In 2008, a few schools of feminine pop ruled the roost. On the right were the retro-revivalists, lavished with plaudits for their youth, remarkable vocals and their keenness to fill the gap left by their 21st-century predecessor Amy Winehouse; you might know them better as Adele and Duffy.
In the middle stood Leona Lewis, Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Britney Spears, Beyoncé and a few other bountiful beauties – lovely, but born of the manufactured pop tradition, no matter how edgy they tried be. Further down was the indie eccentricity of Kate Nash, and you might even count Katy Perry in there somewhere. They all had nothing on the girls on the left, however, a horde of creatives storming the borders of acceptable pop music with their individual interpretations of everything fashionable, evoking the rebellion of Cyndi Lauper, Björk and Gwen Stefani. But while the likes of Ebony Bones, Santogold, Bat for Lashes, the cocknbullkid, Charlie XCX, Lykke Li, Ladyhawke, a revived MIA and their lesser-known protégées rollicked under the commercial radar, it soon became apparent that their individuality was hindering their ability to sell records as easily as their fellow pop sisters. Call it the curse of being too damn cool.
It's a relief, then, that the new year is getting set to welcome a fresh onslaught of some of the poppiest anti-pop femmes in the business, who all have a chance of breaking into the mainstream. GoldieLocks, La Roux, Lady GaGa, Little Boots, Zarif and Melanie Fiona are just some of the girls touted as the next big things of 2009, and rightfully so. They write really great songs, have real opinions, don't hail from the Brit School ("I'm really bored of music school kids," says La Roux. "I think you've either got it or you haven't") and are worlds away from the templates laid out by Winehouse and Lily Allen. Adds La Roux: "I think people are bored of hearing those comparisons because they always seem to be based on whether you're female, regardless of what your music is like. I think it's gone past that stage now."
Tastemakers and style mags adore them, and the first three wear their nicknames as proudly as their appetite for synths, neon-flavoured sequins and the glittery throwback to Eighties discotheque. Twenty-year-old Brixtonian La Roux (real name Elly Jackson) for instance, names Prince, the Eurythmics, Depeche Mode and David Bowie as musical influences, and her single "Quicksand" is rapidly doing the electro party rounds. Yet when she was recently compared to Kylie, she wasn't having any of it. "I don't hate her or anything, I've just never been a Kylie fan," she shrugs.
"I'm not Beyoncé," laughs GoldieLocks, the grime-cum-indie pop producer/promoter/MC from Croydon. "GoldieLocks is me – I sing, I rap, I DJ. And who says all those things can't be one person?"
It's a sentiment shared by Little Boots, aka 24-year-old Victoria Hesketh from Blackpool, who first came to public attention thanks to a storming set on Later With Jools Holland. She will be releasing a single and an album in June through 679/Atlantic Records. Starting out in punk groups, the classical piano-trained singer once appeared on Pop Idol when she was 16 ("I got through a few rounds and I cried when I didn't get through the next"), but decided to go solo to write and produce really good pop music. She says her name is "not just a person", but "more like a whole bunch of musical ideas and stuff". "It's like a little world," she says, smiling.
On "Planet Boots", she does magical things with a Stylophone and tenori-On, as you'll see on her YouTube channel, while hoping to capture mainstream sensibilities. She's already rolling deep with the boys from Hot Chip. "I try not to do things that are left of centre," she says. "I mean, I like doing things with a certain amount of weirdness, but I don't really think being mainstream or being pop is a dirty thing. I want to write really good songs that connect with loads of people. I'm not interested in making a cool record that doesn't really reach many people." Like a few of her fellow nu-popsters, Boots is adamant that the future is electro. "I think with the future of music, we're always going to go the electro route, because that's the way of new technology."
Then there's the self-proclaimed "retro-sexual" Lady GaGa. If you haven't heard her already, take a peep at her video for "Poker Face", where she's singing over pure synths and rocking a metallic get-up flown straight out of 2099. In some shots she's gyrating and dripping wet, like a real-life, sexualised version of animated rock chick Jem. It's Madonna's Erotica and Bowie's thunderbolt theatrics, all rolled into a gimmicky but delicious attack on ordinary pop.
