It’s been seven years since Little Mix were put together as a band, thanks to their turn on the UK reality show, The X-Factor. Together, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards, and Jesy Nelson have been one of the hardest working girl groups in the business; they’re not just a collection of singers, but they write and work in production on their songs. And they’ve sold 45 million records worldwide. With LM5, they have decided to take a stand in favor of feminism, in favor of body positivity, in favor of equality — in favor of women’s rights.
Pinnock and Thirlwall spoke to Refinery29 about the process of writing this album, the pushback they got from the (heavily male) music industry, and why they think it’s important to speak to their fans about equality and self-love.
Refinery29: LM5 is your fifth album and you’ve made a lot of strides forward in terms of your message and what you’re allowed to do. “Strip” and “Joan of Arc” are big statement songs. What made you want to speak out on so many issues?
Leigh-Anne Pinnock: “As we’ve gotten older, we’ve had so many more experiences in life and much more to write about. This is the album where we have felt like we didn’t have to hold back. We were as ballsy as we could be with this album. Part of it was being more confident as writers and feeling like we’re more likely to be listened to now than we were a few years ago. We’ve grown as women and feel more empowered than ever so we wanted to make sure we used to platform to write songs that mean something and encourage and raise awareness in our fans — especially our younger fans — to feel good about themselves and educate themselves. We have experienced sexism within the music industry as well as just from being in the public eye and having people comment on the way we look instead of on our music. For us, it felt like the right time. We made a conscious decisions to refocus on female empowerment and issues about women.”
Do you feel like we’re in the kind of landscape where you can’t make pop music unless its political? Or are politics just such a big part of the conversation for everyone that it makes sense to address it in your music now where maybe it didn’t before?
Leigh-Anne: “Probably a bit of both. Five years ago, songs like ‘Joan of Arc’ or ‘Woman’s World’ might not have been needed as much. But now, they are. We’re passionate about it ourselves and we have younger fans who are passionate about what’s going on. Now’s the time to talk about body image and how women are mistreated.”
Jade Thirlwall: “I feel like it’s impossible to ignore these issues and not talk about them. You can’t just keep singing about — we’ve always been a band who sing about things that mean something, we’ve always wanted to make people feel good about themselves. Speaking about female empowerment, that’s always been something that we have sung about along with boys and sex.”
Leigh-Anne: “And you can’t underestimate the power that we have. We have millions of followers and a lot of fans. A lot of pop artists know that and are aware that their influence can help their fans to make good decisions.”
What kind of reaction have you gotten to those songs?
Jade: “Our fans did not expect to hear it, especially ‘Joan of Arc.’ I don’t think they were ready for it. It’s so different for us, it’s a completely new sound. We decided that this album would be something we’d never done before, that we had to change things up, go to the next level. The reaction has been incredible, though.”
How did you decide that songs with this message of empowerment would be the next level for you?
Leigh-Anne: “It came naturally. We listened to our fans and what they wanted to hear us sing and write about. In the last year or so we’ve seen this surge of women speaking out and being heard, so that’s reflected in our music...At the beginning we had to work harder to be found credible when it’s so much easier for boys to make it in the industry. We were always told that girl bands don’t work, it was one of the first things we heard as a group when we were put together [on The X-Factor]. We proved so many people wrong. Our mentor on the show at the time had to fight to keep us in the competition because the producers wanted to get rid of us. Look at us now, seven years on.”
Do you still get pushback from people in the industry about your message? Or do you have enough autonomy at this point in your career to do what you want?
Leigh-Anne: “We still face sexism in the industry. We’ve been told what we should and shouldn’t do. We learned to put our foot down and make sure we are taken seriously as four strong women who have opinions. It’s been a struggle. There are still not enough powerful women in the industry compared to men and that needs to change. We’ve had our fair share of arguments with powerful men over what we want to do and how things should be done. I guess this album shows that we’re winning. There still is a lot that needs to be done in the music industry, but in terms of our careers we are in the driver’s seat more than ever because we speak up for ourselves, we stick together, and [we] make sure our opinions are treated as validly as any man’s. It’s very frustrating. It would be amazing to sit in a conference room and have the boss at the head of the room be a woman. Unfortunately, we’re yet to see it.”
I think it wasn’t taken seriously at the time but that idea back when the Spice Girls did it and talked about “girl power,” had a huge impact. Out in the mainstream, that message meant a lot to women who are now millennials and Gen Z. They take it very seriously.
Jade: “Yeah, and I feel like as well when the Spice Girls were out there wasn’t anyone flying the flag in that empowered female role for women. Knowing what we’re doing even with songs like ‘Salute’ [from our 2013 album], they’re so empowering. We’ve taken that rein in a way, I think. And it’s always been something we wanted to do. I hope that when our fans get older, they can say we were the ones who flew that flag for them.”
This interview was edited for clarity and length.