A Pretty OK Album: "LM5" - Little Mix
One of the great things about pop music is the platform it gives to unabashedly earnest messages, ones that artists feel the need to scream from rooftops or repeat over and over until they’ve taken root within the folds of your brain. To some, pop may seem superficial or formulaic to the point of being insincere. To fans, though, lyrics are just the initial introduction to an artist and what they stand for. Lizzo, for example, is an artist who is all about body positivity and self-love. Her lyrics are dedicated to this message, but so is everything else about her - her Instagram account, her magazine covers, her live shows. She uses pop to create feel-good anthems that loudly and proudly let people who she is.
The British girl group Little Mix utilizes pop in the same way. The band’s 2018 album, LM5, is not what I would call a nuanced album. It’s brash. It’s in your face. It’s the kid who shows up to prom in a hot pink stretch limo wearing a camo tuxedo. It also portrays a consistent message throughout: Little Mix is feminist as hell and wants to empower other women to find their voices, similarly to how the band members have discovered theirs.
Little Mix is not alone in championing this message; the feminist narrative has become a prominent component of the zeitgeist, especially when aiming to appeal to the progressive demographic of young women. Even though these fans are looking for their pop icons to personify feminism in the same way they do, there is a skepticism of any artist they perceive as insincere. If fans suspect that someone is simply using the feminist movement for financial gain, the social media fallout and tour sales impact could be severe. It’s a thin line to walk. What separates Little Mix from brands that are simply jumping on the feminist bandwagon is the band’s long standing and outspoken support for feminist issues, both in the content of its songs and in the actions of its band members.
LM5 is Little Mix’s fifth full-length release after the four bandmates came together to win the British television singing competition The X-Factor in 2012. Despite the band being together for longer than the Spice Girls, Little Mix’s success has not been easily won. Even during The X-Factor, judges and critics questioned if a girl band could see any success. After Little Mix won, band member Jade Thirlwall said in an interview with ASOS, “We were told by one massive producer in the US that we shouldn’t be writing, we should just be given songs.” From the beginning, these ladies have fought for their spotlight. After battling in one of the biggest talent competitions on air, Little Mix began breaking into markets around the world, even at a time when all the hype was around boy bands, not girl groups.
For its debut single in 2012, Little Mix released “Wings,” a song about staying true to yourself and not giving in to the negativity of others. Its uplifting lyrics were written primarily for the band’s young female fans to encourage self confidence and individuality: Don't let what they say keep you up at night/ And they can't detain you, ‘cause wings are made to fly.
Every subsequent album has included anthems calling girls to rise up, love themselves, and take care of one another. “Salute,” from the 2013 album of the same name, calls for women to unite and stand strong together with lyrics such as If you with me, lemme see your hands, stand up and salute/ Get your killer heels, sneakers, pumps or lace up your boots/ Representing all the women, salute. On 2015’s Weird People, the song “Hair” tells the story of a young woman looking to find strength in her friends after being poorly treated by a man: Friend you need to get your phone, erase that number/ Don’t call him back 'cause he don’t deserve it.
In later albums, Little Mix’s lyrics become even more outspoken around the subject of equality and the imbalance of power between men and women. On the 2017 album Glory Days, the song “Power” discusses the dynamic between a man and a woman in a romantic relationship: I ain't the chick to walk behind you around town/ Just cause you're packin', packin', whoop, down south/ That don't mean I'm ever gonna take it lying down. LM5’s “Woman’s World” tackles the issue outside of personal relationships, referencing the pay gap between genders and unfair societal expectations that are placed on women: But she goes to the same job everyday/ She's overworked and underpaid/ Just 'cause the way her body's made/ Ain't that insane?
The band members represent these motifs of independence, self-confidence, and social justice in person as well. The bandmates push back against people who criticize their “revealing” outfits in an article by Attitude, citing the amount of physicality that goes into their dancing. Jesy Nelson says that regardless, “You should be able to be whatever kind of woman you want to be. You should be able to wear what you bloody want to wear and rock it with confidence.” They’re seen as LGBTQ allies, fully embracing fans’ queer interpretations of their love songs and showing support for the LGBTQ community on social media and in music videos. Leigh-Anne Pinnock, the only black member of the group, speaks out about her experience being a black woman in pop, and how she struggles to feel accepted by the industry and in the public eye due to her skin color and gender.
Little Mix consistently reinforces the image of women as strong, supportive forces in friendship ballads, love songs, and club bangers. Little Mix’s ability to keep with this theme of empowerment over the years should elevate the band to a role-model status as other figures we may think of as feminists, have not showcased their support half as thoroughly. For example, let’s look at Taylor Swift’s engagement and participation as a feminist icon.
Without a doubt, Swift’s long list of accomplishments is impressive. But her lyrical approach makes for a very different listening experience than Little Mix’s does. Swift certainly has the “fuck the haters” format down to perfection. Similar to Little Mix’s “Wings,” “Shake It Off” and “Mean” are great anthems for blocking out hateful words and moving on with your life. However, when it comes to supporting other women and rallying a community around self-empowerment, she falls flat. In several of her songs, Swift actually sets up other women as sources of competition. 2008’s “You Belong With Me” and 2010’s “Speak Now” and “Better Than Revenge” all see Taylor putting down other women who stand between her and her love interest. In “Better Than Revenge,” Swift sings, She's not a saint and she's not what you think/ She's an actress, whoa/ She's better known for the things that she does/ On the mattress, whoa.
Even more tangible, Swift has confirmed that 2014’s “Bad Blood” is about a feud with another female artist (rumors say it’s Katy Perry). The video for “Bad Blood” depicts two gangs of female warriors battling one another - not exactly an example of solidarity among women. Swift made it clear that even though the song could be interpreted as anti-feminist, it was important that listeners realize this was not another song about an ex-boyfriend. “I know people will make it this big girl-fight thing,” she told Rolling Stone. “But I just want people to know it’s not about a guy. You don’t want to shade someone you used to date and make it seem like you hate him, when that’s not the case.”
I’m fine with equal-opportunity trash talking, but without songs referencing community and girl power (T-Swift shouting about her own power doesn’t count), there is no balance to the boy-centric, girl-against-girl narrative found in so many of her lyrics. Swift is a self-proclaimed feminist who uses her spotlight as one of the biggest pop stars in the word to showcase her many female friends as guests on tour. But it’s telling that her music, which should be a reflection of her brand and personality, pits women against each other instead of lifting all women up in the way that Little Mix does.
All of this is to say: Little Mix’s album is important. The fact that a pop group with a global footprint made a record that revolves so blatantly around feminism and finding strength in femininity is not insignificant, even if they are not the first to do so. Artists like Beyonce, Lizzo, and Hozier are all echoing this cry with empowering personalities that are pervasive throughout their music and their lives. And at this point fans do not just like it - they demand that kind of consistency from the artists they consume so passionately. Knowing that artists like Little Mix are sincere gives fans a reason to believe the lyrics that tell them to believe in themselves.