Maria Minerva Talks Fifth Harmony’s Reflection

Welcome to polyglot, pre-fab America by way of five pop tour guides.

The day Kurt Cobain died was, for me, the day Geri Halliwell announced her departure from the Spice Girls. I cried all afternoon. Years later, I spoke about this with my gay best friend, and he said he had cried too. It was like getting a glimpse of the Real after the collapse of the Symbolic Order proposed by Lacan.  Or more simply put: for us tweens at the time, it felt like a sign from a cold world full of adults making harsh decisions.

Spice Girls meant everything to me. I knew Sporty’s weight, Baby’s height, and I even tried to gather more information on the mysterious sixth member who had backed out of the project before they blew up (to no avail, because the search was on just before I got the internet). In my bedroom, three walls out of four were covered in Spice Girls posters.  Replacing that fucked-up wallpaper after I got into Sonic Youth really marked the end of an era.

When a new girl group pops up these days, I have empathy: I know there will always be a girl in middle school hearing hidden messages in their songs. I still adore pop music; it is my first love. Or maybe it is the idea of pop that I cherish. Sometimes the actual pop music in the charts makes me want to question humankind’s right to existence.

My current home, Los Angeles, is where most mainstream pop music is produced. After moving here in summer 2014, having wandered from my birthplace of Estonia, I was listening to NPR about trouble in Syria, Russia, etc. But when I left my apartment in Echo Park, the only news in town seemed to be Katy Perry’s single “This Is How We Do.” It’s one of her worst, really. Welcome to L.A. — I see about 10 colorful posters of Perry with a giant lollipop on a wall, lots of American Apparel billboards, only a few people in the street, many old ’90s Hondas cruising by, and everything sinking in a 100-degree haze.

If pop music could be defined as selling the rest of the world the joke that is Los Angeles, then Fifth Harmony is selling that plus a recycled idea of “girl power” that was once so fresh on Top of the Pops. Unlike Spice Girls, the Fifth Harmony ladies can actually sing, which unfortunately results in a battle of loud, attention-seeking yet emotionless voices (“Top Down,” “BO$$“). Try to imagine five little Ariana Grandes competing against each other.

Fifth Harmony came into existence due to a synaptic connection in the brain behind the V-neck, Mr. Simon Cowell, on the singing contest TV show The X Factor. Cowell is basically Paul Morley, and Fifth Harmony is the Art of Noise, and that is cool. Overnight, five dreams of solo stardom became the bland reality of a “working pop star.” That life mainly seems to consist of a) doing countless “group interviews” completely devoid of meaning, b) reiterating how they really do feel “blessed” and c) posting stuff on Instagram.

If pop stars come from TV shows and live on the internet, then where do pop songs come from? Apparently, these days mostly from the mind of a certain 21-year-old Nantucket native, the genius also known as Meghan Trainor. The stand-out tracks on Fifth Harmony’s Reflection — “Sledgehammer” and “Suga Mama” — were written by Trainor, known on her own for her songs “All About That Bass” and “Your Lips Are Moving.” Trainor has, in the last year, carved out a place for herself in the L.A. pop songwriters’ pantheon alongside Dr. Luke and a bunch of folks from Scandinavia. Dr. Luke produced another of the album’s highlights, the sing-along driving-to-the-mall anthem “This Is How We Roll.” I sort of get into it before my boyfriend walks in the door and plainly says it’s shit.

As a songwriter, Meghan Trainor flirts heavily with black music. The Fifth Harmony girls themselves claim they wanted the album to be more r&b-oriented, which does result in some awkward “soulful” singing, like that otherwise quiet sophomore girl who sings so fiercely at school events. The best r&b tracks on Reflection (“Everlasting Love,” “Them Girls Be Like,” “Reflection”) are written by the talented Georgia-born singer-songwriter Victoria Monet,  whose own self-released EP has gone unnoticed. Azealia Banks recently complained about white people constantly snatching from black culture — here’s maybe another example of how that dynamic works in the pop industry. Upon further investigation, however, it turns out that three of the Fifth Harmony girls are Hispanic, one is African-American, and one is of Polynesian descent — so maybe this is just an example of how diverse American pop music is in 2015.

“You can dance like Beyoncé/You can shake like Shakira… like Rihanna/Go and pose like Madonna,” goes the chorus in one of the “deluxe edition” album’s bonus tracks, “Brave Honest Beautiful.” The intention seems to be to empower young girls all over the globe, but I am left wondering about Fifth Harmony. Will they ever have anything to bring to the table themselves, in addition to paying homage to the old icons? Having a perfect voice doesn’t make one a perfect pop star, and too much professionalism can take the fun out of feminism. All we get is girl power gone sour.

Maria Minerva is Maria Juur, an Estonian experimental electronic musician based in Los Angeles, California. She is still having trouble adapting to American life but has already started to mispronounce her own last name and is currently learning how to parallel park. You can follow her on Twitter here.