While it might not have been wholly unexpected, the news of Sarah Harding’s passing from breast cancer at the age of 39 yesterday (5 September) was gut-wrenching. Celebrity deaths often hit hard, but when it’s someone who’s just in their thirties and was a big name in your lifetime, it feels that much more closer to home.
Many of us grew up with Girls Aloud. They were a key part of the popular music landscape for a decade, and by extension a key part of our formative pop culture experiences too. We’ve seen tributes from far and wide: former bandmates Cheryl, Kimberley, Nadine, Nicola have all taken to social media of course, along with other noughties pop contemporaries and celebrities up and down the country — and fans have been quick to pay their respects too, sharing their favourite Girls Aloud songs and memories of Sarah.
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The Berkshire-born singer came from a normal, nondescript background, not too dissimilar to that of many Girls Aloud fans, and before fame, worked at Pizza Hut and as a telephone operator, as well as studying hair and beauty at college. However, she never forgot her dream of singing and Popstars: The Rivals gave her the platform to do so.
Like the rest of her bandmates, she mastered that balance between star quality and glamour and a relatable, down-to-earth personality — no mean feat. Girls Aloud would sell out arenas on the regular, but you could imagine them joining you for a pint in your local too. Sarah might not have had it easy, disowning her father and changing her surname as a teenager, then entering rehab in 2011, but she was refreshingly honest, candid and engaging through it all.
While Girls Aloud appealed to my pre-school, S Club Juniors-loving self (I was born at the tail-end of the 1990s and Sound of the Underground was one of the first CDs I owned) they achieved the at-then unheard of feat of being a reality TV show act who found both commercial and critical success. As I got older and went through my ‘indie snob’ phase, I shunned the music of my early childhood, but upon rediscovering Girls Aloud as an adult a few years later I was struck by the quality of the music throughout their career.
‘Sound of the Underground’, with its surf-rock riff and drum and bass influences sent shockwaves through the industry; where was the dreary ballad that reality TV winners were apparently contractually obliged to release as their debut single?
The girls wanted to swear in the angst-filled ‘No Good Advice’, their second single, but their record label were concerned that it would affect radio play — so they cut them out of the recorded track but sang them live anyway. ‘Life Got Cold’ took influence from the Britpop of the previous decade: Noel Gallagher even had a writing credit. These women, Sarah being the oldest at just 21, ripped up the rulebook.
Then there was the Smiths-inspired ‘Love Machine’, with its jangly riffs, the three-in-one prog-pop of ‘Biology’, and the punk attitude of ‘Wake Me Up’ and ‘Sexy! No No No…'. Being a group of young women who formed via a reality show, it would have been easy for the predominantly pale, male and stale music press to write Girls Aloud off — and some did — but it can’t be denied that they made some of the most innovative, exciting music of the 2000s.
Throughout the band’s run, they worked closely with Brian Higgins and Xenomania, and they undoubtedly deserve some credit for the band’s success, almost turning on its head the idea of what a pop song could be— as does long-time manager Louis Walsh. However, Girls Aloud wouldn’t have been the same without any of the chosen five, who together were able to change the course of pop.
For those of us who grew up in the period of Girls Aloud, Sugababes, McFly, Pop Party compilations and CD:UK, it feels like part of our childhood has been taken from us. It’s perhaps some consolation for fans that the girls made up over the last year — for a number of years, it was reported that Cheryl, Kimberley and Nicola were a close trio, with Nadine and Sarah good mates on the opposite side, but Nadine revealed earlier this year that “all of us have pulled together”, putting things behind them.
Without Sarah, Girls Aloud would have been a whole lot poorer, and she’ll be missed by us all—not only for her undeniable talent and vocal prowess but for her infectious personality and resolute attitude too.
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