Stop me when this sounds familiar: A group of fresh-faced contestants compete individually on Britain's singing show The X Factor. None of them advance past the first challenge on their own, but the judges think they might have a shot as a group. Their voices and talents blended harmoniously, and the newly formed group either wins or nearly wins the whole thing, then storms the charts in Britain and America, setting all sorts of records in the process.
It's the now-familiar story of the boy band One Direction, (a quintet that managed a third-place X Factor finish). And now it's also that of Little Mix, a blend of four young women whose perfectly coiffed dance-pop took them to the very top X Factor spot and almost instantaneously made them the biggest girl band since the Spice Girls.
Actually, scratch that.
Little Mix is already bigger than Spice—at least statistically speaking. The group's No. 4 bow for freshman album DNA marks the highest debut ever for a British female group, topping the Spice Girls' entry at No. 6 back in 1997. And it turns out Little Mix is interested in rebooting another part of the Spice Girls' legacy as well: "When we were younger, we had the Spice Girls and groups like that to look up to, that had this really empowering message and made you feel really good about yourself," says singer Jade Thirlwall. "And I think it's kind of about time that it was brought around again."
"Wings" models self-respect and rejects criticism. We hear, "Mamma told me not to waste my life/She said, 'Spread your wings, my little butterfly/Don't let what they say keep you up at night'/And they can't detain you/'Cause wings are made to fly/And we don't let nobody bring us down." Embracing healthy self-esteem is the subject of "We Are Who We Are" as the song rejects self-loathing ("I've been wasting a lot of time looking in mirrors/And hating on me, but now I like what I see") and encourages women to accept themselves instead of comparing themselves unflatteringly to celebrities ("And I'm gonna shine like a star, 'cause I'm the only me in this world/Throw away the books and the magazines, I'm never gonna look like a beauty queen/We are who we are").
"Change Your Life" promises, "We're gonna stick together/Know we'll get through it all," and tells a struggling friend that, essentially, whatever doesn't kill her makes her stronger ("You're gonna use it to become what we've always known/ … You got a right to show the world/Something they've never seen").
Faithful friendship drives "Always Be Together" as well, with the girls singing, "We are friends for life/Hold that deep inside/ … Make sure you give it your all/And if you ever fall/Know that I'm right here." (Those promises get melded to a generic reference to heaven with, "When you need me/The heavens will send/A message within/Straight to your heart.")
The title track asks romantically, "Does he tell you he loves you when you least expect it?" A woman struggling with post-breakup emotions on "Pretend It's OK" admits it's hard to be honest. "How Ya Doin'?" finds a woman standing up for herself and telling an emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend he can't manipulate her anymore. "Going Nowhere" tells a lazy, unemployed beau who plays Xbox too much to take a hike.
Mildly sensual moments turn up on "DNA" with the lines, "Does he flutter your heart when he kisses your neck/ … Fingerprints that leave me covered for days, yeah, hey, yeah/ … It's all about his kiss/Contaminates my lips/Our energy connects." And dance floor infatuation smolders on "Stereo Soldier" with, "Boy, step a little closer/Lay me left and rock me right, baby, lift me up so high/ … Don't wanna be by myself/I wanna be dancing with you/ … All I need is the beat in my feet, let me lose control." The song also suggests that something like salvation can be found in such intense feelings ("Can you save me?/Can you set me free?/'Cause I need to feel alive"). "Red Planet" purrs, "Boy, you make it hot on your red planet/ … Give me all your love tonight."
"Wings" flirts with the s-word ("And if they give you shhh—/They can walk on by"). "Madhouse" compares music to a drug.
The template for female pop stars—whether singly or in groups—is firmly fixed. They can sing about love, sex, breakups and, occasionally, personal empowerment messages. Unless your name is P!nk, wandering into too much existential angst can be hazardous to your career (as Kelly Clarkson discovered with My December).
That's the grid defining these newcomers from across the pond. The pulse-quickening possibility of love turns up on quite a few tracks. Breakups crop up as well. And empowerment ultimately saves the female day.
That last bit isn't sarcastic, by the way. It's a great thing that the strongest messages on DNA are those about self-respect and self-esteem. Singer Leigh-Anne Pinnock recently told Billboard, "I think the good thing as well [is that] the album's inspiring people. They're calling us role models, and it's just an amazing feeling that we're being inspirations just by being ourselves."
So while it's always hazardous business trusting emerging young stars with the role model mantle (just ask one-time fans of Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus), Little Mix is currently modeling some messages worth embracing. They include healthy self-acceptance, rejecting criticism and the temptation to compare yourself to unrealistic images, persevering in the pursuit of your dreams and being a faithful friend.
Unfortunately, three or four songs already push in One Direction's wrong direction. So I can only (wistfully) hope that somehow the right kinds of messages remain high in the mix as this little band blows up big.