By Tim O’Shei
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Every generation has its girl-power pop groups: TLC. Spice Girls. Destiny’s Child. The Pussycat Dolls.
Today’s iteration? Fifth Harmony, the five-woman group that performed in Buffalo Sunday night on one of the final stops of their Summer Reflection Tour. Like their predecessors, Fifth Harmony was formed not in a garage or a living room by musically minded childhood friends looking to make it big, but rather in an audition room by business-minded producers looking to genetically engineer the next pop sensation.
Anything wrong with that? Nope, particularly when the producer playing musical matchmaker is a good one. In Fifth Harmony’s case, they had the right guy: Simon Cowell, the English music mogul and charmingly caustic former “American Idol” judge. In the summer of 2012, on his own show “The X Factor,” Cowell choose to match five teenage women – Ally Brooke Hernandez of San Antonio, Texas, Normani Kordei of Houston, Lauren Jauregui of Miami, Cuban-born Camila Cabello, and California native Dinah Jane Hansen – into a harmonic, ready-for-listening package.
Cowell, who also handpicked the members of the boy band One Direction, was onto something: The group signed with Epic Records, has headlined five tours in three years, and has four singles on the Billboard Top 100, including the recent hit “Worth It,” which peaked at No. 12.
So as Fifth Harmony took the stage Sunday night at Shea’s Performing Arts Center in front of a packed crowd of tween and teen “Harmonizers,” my curiosity was piqued: Where do they fit in the landscape of the aforementioned girl-power pop groups?
For context: I’ve both interviewed Fifth Harmony and watched them perform twice before – once annually in each of the group’s first three years of existence – so I’ve had the chance to see their growth. Offstage, they’re a delight: Personable and warm (especially with fans), grateful for their fame and the attention it brings, smart and thoughtful, occasionally giggly, and in possession of all the tiny insecurities you’d expect of someone of their age to have. (I’d give you an example, but can’t, because after one interview in which we talked about those insecurities, one of the singers asked, “You know, can you please not put that in the story? I don’t want people to know that.”)
But somewhere in there, the music needs to take over. Being cool and relatable may help your career, but it won’t make you a legend. So my question Sunday night in Buffalo was this: Three years in, is Fifth Harmony ready to stick for good – or at least land on the list next to storied acts like the Spice Girls and TLC and Destiny’s Child?
Their 75-minute set offered some clues. The biggest two are which are the most important: The ladies of Fifth Harmony can sing (really sing) and their fans love it – them (really love them).
Though they probably needed no prepping, those fans were warmed up well by the opening acts. Natalie La Rose, a protégée of the rapper Flo Rida who made a brief appearance here in May at WKSE-FM’s Kiss the Summer Hello, delivered a punchy, leather-clad variety of dance pop, dominated by her Billboard top 10 single “Somebody.”
La Rose was followed by 16-year-old Hollywood Records recording artist Bea Miller and her three-piece backup band. Miller’s punchy, rock-infused set tested the limits of the sound system and acoustics of Shea’s (most often a theater venue) with the anthem-like “Rich Kids” and her biggest song yet, “Fire N Gold,” which charted at No. 78. Miller is one to watch: Her vocals are powerful, her songwriting voice is authentic, and her stage presence is real. Miller puts up few airs; she’s a girl who likes to rock, and if she’s allowed to be self-programmed with her music, she may just fill a niche as a young, raw-but-still-accessible star.
Whomever booked Fifth Harmony’s opening acts should get credit for variety: Though I thought La Rose and Miller couldn’t be more different from each other, when Common Kings took the stage, I reconsidered. The six-man ensemble was part jam band, part reggae group, part DJ-driven hip hop, and they make it work. The Common Kings’ set encompassed Meghan Trainor (who co-wrote their song “24/7”), Dj Kool (“Let Me Clear My Throat”), Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg, and it was the perfect full-throttle lead-in to star act.
Singing to backing tracks, Fifth Harmony took the stage with their hit “Boss” (or “Bo$$,” if you prefer the stylized version), a girl-power anthem that includes a tribute to Michelle Obama. Wearing blue sequined outfits cut similar to what you’d see on a chorus line, they kept it simple. There was just enough glitz to remind you the group is getting big, but not so much that it distracts from their best asset: their voices. Fifth Harmony’s choreography was sharp but not showy. Their outfits were sleek but not sexualized. Even their stage – with mirrored steps, five tall and narrow video screens and sixteen umbrella lights lining the sides and hanging overhead – was just restrained enough to keep the focus on the performers.
And perform, they did. Cowell, unsurprisingly, was onto something smart when he recognized their voices would blend. Even with occasional sound troubles that seemed to briefly throw them off, the group’s vocal powers were on full display in “Like Mariah” (a tribute to Mariah Carey) and the ballad “Who Are You,” where Hernandez’ range and power especially stands out.
So, where does Fifth Harmony fit in the landscape of girl-group legends? They don’t have the global starpower of Spice Girls, and probably never will. The music business is far too diversified and fan-driven today compared to the late ‘90s, when record executives could Spice up our world whether we wanted them too or not.
They probably don’t have the superstar-in-training that Destiny’s Child did in Beyoncé; Fifth Harmony truly has no “frontwoman.” And they don’t expose the deep cultural roots of TLC — at least not yet. But what Fifth Harmony does have is five incredible vocalists and a deeply devoted, adoring and influential tween and teen fan base. Today, that’s what a music act needs, which may mean that Fifth Harmony’s story is still in the opening phase.