Pop history is as slippery as a Tom Parker, as mysterious as a Brian Epstein, as mercurial as a Malcolm McLaren. Like its great managerial movers and shakers, the tale we try to tell about the development of the music, is desperately hard to pin down. It is a story skewed by lies, damned lies and histrionics, a saga in which commerce has generally victored over artistic purity, whites have had the upperhand at the expense of blacks, and men have all too often marginalised women to be the point of near invisibility.
Yet the last decade or so has suggested that even those apparently immoveable shibboleths of the industry are actually shakeable. By the end of the 1980s, the Anglo-American white rock hegemony had been fatally punctured by the rise of dance, hip-hop and the rhythms of the world. The 1990s would see women dominate the best-selling artists lists, taking seven of the top ten places. Even if economics continues to dominate over aesthetics, there are signs of a significant shift in those other key areas.
But these refreshing indicators mask other inequalities, other injustices. Even while Madonna and the Spice Girls, Alanis Morissette and Mariah Carey, Shania Twain and others, move more platinum than their male counterparts, the business of music — the corporate globalism of the five majors — remains in the hands of men. And innovative female music-makers — those in indie bands and DJs, for example — are sidelined for reasons of their sex rather than their talent. An ugly male DJ can become the cover darling of a dance mag; the woman who chooses the turntables as her creative mode must look like Cameron Diaz.
Which leads us, in a roundabout fashion, to the girl group and a debate that refuses to go away. Even if girl power was merely a shallow platitude that would infect the British tabloid press in the wake of the Spice Girls and their extraordinary debut year in 1997, the questions about gender power relations that such sloganising generated have not disappeared so quietly. When a commentator of the status of Camille Paglia is introducing Madonna (predictably) and the Spice Girls (more surprisingly) into her analysis of Third Wave feminism, we should ignore the signals at our peril.
Paglia feels that after the early century, political struggles of the Suffragettes and the anti-pleasure consoriousness of the Women’s Liberation movement, this latest phase sees women rock and pop artists offering new and liberating role models to both equity feminists like herself and the latest generation of girl music fans.
But the strident confidence of a Paglia is one thing. How do we, as ordinary listeners and viewers — particularly as male listeners and viewers — make sense of the argument that lissome, breathtakingly attractive women, dressed in a figure-curving, flesh-revealing finery, equal liberation? Or do we as listeners and viewers — particularly male listeners and viewers — lie back and passively, ecstatically, feast on the erotic blancmange?
Destiny’s Child, currently the hottest of these post-pubescent properties, raise all these issues in my mind, yet proceed to produce some of the most exciting pop meets dance meets R&B of the moment. The fact that the (present) trio pout and pose like airbrushed sex kittens should, perhaps, be set to one side and their recordings left to carry the day. Yet their promotional shots and videos reveal no intention of playing down the glamour goddess ticket; next to them, the Spice Girls are relegated to the realm of workaday mortals, mere girls-next-door, as everyday English would have it.
Throw in too, the Christianity quotient — the God-loving, God-fearing ingredient — and you have a vehicle ready to steamroller even an ardent, if weakening, Southern fundamentalist. In the UK, such religious posturing is now so dangerously unfashionable that it would generally, in itself, guarantee instant failure on these shores, but so eye-catchingly do Destiny’s Child flaunt their physical beings that the ever cynical British audience has, it seems, proved capable of forgetting the group’s claimed spiritual allegiances. However, to more thinking members of the congregation on this side of the water, there does appear to be something paradoxical about that combination of gold, hot-pant minimalism and full-blooded, head on faith.
But to the music. The second album Survivor is significant not just because it already contains two smash singles — the Charlie’s Angels-linked “Independent Women Part I” and the title tune — and is certain to eventually equal, more likely outstrip, the sales figures of the first album, but more so because the album’s eponymous song is said to provide an account of the group’s somewhat tortured resume, rather than a tribute to the trials and traumas of recent reality TV.
Haemorraghing members along the way, the group’s short life has left a trail of broken hearts and litigation in its swell. But the dominating influence of the Knowles clan on their progress is hard to evade: daughter Beyonce is the 19-year-old wunderkind of the act, principal composer, main face, prime voice and LP producer, while father Mathew is the act’s manager who has deemed it necessary to jettison long term players and eventually reduce the old four-piece to a re-configured trio.
That said, on this disc, all three girls get their lead vocal crack, and one of the most appealing features of the performances is the interplay between Beyonce, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, swooping, weaving to fine collective effect on “Sexy Daddy”, for example.
There is also a commendable variety to the album — the upbeat fem-funk of “Nasty Girl” (surely a single to come) is balanced by the minor key balladry of “Fancy” not to mention an extended sacred coda — a four song gospel medley — which showcases the songbirds exceedingly well even if the sentiments brush uneasily with the grit and grind of some of the other material. Yet it has perhaps always been so: since the rise of soul the secular and the sexual, the divine and the spiritual, have never been that far apart.
But what about girl power? The Spice Girls, to contradict recent media histories, did not invent the girl group. From the Supremes to TLC, from the Ronettes to En Vogue, girlfriends have been doing it for themselves, if not always by themselves. Gordy and Spector loom large in those early testaments, and the Spices themselves relied heavily on male management, writers and producers. Yet Destiny’s Child — all ridiculously young — and Beyonce Knowles specifically, seem to have a significant stake in the composing and producing credits that feature here. It’s a small step for women, but it maybe a larger step for womenkind. Black and beautiful, these three glamazons, these simmering sirens of Jesus, may prove to have more than just staying power.