On Saturday night, confetti will fall for the last time (“for now…!”) on Little Mix, the X Factor-winning, best-selling, record-smashing girl band who have ruled the UK charts for over a decade. Around 17,000 fans will fill The O2 Arena in London, and countless more will tune into the simultaneous live broadcast to watch Perrie Edwards, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jade Thirlwall perform smash hits such as “Wings”, “Black Magic” and “Sweet Melody” for the final time.
In the years since Little Mix became the first girl group in The X Factor’s history to win the competition in 2011 – eight seasons in – they have climbed to the very top of the UK pop hierarchy. An abridged list of their achievements puts them at six top five albums, 19 Top 10 singles (including five No 1s), three Brit Awards and countless collaborations – with artists such as Missy Elliott, Nicki Minaj, Sean Paul, Stormzy, David Guetta and Saweetie. Their Best Group win in 2020 marked the first time a girl band had been successful in this category in the whole of the Brits’ 38-year run.
This weekend, they go out on a high as they cross the finish line: their greatest hits album, Between Us, released in November, has spent 25 weeks in the charts and is certified gold.
Although the fact that Jesy Nelson is no longer a part of the band casts a small shadow over what is already a bittersweet time, their last concert will act as the cherry on top of a break-up cake that was very nearly baked to perfection. As with most women of my generation, this ending of an era sparks memories for me.
I first felt the eviscerating pain of seeing something I loved devotedly fracturing, before crumbling into nothing, in 1998 when a balding, bespectacled lawyer stood before a packed crowd of global press to announce that Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell would be leaving the Spice Girls. The next morning, as my friends gathered on the playground to mourn before school started, I recalled with a wrench in my gut how we had scoffed at the story of Samaritans opening helplines for girls a little older than us who had endured the Take That split a couple of years previously. Now that I had a deep psychological wound of my own to heal, I was learning empathy.
After that point, the splits came thick and fast; if I had a pound for every band break-up I’ve survived, and all the nuggets of wisdom I have gained as a result, I certainly wouldn’t be leasing my time as a freelance writer.
As a veteran of so many “bad” splits, it makes sense that I would have thoughts on what constitutes a good one. Geri Halliwell once described her time in the Spice Girls as “like being in a marriage”, making us, the fans, children of divorce. Metaphorically speaking, there are ways to sit the kids down and talk about this.
Some splits were barely noticeable, with the breakout stars transitioning from group members to solo artists almost seamlessly. *Nsync’s final single, The Neptunes-produced “Girlfriend”, served as more of a preview to Justin Timberlake’s solo career than a final goodbye from a beloved boy band, while the Destiny’s Child swan song “Stand Up for Love” found itself drowned in the wake of Beyoncé’s No 1 single “Check on It”, recorded for The Pink Panther film soundtrack and tacked on to the band’s greatest hits compilation to capitalise on its success.
Since in both situations fans were arguably trading up – who in their right mind would ask for one more year of either group if it meant sacrificing “Cry Me a River” or “Crazy in Love” to the pop gods? – there was simply no opportunity to feel sad about an ending when the new beginning was so exciting.
Other splits were more turbulent. The dissolution of Girls Aloud, the predecessors to Little Mix’s reality show success, was laboured and acrimonious, with burgeoning solo ambitions leading the group to take a “break” shortly after they won their first Brit Award. Their return four years later, to celebrate their 10th anniversary, was undermined by rumours of frostiness that had surfaced during the hiatus. Shortly after their final show at Liverpool’s Echo Arena in March 2013, they issued an insincere and impersonal statement that they had “come to the end of our incredible time together”.
Group member Nadine Coyle followed up with a tweet disavowing the group’s decision (“I couldn’t stop them. I had the best time & want to keep going”) and the subsequent fallout became less about reminiscing about the good times and more about factional infighting, depending on which members you had loyalty to.
There are the groups too numerous to mention that seem to just disappear overnight, dropped unceremoniously from their labels and never seen nor heard from again. And there are the groups that fall apart due to infighting: Sean from 5ive being replaced by a cardboard cutout, All Saints falling out over wardrobe options, The Pussycat Dolls “feat Nicole Scherzinger” scandal and so on.
There is another type of split: the split that is not a split, the split by any other name, like One Direction’s “at least a year”-long hiatus, reported through sources and then confirm-refuted with tweets from three out of four group members, playing it down to “just a break!” but essentially corroborating the rumours.
There has never been any real bad blood between Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson but their public relationships with each other can be best read as “friendly but distant”. The suggestion is that even if they are privately close to each other, they are cautious to broadcast that fact, perhaps to quell any inescapable rumblings of a comeback should they be photographed together.
When you consider the fact that Styles is now reaching even higher levels of success than he did as part of the 1D juggernaut, it seems unlikely that a reunion will happen in the foreseeable future. Holding out that hope feels futile – but resigning yourself to the idea that the band may never return feels like giving up on them. It looks like a break-up and feels like a break-up, but it can’t be described as such, making it difficult to let go.
The fifth type of split, the ideal split, is a scenario in which a band retains all of its original members, announces a mutual agreement to end their time together, ties off loose ends with a sufficiently sentimental goodbye single and a greatest hits album, gives as many fans as possible the chance to be a part of their send-off in one way or another, and parts on good terms.
This is the kind of split that has to be scheduled and worked towards to pull off effectively.
While it is possible that the circumstances of the pandemic, followed by Nelson’s departure, forced a pivot in Little Mix’s plans, there were signs they were moving into their “end stage” as early as 2019 with the announcement of Little Mix: The Search.
The band hosted and judged a BBC talent show where the prize was the chance to support them on tour, a tactic I have come to recognise as the rebound split. (Fun fact: Rochelle Humes and Frankie Bridge have both benefited from bands incorporating a baton pass into their phase-out plans twice in their careers – as members of S Club Juniors and later The Saturdays, tacit successors to S Club 7 and Girls Aloud respectively.) Had there not been those unavoidable complications, it’s easy to imagine the past two years playing out almost entirely the same: one last album, one last tour, a greatest hits and a goodbye.
Healthy endings are just as good for band members as for their fanbases. In the case of Little Mix specifically, bowing out now – still successful, still well loved, without squandering any loyalty – makes their transition to solo acts fairly frictionless. It also puts some clear distance between the wrap-up of their four-piece era and whatever may come down the line for them.
Should they launch a comeback – and it should be noted that almost every group mentioned here found their way back to each other in one way or another – they have afforded themselves the opportunity to properly reintroduce themselves as a three-piece, with new material as a fundamentally new band.
While Little Mix didn’t entirely stick to the landing when it came to grounding their wings for a spell, the hallmarks of their intentions are clear. For a pop music fan, closure can be hard to come by, which is why relatively well orchestrated and respectful endings, like the one Little Mix have engineered, are so remarkable: it’s not often that they happen. Just a surface glimpse over pop history shows how rarely the opportunity comes along for a band to set their affairs in order and wrap things up with dignity and care.
To all those who are attending Little Mix’s finale in person or watching the livestream on Saturday, enjoy it as a celebration. You don’t always get the chance to do that.
Tickets for the Little Mix livestream: dreamstage.live/show/little-mix
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