“Electric girls”: how Sarah Harding and Girls Aloud changed the course of British pop music

by Imogen Fahey

Girls Aloud erupted onto the music scene in 2002, when British pop music was drowning in a sea of boring ballads and groups that were too contrived and conventional. Sarah Harding, who made it into the group by the skin of her teeth, was at the heart of the group’s cultural revolution.

For just over ten years, Girls Aloud were the biggest pop group in the UK, achieving chart dominance with a string of hit singles, leaving their flirty and ferocious mark on the nation’s cultural landscape. The group, comprising members Nadine Coyle, Sarah Harding, Nicola Roberts, Cheryl Tweedy and Kimberley Walsh, were formed on the ITV series, Popstars: The Rivals. They became the first real success of the singing contest genre, beating out the rather too formulaic boyband, One True Voice, to become the series’ winners. But it was Harding — who nearly missed out on joining the band due to fierce competition from runner-up, Javine Hylton — who brought the fresh-faced group of girls a much-needed edge that proved crucial to their longevity on the British music scene. 

Her rockstar energy bounced brilliantly off softer and sweeter members of the group, helping to cement Girls Aloud’s image of rough-and-ready glamour, and separating them from the likes of such saccharine groups as Atomic Kitten and moody balladeers such as All Saints, whose 90s sounds and styles were being left behind in the changing soundscape of the new millennium.

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From the moment that their debut single, ‘Sound of the Underground’, topped the charts and became 2002’s Christmas number one, Girls Aloud made their mark on the British pop scene as a serious force to be reckoned with, lyrically, musically, and visually. The song’s opening surf rock riff is like a call to arms, ushering in a new era of complex, cleverer, and much, much cooler pop music.

What made them so different to other groups, is that they weren’t interested in being pop music’s sweethearts. They weren’t overbearingly enthusiastic, and their music could never be described as cloying, in the style of the bubblegum pop produced by S Club 7 and Steps. They were just effortlessly cool. That was Girls Aloud’s modus operandi: cool girls who don’t take themselves too seriously; their songs full of tongue-in-cheek lyrics, delivered with a cheeky grin. Yes, they looked like movie stars, but they were just like us! This down-to-earth relatability was, of course, down to the fact that just some years prior, they were all normal girls working normal jobs from towns like Stockport and Stamford, but also due to the writing talents of a group called Xenomania.

A cultural revolution

A songwriting and production team based down in Kent, Xenomania are responsible for writing and producing all but one of Girls Aloud’s records, as well as having worked with other 2000s pop starlets such as Alesha Dixon, Gabriella Cilmi, and Rachel Stevens. Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper’s writing was always in tune with Britain’s cultural climate, producing songs with incredibly singable melodies, and lyrics from songs with titles like ‘Deadlines & Diets’ and ‘Swinging London Town’ that perfectly captured the day-to-day atmosphere of working city life for young women and gay men across the nation. One of Harding’s best-loved and oft-quoted lines in fan circles is taken from 2008’s ‘The Promise’: “here I am!” she belts, “walkin’ Primrose, wondering when I’m gonna see you again.”

As well as the lyrics, it was Xenomania’s production that made the group such a cultural tour-de-force. Girls Aloud – along with Sugababes, arguably their only worthy adversary – were the original genre pioneers of contemporary British pop music. They arrived on the scene when the public were becoming sick of ballads and cheesy reworks of classic songs, offering something entirely new and original. Their sound was ever fresh and ever evolving, always gutsy and never afraid to blend different genres that, hypothetically, should not work together. Take ‘Sound of the Underground’, with its unique mix of surf rock and drum and bass beats, or ‘What You Crying For’, from 2007’s Tangled Up, an ambitious track that blends bassline wonks with a perfectly poppy chorus: very few artists could navigate such risky genre mashups with as much confidence and flair.

Finally, after years of hit singles, the girls received a BRIT Award in 2009 for ‘The Promise’, a rich explosion of sixties soul that excites the ear today as much as it did on the first listen. Brian Higgins said that the song served to announce Girls Aloud as a supergroup, and it did: its unbelievably rich and layered production and punchy, pithy lyrics made the song an instant classic, elevating the group to legend status.

However, it would be a mistake to chalk up the group’s success entirely to the production and writing talents of Xenomania. It was as much to do with the girls’ abilities to capture the public’s imaginations with their glamorous yet punkish charms: in Harding’s words, they were “five Northern girls with attitude”, their refreshingly regional accents spanning Derry and Newcastle. They also had an undeniable chemistry, in a way that was rare for such a manufactured group – Sugababes ultimately collapsed after many rifts and line-up changes, whilst the likes of Atomic Kitten seemed unable to pick each other out in a crowd – but Girls Aloud genuinely seemed like a group of girlfriends who also happened to be the nation’s biggest popstars. There were the occasional fallouts between them, but as Harding explained during her time on Celebrity Big Brother, the band were “like sisters, so of course it was never going to be plain sailing the whole time.”

Going out with a bang

The group ultimately disbanded in 2013, after an incredibly successful greatest hits tour, and the release of a single, ‘Something New’, that charted at #2 in the UK, ten years after their initial debut. However, there was talk of the girls reuniting next year, in 2022, to mark the twentieth anniversary of their formation. Harding’s death from cancer this month leaves that possibility uncertain, as the four remaining members lead tributes that truly solidify her legacy as the vivacious, beating heart of the group, consistently setting the tone and making the pace for the rest of the girls to follow. In a post on her Instagram, Nicola Roberts commented, “electric girl, you made us.”

“Electric girl”: Sarah Harding’s legacy

In the darkness of her death, fans have found solace and light in sharing her best moments together on social media, posting hilarious clips from old interviews, or her most outstanding vocal performances. Harding’s legacy as the good time girl of British pop will certainly not be forgotten, as club nights have sprang up across the country, promising an evening of Girls Aloud’s best tunes in exchange for a donation to Cancer Research UK, or to The Christie in Manchester, where she was treated.

Sarah Harding was the first voice we hear on Girls Aloud’s first single, as they invaded the airwaves back in 2002 with their infectious brand of intelligent, genre-blending pop music. From the group’s inception to their last performance together, she was an integral part of their success. She swaggered across every single stage as if she was Mick Jagger taking on Wembley, and her sense of enthusiasm for what she did never faded in the eleven years that the group were together.

Sarah Harding’s fans have set up a JustGiving page, approved by her management, that is taking donations for The Christie in Manchester. You can donate here.