How X Factor hopefuls became bona fide pop royalty
Adam England
11:35 10th November 2021

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How many talent show contestants make it to the stage where they can release a greatest hits album? Many will fade away, perhaps after a handful of moderately successful hits with diminishing returns, but Little Mix—who release their first greatest hits album Between Us on Friday(12 November)—are well and truly bucking the trend. 

As a general rule, girl groups—and bands as a whole—have always had a pretty torrid time of things on The X Factor. The Conway Sisters finished sixth in the second season and Hope finished fifth on season four, but that was as good as it got until the eighth season, when Little Mix—formed just before the judges’ houses stage of the competition—went on to become the first group to win the whole thing. Yep, even the One Direction boys, despite their astronomical global success, only managed third place a year prior, behind Rebecca Ferguson and winner Matt Cardle. It might sound surprising now, but looking back it’s easy to forget just how out of fashion pop groups were at the time. 

The late ‘90s and early ‘00s saw a whole rush of successful girl groups making waves in the charts. Of course, the Spice Girls are generally the first to come to mind, but Sugababes, All Saints, Girls Aloud and Atomic Kitten do too. The ‘90s and early ‘00s were also something of a golden age for boy bands on both sides of the Atlantic, and we had mixed groups like S Clubs 7 and 8, plus Steps filling the compilation CDs of the era too. 

However, their influence waned as we got further into the ‘00s and ‘10s, as tastes shifted towards the sleek pop of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, the hip-house of Flo Rida, Pitbull and David Guetta, and that particular variety of indie folk that’s full of banjos. (And Adele, of course.) Girls Aloud went on hiatus in 2009 and the Sugababes also called it a day after one line-up change too many around the same time, so it was just The Saturdays flying the flag for pure girl group pop in the UK. 

Around that time, we saw a range of (predominantly) R&B-infused girl groups try to break through: Parade, Stooshe, Mini Viva all came and went with a hit or two, never really sticking around. Enter Little Mix. 

A decade on, they’re still huge. Over the past decade, how many UK artists have matched or surpassed their success? Adele, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, One Direction, of course, and after the last couple of years, it’s probably fair to include Dua Lipa in that list as well. 

Over in the US, Fifth Harmony formed just a year after their British counterparts, but have been on an indefinite hiatus since 2018—the departure of Camila Cabello perhaps the beginning of the end. In contrast, Little Mix—now a three-piece after Jesy Nelson left last year—are still going strong. Their UK album sales are larger than Fifth Harmony’s US sales, and they have over twice as many monthly listeners on Spotify. While it might be tiresome to continually pit female artists against each other, it does point to just how successful Little Mix have been. While they might not be megastars over in the US, it’s perhaps fair to say that they’re the first British girl group to make an impression quite this large over there since the Spice Girls. 

One of the biggest stories of recent years has been the emergence of K-Pop and J-Pop on a mainstream scale in the west. The biggest girl groups over the past decade have, barring Little Mix and Fifth Harmony, been from East Asia. Newer groups like BLACKPINK along with the likes of AKB48 and Girls’ Generation—who disbanded in 2017—have taken the mantle for a new generation of British and American pop fans. 

Yet, despite this, Little Mix have been able to stay relevant, evolving and growing at every turn. Whereas bands like The Saturdays largely remained loyal to their Girls Aloud-lite pop, Little Mix would prove adept at keeping up with musical trends throughout the ‘10s. With a pop sound that incorporates R&B, the now-trio have got the standard girl group template nailed down, but experimented with various genres—from tropical house to reggaeton—as the decade went on, and collaborated with huge names like Missy Elliott, Nicki Minaj and Saweetie. In short, when more conventional pop has fallen out of fashion, Little Mix have adapted accordingly. A quick look at the tracklist for Between Us shows just how many quality hits they’ve put out over the years, from older tracks like ‘Wings’ and ‘Salute’ to last year’s ‘Heartbreak Anthem’, a collaboration with both Guetta and Swedish DJ duo Galantis. 

Not only that, but they’re not afraid of speaking up and using their platform to speak out about social issues. They’re real LGBTQ+ allies: only last week Jade Thirwall said that she had no plans to perform in Russia over their anti-LGBTQ+ laws, and back in May, Leigh-Anne Pinnock participated in a documentary that looked at her experiences of racial issues and colourism. 

That brings us on to the recent furore surrounding the allegations of blackfishing directed at former member Jesy Nelson. After that Instagram Live a month ago, the relationship between Jesy and her former bandmates looks to be irreconcilably damaged, but the remaining trio of Jade, Leigh-Anne and Perrie Edwards have earned themselves plenty of good will from American fans as well as Mixers at home in the UK. 

They might be down to a three-piece now, but part of the appeal is the strong bond between the members—and their chemistry together. It’s easy to forget just how young they were when they won The X Factor: Leigh-Anne was twenty while Jade and Perrie were both just eighteen. Still in their late twenties or having just turned thirty, they’ve more than got time on their side to become even bigger. Whether that’s together, or—as has been reported in the news—as solo artists, there’s sure to be many more hits to come. 

Between Us arrives 12 November via Sony.

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