Where do girl groups stand in the grand scheme of present-day Western pop culture?
Once exhaustingly omnipresent (especially in R&B, so much so that it necessitated “Where Are They Now?” types of lists), the girl group drought began as the first decade of the new millennium drew to a close, worsening from the 2010s onward.
“Girl bands, with their multiple members, glam squads, choreographers, and travel needs are a poor investment,” posited journalist Alim Kheraj, who also pragmatically attributed the girl group decline to shrinking budgets at record labels. “With musicians making so little money from music these days, why would any singer want to split their royalties four ways?”
For a veteran group like Sugababes, rather than reclaiming past glory, the impetus seems to be more about tying up loose ends and claiming their legacy.
Although barely making any in-roads in the States — the Babes’ sole Billboard Hot 100 entry was 2004’s “Hole in the Head” from their aptly-titled third LP Three — the trio, ever-changing line-ups be damned, were a pop chart fixture throughout most of Europe and Australasia in the 2000s, scoring six number-one singles and two number-one albums in their native UK during the period.
In the turn-of-the-millennium British pop landscape, every other major girl group was understandably modeled after the Spice Girls, who were by then losing their relevance: their final studio album was released just weeks before Sugababes’ debut full-length One Touch.
But contrast Sugababes’ 2000 debut single “Overload,” in all of its understated, minor-key nonchalance with, say, the hyper-pop ebullience of Atomic Kitten’s “See Ya” or Girl Thing’s “Last One Standing,” both of which had hit the UK Top 10 months earlier. It became quickly apparent that instead of Spice Girls, Sugababes were modeled after All Saints; not coincidentally, both groups were founded by the same person and Sugababes was initially signed to the same label as their cargo pants-obsessed predecessors.
Unlike in the US, where it took heavily sexed-up groups like the Pussycat Dolls and Danity Kane to prove that girls of different races could, in fact, join forces and be viable chart toppers, multi-racial girl groups were no longer a curio in British pop by the early 2000s. Spice Girls and All Saints were multi-racial themselves, following in the footsteps of Eternal, whose 1993 debut became the first by a girl group to sell over a million copies in the UK alone. (On the boys’ side, Another Level was also racking up a string of Top 10 hits while paving the way for Blue.)
“It’s great to think we’re opening doors,” said member Mutya Buena after Three’s release. “But when we were in LA working on the album, they found it weird to see [different] races together.”
What set Sugababes apart from their contemporaries, however, was how anti-girl group they came across, more so for three very young girls — Buena, along with fellow Babes Keisha Buchanan and Siobhán Donaghy were no older than 16 upon the release of “Overload” — evoking the punkish, street-smart spirit of early Bananarama.
More specifically, although a large chunk of One Touch was influenced by American R&B, the Babes’ overall sound was decidedly more homegrown: “Overload” was indebted to the UK garage boom, while later single “Run for Cover” contained trip-hop elements and “Lush Life” had traces of jungle.
Bolstered by their moody and sulky appearance, suffice to say the Babes were worlds away from all-smiles-and-blaring-lights, highly choreographed Europop fare as one would have potentially expected from their band name alone. “We were just being ourselves. Of course, when you put [three young girls] in front of the camera and in an industry that, at that time, was used to young girls being really smiley and more polished, I could totally understand why there was such an interest in us and why we were so different,” reflected Keisha in her video blog.
By this point, even as a kid, I had turned into a full-fledged pop enthusiast and definitely took notice of how strikingly different Sugababes were compared to their peers. The novelty of seeing a White girl, a Black girl, and an Asian girl in one group was definitely not lost on me either, and added a whole new layer of charm to my very young pair of eyes. That the girls were churning out top-tier tunes was the most sugary cherry on top to my burgeoning ears.
In the space of ten years, across four line-ups (three of which included, rather ironically, pre-fame Atomic Kitten member Heidi Range, whose white-and-blonde façade made the group more palatable in their heyday), and amid racist, pre-poptimist era media scrutiny, Sugababes delivered a host of Noughties pop classics; even as they caved in and descended into EDM gutter with 2010’s Sweet 7, without a single founding member left to boot, it was still dumb fun.
But, of course, considering the group was initially beloved for being somewhat non-conformist, the backlash to the group’s founding member-less, dumbed-down, cheesed-up incarnation was so severe that what would have been their eighth album was scrapped altogether.
That is until The Lost Tapes came along.
Although the original line-up surprisingly reformed in 2012 — and by then the Sugababes entity was inactive — they were not legally allowed to use the Sugababes name and as such had to resort to the unimaginative MKS, short for Mutya Keisha Siobhan.
Teasers and remixes (including a stellar remake of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” at the height of the track’s ubiquity — that’s how long ago the group got back together) ensued, followed by the Dev Hynes-produced “Flatline,” their official comeback single which tapped into the then-rising 80s synth-pop nostalgia, as well as a tour. A new studio album was promised. And then … nothing happened.