"It's completely me," says GaGa. "I'm this way all the time. I'm always dressed the way you see me in my videos and my performances. I live and breathe fashion, art and music. I was the girl who used to be made fun of in school because I was wearing some crazy outfit. For me, it's not a costume; it's not a look. Lady GaGa is me."
In case you're wondering, the 22-year-old New Yorker, born Joanne Stefani Germanotta, is also a known name in the music business. She was once signed to Def Jam, but got her career on track after teaming up with Akon, and writing songs for a number of acts on his label. She has since penned tracks for New Kids on the Block, Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears, and has developed a stage show famous for its retro art references. "When I turned 19, I really discovered Queen and David Bowie in a different kind of way," says GaGa. "And that's who I am now." Musically, her debut album The Fame heavily relies on her influences, but also dips into hip-hop and straight-up party pop anthems. "I wanted to write a hit record," says GaGa. "Something that was shameless and totally, 100 per cent bubblegum pop, but still avant-garde and Pop Art in that Andy Warhol way that I really strive to be. I want to make pop music that's commercial, but is considered fine art," she adds.
The others eyeing 2009 may not be as dramatic, but they're just as noticeable. The 23-year-old Zarif has been likened to Winehouse, but is going one better with her soulful pop stance and associations with acclaimed electro beatmakers The Nextmen. She's just finished touring with Taio Cruz and will release a single in the new year.
The same goes for Fiona, a Toronto-born singer-songwriter who has written for Rihanna and has much in common with the exotic quirkiness of Britain's own VV Brown; she will release a new single in January. She reckons that a new wave of female pop that can chart without compromise has been long-overdue. "Musically, I think people are wanting something refreshing and a new sound," says Fiona, who has just finished touring with Kanye West. "In my opinion, music has been a little redundant, and now people will get something new, something fresh."
La Roux also believes that the days of indie bands are over. "It's time for girls to come into their own. Band time has kind of finished, I think. The industry has been totally infiltrated by bands of a similar nature for a few years. I don't think that music's not good anymore – I just think everyone's ready for a change."
Many of these newcomers considered traditional routes to success, by way of acoustic bands or even television talent shows (Zarif was once asked by Simon Cowell to audition for The X-Factor). They're able to connect with their fans, something that Little Boots says the middle school of pop seem to struggle with. "All this big voice stuff... I'm not really convinced," she frowns. "I'm not really into it. I think it's good that they're all female role models. I just think that when they're not that original, it feels a bit empty sometimes." For Boots and co, it's as simple as doing good tunes and holding down the underground following who were responsible for getting their quirkiness noticed in the first place.
GoldieLocks (real name Sarah Louise Akwisombe) might be the only exception in this quest for new pop supremacy as she is still unsigned. But despite working with Nash, Tinchy Stryder and Lily Allen's collaborators Future Cut, she's decided she's better off staying independent and dismissing all hopes for radioplay. She's currently wrapping up her first album. "I've been going through the whole mental struggle of whether I should make commercial pop songs and get signed or do what I really want to do and be unsigned, but happy," the 23-year-old admits. "I got back to basics, really, and realised what I definitely wanted to do was make underground music. If the mainstream don't want that, then I don't care."
Whatever happens, these girls aren't looking to continue the legacy of the Spice Girls. "I don't know if we can ever have something new if it's known as another girl power," says La Roux. "I think we're cooler than that."
The GoldieLocks EP is out on 8 December on Locked On Records; La Roux's debut single 'Quicksand' is out on 15 December on Kistune Records; Lady GaGa's debut single 'Just Dance' is out on 5 January and the album 'The Fame' on 19 January on Interscope Records; Zarif will release her first single 'Let Me Back' in March through RCA; Melanie Fiona is releasing her self-titled album in March on SRC Records; her single 'Bang Bang' is released in FebruaryReuse content