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Where Did Their Love Go? Camila Cabello and the End (?) of Girl Groups

The former Fifth Harmony member has the biggest album in the country. Was her group just a launching pad, or something more essential to pop music?

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On a 2012 episode of the singing competition The X Factor, five teenage girls sat in the living room of Simon Cowell’s airy, beachside abode, trying to figure each other out. Just four days ago they were strangers; suddenly, they were bandmates. They’d all auditioned for the show as solo artists. After being eliminated, each one had been called back to the stage and told, with cameras rolling and expected shrieks, that they could return to the competition as a girl group. (Swap the genders and the side of the pond and this exact formula had worked wonders before: On the 2010 season of the British version of The X Factor, Cowell created the boy band One Direction the exact same way.) Under the stage lights, the girls were elated for this second chance.

But days later, in that living room—just before their first group performance for Cowell, guest judge Marc Anthony, and two prominently framed cans of product-placed Pepsi—their nerves were showing. “We were just kind of thrown together in comparison to the other groups,” Lauren Jauregui says. “The other groups have been like, sisters or best friends forever. … [We’ve had] four days to figure out each other’s voices …”

“… personalities,” Normani Kordei adds.

“… to connect with each other, have chemistry,” says Ally Brooke.

Jauregui tells the girls, who would soon christen themselves Fifth Harmony, “We’re not individuals anymore. We are a group now.”

On the corner of that couch, with a floppy Minnie Mouse bow in her long brown hair, sits a shy but giggly Cuban-born 15-year-old named Camila Cabello. Almost six years later, Cabello is the artist behind the no. 2 song in the country, the irresistible and ubiquitous “Havana.” Last week she released her first solo album, Camila, and it is one of the most promising and personable pop debuts in recent memory. But it would not exist at all without the ruffling of some expertly coiffed tresses and the rewriting of some well-worn scripts.

Fifth Harmony came in third place on The X Factor (perhaps a better omen than winning—One Direction placed third, too). Cowell quickly signed the group to his label. They have, to date, released three albums and had two top-10 hits (the saxophone-driven “Worth It” and the Ty Dolla $ign collabo “Work From Home”). Thanks in part to the team spirit cultivated by their X Factor run, through which their supporters had to be zealous enough to vote for them week after week, they’ve amassed a devoted legion of fans who call themselves “Harmonizers.” But, since December 19, 2016, Fifth Harmony has been an ironically named quartet. “After four and a half years of being together, we have been informed via her representatives that Camila has decided to leave Fifth Harmony,” they wrote in a statement disseminated on social media, shocking their fans. “We wish her well.”

That statement made it seem like the other girls were blindsided by Cabello’s departure, but she insisted they’d known for a long time that she was growing artistically restless, especially after she’d been featured on singles from Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly. “It became clear that it was not possible to do solo stuff and be in the group at the same time,” Cabello told The New York Times last week. “[I]f anyone wants to explore their individuality, it’s not right for people to tell you no.”

Last August, promoting their just-released self-titled album, the remaining members of Fifth Harmony performed at the MTV Video Music Awards. Before launching into a new song called “Angel,” five figures appeared in silhouette—and then one of them fell backward off the stage and into the abyss. The stunt took 20-year-old Cabello (who was watching at home with her mom) by surprise. The wound still hasn’t healed. In that Times interview, Cabello’s “eyes welled up as she recalled watching it live.” Despite this newfound flair for controversy and decent reviews, though, Fifth Harmony’s self-titled album hasn’t made much of a dent commercially. And with members now actively pondering solo careers, it seems likely that it will be their last.

Why—in the age of #squad, pop feminism, and even a modest boy band resurgence—has the American girl group failed to make a comeback? On their first two albums, Fifth Harmony often seemed focus-group perfected for this era when confidence, empowerment, and GOALS are the primary messages being beamed down to young women. “Boss! Michelle Obama! Purse so heavy gettin’ Oprah dollars,” they chanted on one of the singles from 2015’s Reflection; “Give it to me, I’m worth it,” they asserted on another. Their next album opened with the brassy “That’s My Girl,” a pop pep talk engineered to inspire a titular friend to summon the inner strength to conquer the world, or at least to get to a spin class on time (“Got yourself this flawless body achin’ now from head to toe”). At best, these songs offered a welcome corrective to outdated narratives about female ambition and cat fights. At worst, they felt like they had been written by a machine that had plucked hashtagged words from the day’s most popular inspirational Instagram posts.