The Lost Tapes consequently sounds like a fitting cap-off to the very bumpy ride that led to the group’s rebirth: almost the entire album had leaked six full years prior (the album’s surprise release on Christmas Eve was possibly a nod to the initial leakage), another period of inactivity ensued as a result of the group striving to gain the legal right to use the Sugababes name, and of course, the global pandemic. “You have no idea how many tears, disappointments, hurdles, blackmail, legal blah we had to go through over the years just to be able to release music,” revealed Keisha recently.
Aside from being an ample showcase of the trio’s songwriting craft, it’s also a bold and commendable move on their part to reclaim the Sugababes legacy by self-releasing an entire album of not only previously leaked cuts but also cuts written and recorded over a decade before their proper release. I also find it rather irreverent, particularly for a pop act.
Although a common happenstance in the pop world, leaks are considered as taboo; any leaked material is immediately rendered irrelevant and therefore unfit for public consumption (just ask Toni Braxton or Madonna). But in the context of Sugababes, it actually makes the most perfect sense.
Had the album been released as per its initial schedule, numbers like the faux-punk “Summer of ‘99” (interestingly co-written by All Saints member and principal songwriter Shaznay Lewis) and the reggae-lite “Victory” (“It was the longest fight, but now I’m standing in victory” goes the track’s hook) would have probably carried less weight. In 2023, they can’t help but hit harder and resonate deeper given Mutya/Keisha/Siobhan’s stop-start journey back to Sugababes and the fact that they are now standing in victory, shutting down stages and whatnot.
I can’t help but wonder: would Mutya, Keisha, Siobhan and The Lost Tapes (or The Sacred Three, rather, the album’s rumored original title) have been as warmly welcomed in 2014? After all, “Flatline” — here comes the cheesy pun — flatlined upon its initial release and the MKS formation wasn’t exactly definitive Sugababes. At a time when K-pop girl groups emerged every other minute and younger, shinier groups like Little Mix and Neon Jungle (or Fifth Harmony and the frustratingly cut-short G.R.L. on the other side of the Atlantic) were peppering Western pop charts, it did seem like the culture was never going to be receptive to a genuine vocal group in the first place, especially an older, more mature variety. The wave already broke before it got to go around.
Nearly a decade down the line, in a post-Little Mix and Fifth Harmony landscape of girl group scarcity and with nostalgia culture at an all-time high, it makes a lot of sense, then, that the re-emergence of Sugababes (and to some extent, the early 2000s throwback pastiche of Flo) is more readily embraced. As such, although The Lost Tapes might be simply intended to bookend the Sugababes 1.0 legacy, it accidentally also signals a new beginning to their ongoing journey as one of pop music’s most formidable and longest-standing vocal groups, at a time when most of their Noughties-era contemporaries have long disbanded or cashed in on The Big Reunion mania.
What’s more intriguing is how The Lost Tapes is mostly a Keisha/Siobhan record: the songs sound more tailored to their upper-register harmony, leaving Mutya, whose husky, bassy mezzo-soprano is largely recognized as the voice of Sugababes, on the sonic backseat for the most part (it’s also telling that she only participated in writing 60 percent of the album, while Siobhan — the only Sugababe to put out more than one solo album, it must be noted — is credited as a co-writer in all but one track).
Given the two’s fraught beginnings, it’s quite heartening to hear them really bring it on home throughout The Lost Tapes as both women have grown leaps and bounds from their wobbly, papery voices of yore: the final minute of “Love Me Hard,” for instance, finds Siobhan’s ghostly, ethereal voice gliding over minimal, heartbeat-like rhythm, punctuated by Keisha’s soaring, gospel-indebted ad-libs. It’s moments like this that serve as a reminder of how vocally magical the trio truly is.
There’s plenty of melodrama in this vein to be found across The Lost Tapes. Eschewing their early R&B-inflected sound, the album mainly traffics in spacey, ambient-lite synth-pop, giving plenty of room for delicious vocal interplays between all three members, notably midway through the album: the propulsive “Beat Is Gone” ranks among the Babes’ finest ballads, while “Today” — teased all the way back in the MKS era and included in their comeback tour last year — ascends with flying colors over frenetic breakbeat soundscape.
Even when the album ventures into lightweight territory, the girls remain shining examples of the lost art form. Take for example the bouncy, shouty “Boys”: although sonically it’s a dead ringer for a mid-2010s Little Mix bop, Sugababes’ undeniable vocal chemistry cranks it up a few notches from fluffy pop fare.
It remains to be seen what 2023 holds in store for Sugababes’ second coming, but with their first-ever arena show and Australian tour in the pipeline as well as a reported major label bidding war, it does appear to be in full motion — for real this time.
“When I lay down you can bet / I have found where I wanna be / And all around where I tread / Are all the sounds that I found full of love for me,” the Babes expertly harmonize in the spine-tingling “I Lay Down,” now retooled without the Kendrick Lamar sample, in its place a sparse, dreamy, nearly beatless configuration. Where once it was a product of “having a bit of fun” in the studio, a decade later, it sounds like a testament: they were lost, now they are found — and sticking around.