Girls Aloud, City Hall, Newcastle

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The Independent Culture

In Uzbekistan, people are being massacred while demonstrating for democracy. In Britain, nine million ITV-dazzled plebs voted for the five young women who became winners of Popstars: The Rivals. Only just over twice that number could be bothered choosing their next government. The decadence of late capitalism laid bare.

In Uzbekistan, people are being massacred while demonstrating for democracy. In Britain, nine million ITV-dazzled plebs voted for the five young women who became winners of Popstars: The Rivals. Only just over twice that number could be bothered choosing their next government. The decadence of late capitalism laid bare.

And it's laid very bare tonight. Fate has given me a front row seat for Girls Aloud, and their gym-hardened, solarium-bronzed, Atkins-whittled frames, covered only by irregular-shaped shreds of coloured lamé, are mere feet away from the tip of my nose. I don't know where to look.

As they romp onstage to "The Show", I'm close enough to see who's got an inny and who's got an outy; close enough to know that Nicola Roberts has been on holiday in a halter-neck; close enough to get an upskirt view of Nadine Coyle - the Irish beauty with the just-about-to-cry eyes, who Louis Walsh wanted to launch as a solo star - whether I want to or not.

Girls Aloud are professional showgirls, nothing more, peddling a serviceable sugar-coated facsimile of what was happening in black music three years ago (which pop acts have done since time immemorial). But, my God, people love them. And this crowd loves one member in particular. "Che-ryl! Che-ryl! Che-ryl!" The Tyneside-accented chant is deafening. Miss Tweedy, you see, is a local girl, raised in nearby Heaton, and she milks it for all it's worth, announcing her dad's wedding anniversary, and waving to family members in the crowd. (The other Girls also do this, winking and waving at specific fans, and you wonder how Bradford-born Kimberley Walsh can possibly know so many Geordies... until you realise she doesn't: they've been told to do this as a smart bit of stagecraft, to make random individuals feel special.)

This crowd loves Shezza because she's just like them.Not that there aren't other valid reasons to enjoy a Girls Aloud gig. There are enough costume changes to keep the eyes sated: for "No Good Advice", it's sexed-up School Disco uniforms; for the ballads, it's flouncy cocktail dresses which might have been worn by Anthea Redfearn on The Generation Game; for the finale, it's Coyote Ugly rodeo-stripper gear. Their own hits, of which the exuberant "Love Machine" and the ersatz-moody "Sound of the Underground" are the best, are padded out with familiar covers: "Girls On Film" (introduced as "one for the mums and dads" - ouch), "I'll Stand By You", "Jump (For My Love)" and "Teenage Dirtbag", plus snatches of "Another Brick in the Wall", "Le Freak", "My Sharona" and "Purple Rain". It's all good knockabout fun.

Half the time I'm convinced they're miming (Sarah Harding, the robotic blonde who looks as though she ought to be late-night foam-wrestling on Granada Men & Motors, is a giveaway: she's rubbish at miming). Half the time I'm convinced they're not (again, Sarah's a giveaway: she's rubbish at singing too). I think I'm right both times: they mix it up.

It's fascinating to watch a big pop production at such close range. You can see them making each other crack up when they're meant to be doing their serious-sexy faces; you see Nadine losing her earpiece and spending a whole song trying to re-attach it; and - fatally, for a critic - you see the whites of their eyes.

There's a view that Nicola, the ex-ginger one, is letting the side down looks-wise (on account of her slightly funny mouth), and I used to concur but, as Goldie Lookin Chain pointed out to me recently, context is everything: if she walked into your local pub, you'd do a double-take. When I see her effort of concentration at close hand, sense her vulnerability, I feel mean. She's worked hard, she's learned all the words, practiced all the moves - she's just doing her job.

Indeed, I start to feel protective. When I witness first-hand how sparrow-thin they've become since those voluptuous early videos, I worry about their health. They may need no good advice, from me, from Louis Walsh or from anyone. But they could definitely do with a few pies.

s.price@independent.co.uk

Colston Hall, Bristol (0117 922 3683), Mon; Portsmouth Guildhall (023 9282 4355), Tue; Ipswich Regent (01473 433 100), Wed; Liverpool Empire (0151 708 3232), Fri; Hammersmith Apollo, London W6 (020 8748 8660), Sat & 29 May

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