The Sound of Girls Aloud
irls Aloud have often found themselves recipients of praise from the kind of people that rarely look upon TV talent-show winners with more than barely disguised contempt. Even the favorable words have often been underwritten with certain disclaimers: some bracket them as “guilty pleasures,” others reduce them to the status of hired hands by appealing to the evident talents of the Xenomania production team. Queasiness is not altogether unjustified. The tabloid trashiness that still surrounds the group makes them seem, in the eyes of many, unworthy of the kind of respect granted to the Sugababes or Arctic Monkeys, but few of the songs on this greatest hits compilation could be valued simply on the grounds of kitsch or “good production.” They’ve had a finely tuned chemistry almost from the start—remember how Javine was pushed out of the frame all those years back? Yes, they were put together by a TV talent show, one of the group has been convicted for assault, they are managed by the man who gave us Westlife, and have hardly an academic qualification between them. But in their dazzling dance-pop surfaces, one can make out an occasionally unflattering, yet believable reflection of modern Britain.
Instead of moralizing or sneering, the songs on this compilation feel like reports from this island’s own culture wars. These are songs that seem to revel in the parts of society, the parts of life itself, that exist only as caricature. “Binge drinking,” “chavs,” “celebrity culture”—these front-page clichés resonate within the songs because they are the things that the Girls themselves are inextricably anchored to. The group was literally picked from off of the streets and had the best minds in the business to design the package around them. If they are as “trashy” as some would suggest, it’s because if you walk though the center of any British town between, say 10 P.M. and 3 A.M. on any given Friday or Saturday night, what you’d tend to see isn’t exactly classy.
From a certain distance it seems strange that this particular group have been the springboard for so much divisive discussion. With its boy band vs. girl band conceit, 2002’s Popstars: The Rivals seemed a rather uninspired twist on the TV talent-show format, and few expected it to produce one of the decade’s defining acts. One True Voice, the winner of the boys competition, were a convenient reminder of how underwhelming manufactured pop can be, but it was clear a little more time and effort had gone into Girls Aloud. Glimmering and dizzy yet perfectly poised, the group’s first single, “Sound of the Underground,” was a consummate calling card, vaulting them into the forefront of the nation’s pop consciousness. From then on their position as our most nonchalantly daring pop group has barely been challenged.
The lead single for their second album, “The Show,” was audacious to say the least. With its clipped delivery and gnarled synth riffs barely sweetened, it’s SAW doing SST; tungsten and gristle polished to an FM sheen. It’s a terrifying peak they have only occasionally returned to—“Wake Me Up,” “Long Hot Summer,” and the brand-new “Something Kinda Ooh” all feel, to varying degrees, like attempts to recapture its seductive bludgeoning. Their ballads are frequently overlooked but are, on the whole, brilliantly executed. The four here (two originals and two covers) are well chosen and sympathetically orchestrated, their quiet emotional resonance a good counterargument to the frequent criticism that the girls are merely bit-part players in their own movie. Tinged equally with regret and defiance, these songs seem to pierce through the haze of Saturday night chemistry experiments’ inevitable hangovers.
The two new covers here are slightly dispiriting. “Money” feels like a reject from Chemistry, and any cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” is going to feel pallid in comparison to The Rubinoos. At its best though, The Sound of Girls Aloud feels like an irreverent party through the last 30 odd years of pop, taking inspiration from the most unexpected of places. Strangely, their most endearing song might be their cover of the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump.” Like nearly every other song here, it demonstrates their phenomenal power in finding a certain joy in ugliness. It’s an authentic inauthenticity set to the sound of a thousand discothèques. It’s being surrounded by a drunken hen party and finding enchantment instead of repulsion. Rather then taking notes from the sidelines, Girls Aloud exist somewhere near the center of our culture. That they can dance on and across these tensions and contradictions whilst making the kind of singles that fold into the fabric of daily life is what makes them special. If this, as has been suggested, is their last full-length release, then the multitudes within make a very strong case for them being the finest singles band Britain has produced this decade.