It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Girls Aloud were ace. Their seven-year run of hit singles – excluding the handful of boring, housewife-baiting cover versions – represent some of the most exciting, dynamic and forward thinking commercial pop music of the last decade.
Great pop music inspires devotion, and with devotion comes tribalism. Everyone had their favourite Beatle, their favourite Spice Girl. Lord help them, a few quality-starved pop fans of today probably have a favourite Saturday. However, a cursory look around the forums and blogs that have become the debating floor of the modern day pop obsessive clearly indicates that in the hearts of the true fans there is only one star in Girls Aloud – and it isn’t Cheryl. It isn’t even Nadine. No, the potential Robbie of this group is one Nicola Roberts. Now she’s finally releasing a solo record, featuring collaborations with the likes of Diplo, Metronomy and Dragonette. It could end up as one of the most exciting pop albums released by a British artist this year.
Despite her comparatively low profile, Nicola was always the best thing about Girls Aloud. She rarely sang lead, but she always got the best lines; the shimmering middle-eight in ‘Call The Shots’, a heartbreaking turn in ‘Whole Lotta History’, the spectacularly disdainful “Frankly I don’t even care” that closes ‘No Good Advice’. Vocally, the other girls could be fairly interchangeable, but she always stood out, her voice switching from brittle fragility to aloof and imperious with ease.
The first taste of what she might be capable of outside the group came with ‘It’s Magic’ her self-penned solo turn on the undervalued Chemistry album. A sensual and bewitching track with ambiguous lyrics and an unusual structure – the chorus occurs only once – it suggested that Nicola could mature into a fascinating electro ice-queen in the Roisin Murphy mould if given the opportunity.
She has the all-important likeability factor too. From day one she felt like one of us. The rest of the group were a little too perfect –too thin, too tanned, too conventional. Nicola grew into her looks, rather than emerging seemingly fully formed. From an incredibly young age she had to deal with being witlessly labelled ‘the ugly ginger one’, enough vitriol to send a lesser person off the rails. However she’s never played the victim, risking above petty insults and emerging as a genuinely stylish woman, unafraid to make leftfield fashion choices and embrace the power of big hair. She remains a champion for individuality and unconventional beauty as a genuine quality rather than a backhanded insult – fronting a documentary about the dangers of sun bed abuse and developing a successful make-up line for pale-skinned girls.
There’s a clip of her onstage during a Girls Aloud concert some years ago. She spots a fan banner that reads, “Chris Moyles is a cunt”, referring to the Radio 1 DJ who had recently referred to her as ‘a sour-faced old cow’. Nicola – looking beautiful in a sparkling gold dress – cackles with unconcealed delight and blows a kiss to the standard-bearers before turning on her heels and getting on with the show. That’s a pop star attitude right there.
Some have complained that she comes across as grumpy, but where they see moodiness I see honesty and a refreshing alternative to blandly polite media training. She can be charming and articulate, but doesn’t suffer fools. The veteran newsreader Huw Edwards has dealt with some of the most powerful and influential people on earth during his long career, but I’ve never seen him look more unsettled than when he was on the receiving end of one of Nicola’s celebrated acid glares during a particularly awkward interview.
At time of writing we’ve only heard a snippet of her forthcoming single Beat of my Drum, but in that 30 seconds alone there is more of the fun, creativity and attitude that marked out the best of Girls Aloud’s work than can be found in the three albums of collective solo material from Cheryl and Nadine. It’s a little bit Robyn, a little bit MIA, a little bit MGMT, and unmistakably Nicola. It feels like a genuine evolution of the Girls Aloud formula, rather than a retreat into bland RnB or an attempt to ‘do a Gaga’. If the full track lives up to it, it’s going to be one of the best pop songs of the year. This will probably surprise many people, but those of us who were paying attention always knew she wouldn’t let us down. The USA can keep Cheryl, the true star of Girls Aloud has finally arrived.