Pop cultural trends ebb and flow, but female vocal groups have been a dominant commercial presence throughout several different eras of American pop music, from the boom of the early ’60s (when the Beatles’ only major chart competition was the Supremes) to the girl-power wave of the ’90s (defined by blockbuster albums like TLC’s CrazySexyCool and the Spice Girls’ Spice). “Girl group records [have] lyrics addressing themes of special importance to teenage girls,” Jacqueline Warwick writes in her landmark 2007 study Girl Groups, Girl Culture, “such as boys, the strictness of parents, and the complexities of womanhood.” In a culture crowded with male voices, Warwick says that girl groups help young listeners “negotiate their gender and generational identities through music.” The singers either take the role of peers or, if they’re a little bit older, cool older sisters passing down no-nonsense advice.

Y100's Jingle Ball 2017 - SHOW Photo by John Parra/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

For the past few years, Fifth Harmony has been the lone girl group on the Billboard charts, and even though they’ve had their share of success by modern metrics (more than 2 billion streams, over 5 million Twitter followers), their cultural impact has been modest when compared to the acts that preceded them, like Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls. In a 2015 Billboard article titled “Why Can’t Modern Girl Groups Land a Radio Hit?” the writer Joe Lynch observed of Fifth Harmony and British X Factor alum Little Mix, “[G]irl group music exists in a strange place: It’s massively popular online, yet nowhere near the top of the charts.”

Some of this, Lynch reckons, has to do with hormones. He quotes pop-scholar Anna Louise Wiegenstein: “The idea of marketing different members of boy bands is easier,” she tells him. “When you’re talking about a group of girls, they target the brands around personalities. It’s more like, ‘Which one would be your friend?’ And there’s less of a fantasy aspect to that.”

Fair enough. But I do think teen girl audiences are a little more discerning than that. For better or worse, the chemistry that holds a successful girl group together is a more complicated stew than that of a successful boy band. Boy band fans tend to take artifice as a starting point: Here is a collection of fantasy boyfriends who also happen to sing really well together. Enjoy. Female friendship, in all its complexity, is a more slippery concept to package—or at least the young girls to whom these groups are marketed are more attuned to knowing when it’s being faked.

When I was growing up, one thing I loved about TLC was that they seemed like friends, and that their dissimilarities only made this more convincing (a friend group of all Left Eyes would be unsustainable, and a fire hazard). Never mind that T-Boz and Left Eye met at the casting call for the group, and that a domineering manager placed Chilli there after the fact, replacing another girl who didn’t look the part. They passed some crucial, perfumed smell test: When they sang a song like “What About Your Friends,” I and millions of other girls believed they had each other’s backs, in all the real-life grit that implied. Especially between girls, being friends with someone is often a more complex state of being than simply liking them. Sometimes a friend has to be the one who knows you well enough to call you on your bullshit when you throw a lit sneaker in a tub and burn down your boyfriend’s mansion.

Destiny’s Child, in their own way, had this authenticity too: By the time they broke through with 1999’s The Writing’s on the Wall, Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and LaTavia Roberson had already been performing together for almost a decade, first as (say it with me) “the hip-hop rapping Girls Tyme.” Even as their revolving-door lineup became something of a punch line in the ensuing years, there were real, relatable relationships at the group’s heart: Beyoncé and Kelly were like those complicatedly competitive best friends, while LaTavia became a stand-in for any girl who’d been unceremoniously dumped from her longtime social circle. (Don’t even get me started on Poor Michelle.)

In retrospect, Beyoncé’s meteoric solo rise might have done more harm than good to the modern girl group format: More than ever, a girl group seems like the farm leagues—the holding pen before one rises to her true potential and Becomes Beyoncé. And in a cultural moment that places an almost burdensome emphasis on individuality and “being yourself,” synchronized outfits aren’t exactly au courant.

