Last year, when asked what they hoped girl bands of the future wouldn’t have to face, Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall said, “that they’re not seen as a 'guilty pleasure' and are seen as credible artists.”
It’s easy to believe where she got that from. In spite of selling 50 million records, releasing five Top 10 albums and performing on six tours (four of which in arenas, one in stadia), Little Mix are still regarded as guilty pleasure stuff. Put-on-Spotify-when-the-party-gets-late music. They write – yes, they do have writing credits on their chart-toppers – the kind of spirited songs that people sing in the shower to pep them up for the day. And yet, they’ve received seemingly endless hate for it.
This week, Nelson fronts Odd One Out, a documentary for BBC Three about online trolling – specifically, the vitriolic abuse she endured ever since appearing on the live shows of The X Factor in 2011, which caused her to suffer from eating disorders and attempt suicide.
The documentary has been gathering a lot of attention, and rightfully so. It will call attention to how cruel social media can be. But it’s alarming how long it has taken for such a bit of programming to come to air. Nelson has been encouraged to be open about being a victim of online abuse since Little Mix’s infancy; in the fourth week of the X Factor live shows, there is a heart-wrenching clip of her – then only 20 – attempting to hold composure while crying over a laptop.
“Obviously, when you’ve got your own insecurities and people go and tell you and write them on websites for everyone to see, it just makes you feel really rubbish,” Nelson said, over a sad piano backing track. “I know I’m a lot bigger,” she continued, referring to her band mates. “I find it really hard when people publicise it on Twitter”. Nelson clarified in a recent interview that she doesn’t hold X Factor’s producers responsible, but did say that such “behind-the-scenes” footage “just added fuel to the fire”.
Hearing Nelson re-iterate her feelings eight years on - this is the first time she’s discussed her struggles in the spotlight since then – casts much of Little Mix’s career in a more poignant light. They released their fifth record, LM5, last year, after breaking away from Simon Cowell, the man who signed them. The group have been typically graceful about the split, but the maturity of sound and confidence that arrived with LM5 suggests they are enjoying their new era.
The name of the documentary nods to why Nelson’s presenting this documentary and not her bandmates, Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirlwall, Leigh-Anne Pinnock.
Nelson, who is beautiful and funny with an excellent hair-flip-hip-pop trademark dance move, has always occupied more space than the other women in Little Mix. She is physically taller, her hips are wider. And for this, she has been cruelly targeted throughout her career.
But while Nelson has faced the brunt of the abuse, Little Mix as a whole have never been immune from it. In the video for recent single Strip, the group pose nude, their limbs painted with slights they’ve endured while in the public eye. There is an “ugly” on each of them; a “cellulite” spread across Pinnock’s thigh. “Geek” on Thirlwall’s ankle bumps up against “slutty” on her shin. “Flabby”, “weak”, “offensive”, “can’t sing” and “stretch marks” are among the rest.
The same tabloids reliant on the bodysuits and thigh-high boots that comprise Little Mix’s tour costumes for clickbait and front-page pictures are also those that have slammed them for being too sexualised. They’ve been called “prostitutes” for their outfit choices, to which Little Mix have replied, somewhat adorably, “We don't care for negative nancies”.
Appearance-based slurs are, sadly, par for the course for female artists who put themselves in the spotlight. But Little Mix have faced sneeriness on all manner of things. When Stormzy collaborated on their 2017 single Power, he was forced to defend Little Mix after fans dismissed his association with them. The video went on to be viewed 200 million times.
In 2015, Thirlwall used the main Little Mix Twitter account to share her condolences “to the people of Syria” and express how “saddened and ashamed” she was in the wake of Parliament voting to launch airstrikes in Syria. The group were bombarded with sexist and patronising abuse in return, including posts such as “Stick to singing girls. Honestly, can you point out Syria and Iraq on a map,” posted one user.
It also feels like the music industry has been reluctant to celebrate them. Little Mix have been deemed entertaining enough by the BPI, who organises the Brit Awards, to perform at the ceremony three times between 2016 and 2019, but have only been granted two Brit awards of nine nominations in that time. For context, in between 2018 and 2019 alone, and of the same nominations, Dua Lipa won three off the back of just one fairly average debut album.
I’ve long found the widespread derision towards Little Mix faintly baffling. Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirlwall, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jesy Nelson have comprised one of my favourite bands for nearly a decade now, ever since I watched them – all bow-ties and wedge-trainers – compete on the X Factor in 2011. I voted for them to win, “manufactured” by Simon Cowell the way prescient, if hapless manager Chris Herbert had with the Spice Girls 17 years earlier, and it felt exciting when they did; they’re still the only group to defy TV show’s supposed “curse”.
They have always bucked the expectations put upon them. Beyond being the only group to win, they also are the only X Factor winners to still be a meaningful contender in the pop industry (the other successful winner, Alexandra Burke, has long given up the charts for the West End).
They were put together in a group - like One Direction and Girls Aloud - but say their friendship is the main reason for their longevity (four years is the average pop band lifespan); when Little Mix tour, three of the hotel rooms go unslept in, as they tend to pile into one enormous bed (and, in some cases, film the flatulence that emerges from under the covers before uploading it to Instagram).
They were swift to learn the nastier, sleazier, more chauvinistic sides of the industry and have channelled that into a back catalogue of music so empowering that it has made grown women cry when they see them in the street. They’ve also increasingly taken on LGBTQ advocacy, performing songs such as Secret Love Song under the Pride flag in Dubai, where homosexuality is illegal.
Having had instant fame showered upon them (Nelson didn’t even know what YouTube was before seeing foul comments rack up underneath X Factor videos), they’ve kept their noses clean. The biggest controversy the band have suffered was when Pinnock did a remarkably accurate impression of reality TV star Georgia Kousoulou’s advertisement for bargain store Everything5Pounds.com. Much like when Nelson responded to Piers Morgan’s claim that the group were “talentless, clothes-allergic dimwits” by calling him “a silly t---”, the public proved to be on their side.
Amid seas of media-trained pop bots, Little Mix are famously silly in interviews, recalling the behaviour of the Spice Girls before them. A clip of Nelson trying - and spectacularly failing - to do a Jamaican accent has become a cultural meme in its own right, earning 1.8 million views on one YouTube upload of it alone. But nor are they prone to histrionics: when Edwards broke down in tears during a live performance, days after her split with then-One Direction singer Zayn Malik, Nelson calmly explained: “It’s been a long day and we’ve had no sleep and I think this is why this has happened.”
Little Mix’s music, too, is good. They have consistently earned enthusiastic reviews, with Glory Days, their triumphant 2016 album, arguably being their best work. When it comes to empowering, witty and infectious pop, Little Mix are masters of the genre; it is possible to witness their growth as women and artists from debut DNA to LM5 as they tackle heartbreak, self-esteem, defiance and jubilation.
The group has never been afraid to serve their young fanbase. In schedules too knackering for a non-pop star to imagine, their tours feature matinee as well as evening shows for those too little to stay up late. They keep tickets affordable for family outings and, after their first tour, made efforts to lower merchandise prices so fans could buy the T-shirt, too.
Perhaps this is why Little Mix remain so underrated. Young women, especially those who make music for other young women and girls, will never be considered as occupying the bleeding edge of cool, thanks to the inherently sexist structure of the music industry. It makes one wonder whether it would take a member of One Direction as long for their online abuse to be deemed worthy of a BBC Three documentary.