five songs, five decades: the evolution of girl groups in american music

Even without the same level of popularity, girl groups have helped lead the way for female artists, using their group mentality and communal sense of sisterhood to embolden young girls to reach higher.

In the past, the girl group evoked an image of a well-groomed young woman with her hair in a beehive and wearing gogo boots; and later, one with ripped fishnets and messy eyeliner. Yet, their looks have nothing to do with their music. Women in music have always been made to endure attention directed at their appearance rather than their sound. They are asked not what it is like to be a musician, but “What’s it like to be a female musician?”

Decades later, female artists are still receiving a lack of recognition despite being at the top of every genre, whether it be pop, country, alternative, or rap. After examining the top 100 songs from 2012 through 2019, there remained a male-dominated ratio of 3.6 to 1, or 77.5% male to 22.5% female artists. Only 9% of the global top 100 songs from 2019 were produced by women, and the eight-year average is a bleak 2.5% (USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.) In the year-end Hot 100 for 2019, only one girl group placed on the list at #68 with City Girl’s “Act Up.” It may seem like these numbers don’t mean much or will never change, which in some ways may be true for time will only tell. One thing these numbers do prove is that there is progress to be made in terms of representation of differing perspectives, which is vital in order to breathe life into art. Otherwise, music just becomes an exhausting echo chamber, like how all of classic rock’s themes can largely be condensed to “girls,” “cars,” and “drugs.”

As of late, solo artists tend to be more popular than bands. Even so, many of the top groups across genres have been all male. From the Beatles and Pink Floyd to N.W.A or The Backstreet Boys, many all-male groups have dominated popular music. There have also been some immensely huge girl groups like The Supremes, TLC or Destiny’s Child, although they ultimately reached the same mega-star status far less frequently. It would be nice for these women in music to reach the same career success as some of their male counterparts, something that would also allow them to reach larger audiences and potentially inspire more kids.

Even without the same level of popularity, girl groups have helped lead the way for female artists, using their group mentality and communal sense of sisterhood to embolden young girls to reach higher.

So, I beg everyone to add some women to their playlist. I mean, come on, you can make it through one song that doesn't sound like Drake. And maybe, one day, we won’t think twice about the percentages of women on the charts. But for now, let's look back at some crucial girl groups that bring us to the state of women in music today. As Queen Latifah says, “Ladies first.”

001. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” - The Shirelles (1962)

In an age where the most vulgar content can make it to the Hot 100, it’s funny to think of a time when something as tame as The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” was banned from select radio stations.

The song came out in 1960, the same year as the birth control pill was approved for contraceptive use, helping to kick off the sexual revolution. With the pill came increased

freedom for women, primarily the ability to progress in the workplace without the burden of early motherhood, as well as the option of brief romantic partners. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” in its most direct translation tells the doubt of a one-night stand, as the speaker asks, “Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment's pleasure.” The song addresses the complications sex can bring into an undefined relationship, which at the time was considered taboo. Nonetheless, the song, written by husband and wife duo Carole King and Gerry Goffin, became a #1 hit, as well as the first number one by an all-female black group.

The Shirelles are one example of the many great girl groups of the sixties, many of which helped create the empire of Motown Records that put black record labels on the map. Although some of the content these woman sang about, which often was written by men, was downright toxic; doo-wop and early R&B was one of the first popular genres that put women in the forefront, synchronized dance moves and all.

002. “Typical Girls” - The Slits (1979)

The Slits were traditional in the sense that they could barely play their instruments when they first started performing, but proved to be innovators in their incorporation of new genres and rhythms to the traditional punk sound. The Cut, the first album released by the all-female trio, led by 17-year-old Ari Up, was produced by esteemed reggae-producer and musician Dennis Bovell.

The Slit’s first single and A-side to their fantastic cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was “Typical Girls,” a satirical take on societal expectations of the average woman. The song takes a stab at all the ways women are confined and reduced to stereotypes, shown in lines like, “Typical girls get upset too quickly/ typical girls can’t control themselves” or “Typical girls buy magazines/ typical girls feel like hell.” The young wit of these three bandmates comes through in this song, making light of the barriers that they have dealt with in an exclusive industry and genre. At the time there was a major lack of female representation in the guitar-wielding community, so much so that Patti Smith was the band’s only true inspiration. Because of bands like The Slits, and their contemporaries like X-Ray Spex, The Raincoats, and Delta 5, a wave of female rock musicians sprouted in the 90s and continues to develop, citing more than just a solitary figure to look up to.