Still, as much as the pop charts could always use more female artists, there is something bleakly heartening about the fact that nobody quite figured out how to turn the fleeting concept of #squadgoals into a commercially dominant Instagram-era girl group. Even in a time when we’re being told it’s everywhere, it is a small triumph that female friendship is still prickly and elusive enough to resist a certain kind of commodification. Or at least that it is not something that can be genetically engineered in Simon Cowell’s Pepsi-sponsored beachside laboratory.

There is a soft, sad, guitar-driven song on Camila Cabello’s new album called “Real Friends.” “I just wanna talk about nothing with somebody that means something,” she sings, so badly craving company that she doesn’t mind confessing she’s been “talking to the moon.” Some have speculated that she wrote “Real Friends” about the loneliness of being in and then leaving Fifth Harmony. I don’t care who it’s about. What makes it so affecting is that it feels not like a carefully edited Instagram caption so much as a disarming and honest outpouring of lyrics and melody. So, you know. A song.

Cabello was, indeed, born in Havana(nanana) to a Cuban mother and a Mexican father. After moving back and forth between Cojimar and Mexico City, Cabello’s family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 6 and eventually settled in Miami. As a solo artist, Cabello is able to more deeply explore the sounds of her heritage, and it doesn’t hurt that her debut arrives at a particularly fruitful time for Latin-pop crossover mega-hits, like J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito.”

Camila is full of pleasant surprises, most of them more subtle than showy: It is a record privy to the secret knowledge that “Love Yourself” is a slightly better Justin Bieber song than “Sorry.” The glimmering, inventive “All These Years” sounds like a Dirty Projectors cover of an Ariana Grande song. The sonic eyelash-flutter “Inside Out” sounds destined to be a hit, as does “She Loves Control,” a “Havana”-esque dance floor filler coproduced by Skrillex. Cabello’s voice is a little cartoony but at times unexpectedly soulful; it swings deftly from a breathy Selena Gomez–like falsetto to something earthier and more muscular, like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar, but retaining all its colors. “Secret keeping, stop the bleeding, lost a little weight because I wasn’t eating,” Cabello sings on one of the most wrenching songs. “Loving you had consequences.” Her songs feel honest because they’re not all anthems of uplift and building confidence; she has a knack for giving life to lonely, private moments and thus assuring her listeners that they’re not alone.

Camila has more of a unique perspective than any of Fifth Harmony’s albums, though as the group splinters—and if only to protect her from those impossible Beyoncé comparisons—I hope Cabello is not its only breakout star. The other one to watch is probably Jauregui, who’s got a fiery voice and a bold temperament. She’s already lent her vocals to a few non-5H songs, including a new single with Steve Aoki, a track with Marian Hill, and a romantic duet with Halsey on her latest album Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. (Perhaps most fearlessly, she penned an open letter right after the 2016 election in which she came out as bisexual, compared President Donald Trump to Hitler, and called bullshit on the white women who supported him.) The future of Fifth Harmony looks uncertain, but maybe it means we’ll get to hear what its members sound like without a filter.

The messy dissolution of Fifth Harmony—or any girl group—does not prove that women cannot get along with one another. It just means this particular group of women wasn’t working anymore, and that some of the people who were once in it want to do other things. On an exponentially smaller scale, I know the feeling. In fifth grade, you see, I was a Ginger Spice. (I think it had something to do with not being blond, or the fact that none of the more precise adjectives like “posh” or “sporty” accurately described me.) I traveled with a pack of four other girls on the playground, power-posing and zig-a-zig-ahhhing and doodling “SPICE” on things. For a brief moment, the day Geri Halliwell left the Spice Girls, I had an existential crisis. Who was I now? Would I be kicked out of my group of friends, too? Then I realized I didn’t care; I didn’t want to be in a clique anymore, or at least not one that predicated my entire identity on being a … Ginger. It didn’t mean I was better than the other girls. It didn’t mean they were better than me. It was just that we liked different things and I didn’t particularly feel like hanging out with them anymore. In retrospect, I am more grateful to Geri Halliwell for leaving the Spice Girls than faking it and staying with them. I didn’t like her solo music much, but she forged a path from which to stray. I mean, I was about to be 12. A girl’s gotta explore all her options.