Fifth Harmony, America’s last girl group, is dead. Well, technically, the group went on “hiatus.” But considering the performance of its last album, which failed to produce a single Top 40 hit, it’s going to be a long while before the inevitable reunion tour.
Of course, savvy pop music fans knew this was coming. Ever since Camila Cabello pulled a Beyoncé and struck out to make it on her own, it seemed like the days were numbered until Fifth Harmony’s eventual breakup. In the pop music mythos, a girl group or boy band never experiences success again after losing its most prominent member — as the career trajectory of One Direction, the Supremes and NSYNC demonstrates.
Fifth Harmony’s last few years can be best summed up in one video. The edited track therein features Fifth Harmony’s most successful single, “Work From Home,” but repeats the song’s central phrase for its entirety. The video is a comic masterpiece, a modern-day “4’33” ” that subtracts the vocals and lyrics to focus on the strange emptiness of the production. The too-cute, sugary synths are suddenly devoid of sex appeal, and what’s left is the boring, heavy-handed repetitiveness. This blandness is apparent especially in the band’s last two albums — 7/27 and its final, self-titled release.
It wasn’t always like this. Fifth Harmony’s debut album, Reflection, was full of pop potential from the fresh-off-the-“X-Factor” quintet. It worked in the tradition of the Spice Girls and against the sexy Pussycat Dolls, the previous title-holders of America’s last successful girl group. The album played like ‘90s girl-power rhetoric given a fresh coat of synthpop paint, a mix of “The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants” with the trendiest production Simon Cowell could buy.
“Bo$$,” the lead single from the album, reached highs of songwriting never again seen by the group. Lyrics such as “I want a Kanye, not a Ray J” were hilarious and sassy, and a shoutout to Michelle Obama flavored the track with the pleasant spice of controversy.
“Reflection,” the title track on the album, also flashed some of that early wit. The track begins with generic sweet nothings cooed at some random in the club. But in the chorus, Fifth Harmony pulls the metaphorical rug out from under us. “Think I’m in love, ’cause you so sexy,” Normani swoons, and then she dunks on us with “Boy, I ain’t talkin’ bout you, I’m talking to my own reflection” — a funny and novel reversal of pop music tropes.
The best girl groups never took themselves seriously anyway. Can anyone keep a straight face when Scary Spice blurts out “zig-a-zig ah” during the pre-chorus of “Wannabe”? The silliness of the line underpins, not undermines, the song. That genius is what anchors one of Fifth Harmony’s first successful singles, “Worth It,” which milks its bizarre Balkan trumpets for all they’re worth.
Fifth Harmony never again lived up to the promise of its debut, largely because it lost its sense of fun. Its last two albums turned up the love songs and sex jams at the expense of witty female-empowerment anthems, shunning goofiness for a more somber stab at adulthood.
It’s not entirely the group’s fault — the brief window of pop dominance that it flourished in is over. Female-led, R&B-inflected synthpop gave way in the charts to the male-driven, mid-decade hip-hop renaissance, making its sound seem dated. Among its pre-teen target market, showmanship and authenticity was suddenly the rage, with up-and-coming boy bands like Why Don’t We showing how the group model will evolve to be: forming on the internet, not on a reality TV show, with established social media presences as prerequisites for all members.
Fifth Harmony, with its members handpicked from obscurity and then made famous through a label’s marketing, probably won’t happen again. After all, why not save the R&D costs and sign five YouTube cover artists instead?
The flame of Fifth Harmony’s fire began to die down when both the larger pop market and the group’s target demo denied it oxygen. We shouldn’t mourn the end of Fifth Harmony. All that was left of them come 2018 were a few glowing embers. The group’s members certainly weren’t pushing their music to new places by staying together — as their last album made clear.
Camila Cabello’s “Havana” — one of her first solo releases — is the perfect illustration of the potential of breaking up. We get a clear articulation of Cabello’s personality, her roots and her star power laid over a slinky Cuban beat. The song doesn’t trend-hop; it’s a trend maker.
The late Fifth Harmony always relied on the former. After all, it’s tricky to express individuality as a group. Hopefully in the road ahead, every other member of the group — Ally Brooke, Normani, Dinah Jane, and Lauren Jauregui — will get to define herself in three minutes and thirty seconds of her own.
Contact Adesh Thapliyal at [email protected].