003. “My Love For You” - ESG (1983)

ESG is a band of sisters who, despite having one of the most sampled hip-hop songs in history, have been left largely unknown. Hailing from the South Bronx, the Scroggin sisters were first given instruments by their mother as an incentive to stay out of trouble. Little did she know they would become innovators in post-punk while impacting no-wave, rap, house, and dance music with their chunky bass lines, fast-paced rhythms, and playful vocals. Their biggest claim to fame is found in hip-hop’s adoration for the unnerving instrumental “UFO” from 1991’s self-titled ESG that has been sampled over 500 times from Biggie to Pusha T.

“My Love For You” off 1983’s Come Away With ESG is a prime example of the group's delightful dynamic of elementary lyrics and concepts paired with mature, controlled compositions, which result in a strong desire to dance. “My love for you, baby, is like a roller coaster/ It goes up, down, any way you want it baby,” is the main line repeated throughout the song, and when sung in their charming call-and-response duet with sneaky cowbell, it becomes enticing. Although ESG never reached the mass appeal they had set out on (the G in their name stands for gold as in gold records) they left a lasting impact on the budding scenes emerging around them and penned a sound that has yet to be replicated.

004. “Double Dare Ya” - Bikini Kill (1991)

Bikini Kill’s lead singer Kathleen Hanna is largely responsible for the origin of Riot Grrrl, the 90s Olympia, Washington-based exclusively-female art space that was a major component of feminism’s third wave. Hanna went on to perform in groups like the Julie Ruin and Le Tigre, as well as inspiring the likes of beloved Sleater Kinney, but her work in developing the Riot Grrrl space was crucial in changing punk music for good.

We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution/ Girl-style now!” begins “Double Dare Ya,” one of the most energetic numbers of Bikini Kill’s self-released 1991 demo. The song acts as a call to action for women to take agency over their lives, shown in the first verse with the lines, “Dare ya to do what you want/ Dare ya to be who you will/ Dare ya to cry right out loud.” Though this may seem like a simple sentiment, everyone knows its execution is much easier said than done. It helps to hear Hanna howl and shout with her powerhouse lungs as the ultimate indication of confidence— because even if you don't believe in yourself, she does.

The song mocks the criticisms and double standards thrown at young women, one being “you get so emotional baby,” sung-through Hanna’s screams which are characteristic of a genre known for teen boys who beat each other up in mosh pits and punch holes in walls. Because of the violence that dominated the mostly all white and male audience at punk shows, Hanna would declare “girls to the front!” This created a safe space where women were finally given a chance to dance close to the stage without the fear of a hospital visit or wandering hands. Though “girls to the front” was declared 15 years too late, Hanna emboldened artists to still use the practice to this day.

005. “I’m Me”- CHAI (2019)

CHAI is a Japanese punk-pop girl group that is just beginning to show the world what they are capable of. In 2017 they released their debut album Pink and in 2019 their second album PUNK, two words that quite accurately describe their simultaneously aggressive and girlish sound. The group is currently releasing singles for a presumed third album, along with an upcoming collaboration with Madrid-based girl group Hinds at the end of August. Both groups are an example of a more intersectional version of pop/rock music that has grown from increased opportunity and the exposure of streaming services.

A self-proclaimed “women empowerment group,” CHAI is working to redefine the meaning of “kawaii” or “cuteness” by Japan and the world’s standards. The band’s website includes a mission statement on how everyone is “kawaii” in their own way, and their lyrics follow similar themes of embracing the self and celebrating the greater parts of life, screaming from the back of their throats as they do so. “I’m Me” is an example of CHAI”s quest for global self-acceptance, one in which insecurities aren’t shied from but honored. Though the translation is rough, somewhere in the song vocalist Mana sings, “I don’t know the world but I know me/ I don’t hide my weight,” and later, “What a cute girl I am/ What a cute girl you are/ Everybody’s wonderful.” Entering CHAI’s bubblegum-pop oasis is like being on a playground as a toddler again. It may be messy or intense at times, but the world is still shiny and nothing really hurts.

A girl group is not a term that stands for one idea or one image. They carry a spectrum of musically gifted, show-stopping women that have helped create a space for their joys and tribulations to be heard at top volume without judgment or dismissal. The Shirelles, The Slits, ESG, Bikini Kill, and CHAI are all united in their pursuit of unadulterated expression and their commitment to creating within an industry that is working against them. These five girl groups may not have much else in common, but their legacies allow future generations to evolve past and continue with their own contributions. Maybe in the near future female artists will just be asked “What’s it like to be a musician?” Until that day comes, enjoy the sounds and rhythms of these trailblazing women.

For a deeper look at girl groups throughout the last several decades, check out @HALOSCOPE on Spotify.

Johanna Sommer is a young music appreciator and obsessive fan from Buffalo, NY. Currently, she attends Purchase College as a freshman journalism major. Johanna loves nothing more than to write about music’s universal capacity, and how it can unite people of all backgrounds. 



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