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By Larisha Paul
An eponymous album marks a major moment in an artist’s career. For women, owning one’s work, body, and artistry can be especially powerful, even political. Throughout Women’s History Month, MTV News is highlighting some of these iconic statements from some of the biggest artists on the globe. This is Self-Titled.
The cards were stacked against Fifth Harmony from the beginning. From the time that Normani, Lauren Jauregui, Ally Brooke, Dinah Jane, and Camila Cabello were wrangled into a girl group by Simon Cowell like a gender-swapped One Direction after auditioning as soloists on The X Factor in 2012, any intention of each member establishing distinct identities as performers had been thwarted. Even if only momentarily, the presence of Fifth Harmony as key players in an orchestrated pop machine required these women, only between 15 and 19 years old at the time, to trade their individualism for a shot at success before they had a chance to explore the complexities they were sacrificing.
Unknowingly, Fifth Harmony were also inheriting the low retention rate of girl groups in American popular music, which has long been driven by the misogynistic belief that multiple women couldn’t function on a collaborative level without falling out with one another in a fight for the spotlight. It wasn’t a fair hand to have been dealt, but it gave them something to prove. After spending their formative teenage years being compared to one another while filling in pre-shaped pop molds, Fifth Harmony looked inward on their third and subsequently final album Fifth Harmony and restored the confidence in their voices that had been hidden beneath years of being kept quiet.
For their first two album cycles, 2015’s Reflection and 2016’s 24/7, the five-piece worked the pop machine, churning out more formulaic chart contenders loaded with timely cultural references. When the latter record’s lead single, “Work From Home,” became their biggest hit to date, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, there was a faint glimmer of hope for the future of Fifth Harmony as genre titans. But when Cabello announced her departure to pursue a solo career in late 2016 in a less-than-amicable split, the prophecy of failure endowed to Fifth Harmony seemed inevitably set in motion. At the time, Epic Records hadn’t yet locked in a third album for the group, but didn’t the four-piece at least deserve a chance to show that their framework as performers hadn’t been completely dismantled?
For the first time since their 2013 debut EP Better Together, Fifth Harmony were offered a meaningful role in the songwriting process for their self-titled record. In four years, across two albums, the group’s members were only credited on one song: “All in My Head (Flex),” where their names appeared alongside 17 others. At some point early on, the business of Fifth Harmony became one of hit-chasing to establish their presence in pop music, then sacrificing the opportunity to bolster their skills as musicians in order to maintain that presence. “They don’t give you time to breathe or enjoy what you’re doing, or to even allow it to grow into something anymore,” Jauregui told the “Zach Sang Show” in 2018, after the group announced their indefinite hiatus. “If it didn’t chart within the first five minutes of it being released, like, it’s a flop.”
Maybe their label was afraid that giving Fifth Harmony a megaphone to voice the reality of their experiences as young women coming of age in the group wouldn’t make for catchy radio hits. But by the time they had reached Fifth Harmony in 2017, the four-piece were as much business women as they were performers. They knew how to play the game. Even if getting into the studio to put pen to paper didn’t yield hyper-personal explorations within song, it was more about the authority of establishing and exercising an essential role in that space — about proving that they could add their own flare to the formula, too.
Brooke and Normani led the charge on the flirtatious “Make You Mad,” which evenly divides up the vocal spotlight over snappy production. The hypnotic chant of the chorus exudes power and confidence with a promise that there’s no one quite like them. But just a few spaces down on the tracklist, the pair pull the curtain back for a more vulnerable lyrical performance about embracing insecurities on “Messy.” Normani and Jane set the bar high on “Lonely Night,” making self-worth a priority over fleeting pleasure, while Brooke and Jauregui make the group the life of the party on the forward “Sauced Up.” But it’s on “Bridges” that Fifth Harmony adeptly joins as a collective to comment on a tumultuous political landscape taking aim at individuality.
In late 2016, Jauregui published a letter ahead of the presidential election in which she declared that her identity as a bisexual, Cuban-American woman would never be a point of shame in the face of hate. Throughout the promotion of Fifth Harmony, the singer more openly embraced that selfhood, though felt it was too personal an experience to share through four voices, rather than simply her own. At the same time, Normani began opening up about the isolation of being the only Black woman in the group, even having to step back from social media after an onslaught of racist hate flooded her mentions. For the group’s music to have been intertwined so deeply with trends in R&B and hip-hop — the music she grew up on in New Orleans and Houston — Normani deserved more than to have her identity diluted for any collective benefit.
One of the greatest shortcomings of Fifth Harmony becoming the biggest girl group to dominate since the Spice Girls was the orchestrated need to flatten the identities of these women that, in one way or another, mirrored that of their young, predominantly female audience. They were too complex to have been kept from vocalizing their perspectives, whether they had been completely barred from doing so or simply stripped of the confidence that would allow them to. But once they were given the chance on Fifth Harmony, in tandem with an embracing of their sexuality and autonomy, a fire was ignited that primed each member for solo success. When they couldn’t make loud declarations as writers, they locked into a sense of authority as performers.
If a lyric didn’t feel right, they didn’t have to sing it. If a dance move felt like too much, or not enough, they could implement their own changes as leaders rather than puppets. When they sang, “Gotta keep it on one hundred with ya / The original me wouldn’t fuck with ya” on “Angel,” it was clear that a necessary transition of power had been made. Ahead of the album’s release, Jane told the Los Angeles Times: “We are being more respected this time around. We are in a place where we know what we want and who we are. We’ve recognized our truth and what we have to offer — and our power.”