Independent Women: 10 Iconic Girl Group Songs

For many, a lack of authenticity overlays girl groups: the ensembles of female pop and R&B songbirds whose manicured appearances and manufactured music capture the hearts of adoring fans worldwide. These groups are often formed inorganically (contemporary girl groups Fifth Harmony and Little Mix got their start on reality television series), industry songwriters pen many of their chart-topping hits, and girl group members are groomed for years to achieve commercial success. (South Korean pop groups undergo years of rigorous vocal and dance instruction under music labels. Destiny’s Child trained for half a decade, performing regularly in Tina Knowles’s hair salon and honing their skills during Matthew Knowles’s annual summer boot camps, before releasing their debut album.)

Girl groups might not embody the DIY punk ethic of the riot grrrl movement or the avant-garde audacity of alternative artists like FKA Twigs or Grimes, but their music is empowering, influential, and above all else, fun. Girl groups make music from a female perspective for an oftentimes predominantly female audience, and their songs are dialogues between sisters, exchanges of thoughts and feelings in the form of belted high notes, velvety runs, and infectious choruses.

On July 15, 2005, Destiny’s Child performed “Free” and “If,” two of the standout songs on the underrated Destiny Fulfilled, at Atlanta’s Philips Arena. The group’s delivery is spontaneous and uninhibited — the opposite of inauthentic. Kelly Rowland’s ad-libs are birdsong, Michelle Williams’s solo is flawless, and Beyoncé’s monologue is as unapologetic as it is unforgettable. In a true show of unity, the three women embrace each other as they sing the euphoric refrain of “Free.” Their talent and friendship are undeniable, and that’s what the best girl group music showcases: sisterhood.

The following list recounts 10 of the most iconic girl group songs in order from the emergence of teenage tragedy ballads and the genesis of Motown to the ‘90s R&B renaissance and the slick production of the 21st century.

1964: The Shangri-Las’ “Leader Of The Pack”
Many attribute the early success of ‘60s girl groups to the rise of a female adolescent market. Before the Beatles craze, groups like The Shangri-Las captured the attention of female teenagers with songs of desire and first love. “Leader of the Pack,” The Shangri-La’s most well-known song, is cinematic — listeners experience a tragic plot unfold over the course of the song — and the members’ exchanges resemble the gossip and intimacy of a close circle of friends.

1966: The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”
Perhaps the most legendary girl group of all time, the Supremes paved the way for African American artists to find success in mainstream music. Throughout their illustrious career and multiple lineup changes, the group produced hit after hit, achieving 12 number one singles. Its climatic guitar and stirring chorus make “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” one of the Supremes’ most timeless songs.

1986: Bananarama’s “Venus”
Bananarama, a pop trio associated with the 1980s’ second British Invasion, dominated the U.S. and UK charts in their heyday. Their music is certainly characteristic of the era, what with its heavy use of drum machines and spacey synths. Although Bananarama’s cover of Shocking Blue’s number one hit “Venus” may bring to mind the famous Gillette razor commercial, its video represents a time when crude backdrops, kitschy costumes, and corny dance moves were cutting edge, bold, and dangerous.

1991: TLC’s “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”
In 1991, the tremendously influential girl group TLC released their explosive first single, “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” to a world that was sorely lacking of their presence. TLC would become the best-selling American girl group of all time with a whopping 65 million records sold worldwide, leaving behind an astounding legacy. This early single is a fearless ode to female sexuality, and in the video, the women wear condoms on their belts and hilariously perform the song alongside a muscular man.

1993: SWV’s “Weak”
SWV, an acronym for Sisters With Voices, is another standout ‘90s girl group. The group experienced some success in their day but ultimately receded from the public eye. “Weak,” the third single from SWV’s debut album, It’s About Time, is sweet and honeyed — the perfect R&B ballad.

1996: Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There”
The Spice Girls hold the title of best-selling girl group of all time, and many consider them the most significant British pop phenomenon since the Beatles. In the video for “Say You’ll Be There,” the Spice Girls play deadly assassins who resemble Charlie’s Angels or the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. Although the song isn’t exactly cheerful, it’s definitely not a ballad; its fusion of pop and R&B is an intriguing, addicting blend.

2005: Destiny’s Child’s “Girl”
From their singular debut album to their code of conduct for independent women, The Writing on the Wall, to the love odyssey of Destiny Fulfilled, the music of Destiny’s Child is among the best of girl groups and R&B. Picking a single song by them was beyond challenging, but in the end I settled on “Girl,” the ultimate friendship anthem. “Girl” is soothing and healing, a reminder that good friends will see you through the bad and the good.

2006: The Pussycat Dolls’ “I Don’t Need a Man”
“Inside every woman is a Pussycat Doll,” so the motto of The Pussycat Dolls goes. Originally formed as a modern burlesque troupe, The Pussycat Dolls were a fixture in the 2000s’ music scene. In the video for “I Don’t Need a Man,” the Dolls get ready for a night out and dance in a hair salon, and although lead singer Nicole Scherzinger receives most of the vocal parts (as always), Melany Thornton’s short solo is wonderfully dramatic.

2016: 4Minute’s “Hate”
The now defunct 4Minute struck gold on their 2016 single “Hate,” the last single the girl group would release. The abrasive, pulsing chorus, courtesy of Skrillex, is tempered with the slow pace and vulnerable vocals of the verses. 4Minute departs from innocent or sexy concepts — Kpop standards for girl groups — and embrace the so-called “girl crush” concept, a style that targets female audiences with themes of empowerment.

2016: Fifth Harmony’s “That’s My Girl”
Fifth Harmony, the now four-member group, at first gradually snuck onto the pop charts, but their 2016 album 7/27 solidified the group’s standing in contemporary pop. The triumphant “That’s My Girl,” the album’s third single, is immediately catchy, and the song’s show-stopping chorus comes to boot with a message that celebrates women. In the post-apocalyptic video, Fifth Harmony prance around a decaying city to the rhythm of their greatest bop to date.

By Sophia Ordaz

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