talent, or vocal beauty but high on studio polish and gimmickry; highly sexual lyrical content; simplistic lyrical texture; and heavy emphasis on public image and physical sexual appeal rather than on the quality of the musical product or performance. In the 1990s a resurgence in the girl group style occurred in rhythm and blues music. Of these groups, a talented few (such as En Vogue) arose that functioned traditionally in many ways, yet embodied the best of what the genre had to offer and received, in return, their share of recognition. However, most of the girl groups in the 1990s had to struggle, in the general public's eye, to prove themselves against the later, negative image of the girl group.

—Brian Granger

Further Reading:

Gaar, Gillian G. She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seattle, Seal Press, 1992.

Grieg, Charlotte. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s On…. London, Virago, 1989.

O'Brien, Lucy. She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop and Soul. New York, Penguin Books, 1995.

Ryan, Thomas. American Hit Radio: A History of Popular Singles from 1955 to the Present. Rocklin, California, Prima Publishing, 1996.

Warner, Jay. The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History 1940-1990. New York, Billboard Books, 1992.