Sugababes – About A Girl

Released: 9th November 2009

Writers: Makeba Riddick / Nadir Khayat

Peak position: #8

Chart run: 8-13-23-34-37-62-66-62

About A Girl was always likely to create a certain degree of controversy since the prospect of Sugababes working with RedOne would prove divisive among fans and critics. But the song soon started making headlines for a different reason altogether…

Even if the Sugababes’ seventh album – Sweet 7 – had not been overshadowed by yet another line-up change, it would still have been one of the most fascinating eras of their career. Having signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, it was not unreasonably presumed the group may be eyeing up a possible relaunch in America (Hole In The Head reached #96 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2004). Not least because that’s precisely what they announced they were planning to do. However, the Sugababes’ management – Crown Music – later denied that was ever the intention, stating Roc Nation were only ever going to oversee the creative direction of the album. Essentially, it was a short-term deal that gave the group access to writers and producers like Ne-Yo, Garibay and Stargate. Accepting that as the truth, it’s unclear why the Sugababes suddenly wanted to start creating American-sounding music for a predominantly British audience when it was already widely available elsewhere.

Nonetheless, it was a decision that appeared to be validated when the lead single, Get Sexy, peaked at #2. Shortly afterwards, the group premiered About A Girl on Radio 1 (the original still exists) and headed to Los Angeles the following week to shoot the video. Then, reports of tension between Keisha and Amelle started to emerge. At first, it seemed like the usual baseless speculation that came in cycles for most pop acts. But the details became increasingly precise: Amelle had allegedly quit, and Jade Ewen – the UK’s Eurovision entry earlier that year – was lined up as her replacement. That was too random to have been made up; it was evident something had gone down.

The rumours didn’t capture the full extent of what was happening because Amelle and Heidi had both left. Somewhat inevitably, that meant the blame was ascribed to Keisha, though a fairer summation is probably that none of the group was pleased to be in such a situation. As things stood, this surely would’ve been the end of the Sugababes (though nothing would’ve been a surprise by this point). So, the group’s management instead ordered Keisha to leave, which blindsided everyone. It’s not unreasonable to argue that this was, in many respects, also the end of the Sugababes. Though from a continuity perspective, it would’ve been the least worst option for Crown Music because it left them with two-thirds of a pop group, at least.

As the reports had already indicated, Jade Ewen was quickly drafted in to replace Keisha, and she rarely gets credit for what must have been a massive decision to make in a short time frame. There were immediate consequences because it meant sacrificing her solo career the same week as releasing her second single, My Man (it peaked at #35). Jade flew to Los Angeles, not necessarily knowing what she was walking into, but can have been under no illusions that this was going to be an easy gig. Two days after meeting Heidi and Amelle, the video shoot for About A Girl went ahead. There’d been line-up changes before, and the speed with which this one took place – questionable though it was – would be commendable, except this time, it felt messy. Amelle joining the group and almost immediately fronting a greatest hits where her vocals only featured on three songs had already raised some existential questions about what the Sugababes represented. But Keisha’s departure crossed a line from which it would be tough to recover credibility if indeed they ever could.

Yet, it’s entirely possible to sidestep that scepticism for just a moment with About A Girl because it’s such a great track. Hastily re-recorded to include Jade’s vocals, she delivers a trademark: “RedOne…Sugababes” intro atop throbbing, energetic synths, followed by a distorted: “Girls bring the fun of life, sugar like apple pie, let’s have a party, y’all” from Amelle. And then the beat drops to reveal a thumping anthem, which lives up to the promise of this collaboration in every respect (except for those who felt Sugababes and RedOne should never have worked together in the first place).

Parts of the song, like the pre-chorus: “We like them lights (yeah we love it), stars and stripes (l-l-love it), all night (yeah we love it), I can see…” do lean into the notion that Sweet 7 was an attempt to woo American audiences. But the delivery sticks close to what can still be considered quintessentially Sugababes. Heidi is the presence of cool confidence (“You think I’m sexy, huh? I’m international, think you can make me fall? What do you know?”), and she delivers a cutting brush off during the middle-eight: “Beauty like you never saw, take your number never call, bite the apple take your heart” that is utterly brutal, yet performed with a knowing glint of sweetness.

The hook-laden chorus submits to RedOne’s style of songwriting in that it brings the essence of the lyrical themes together as a focal point of the track and expresses them, in part, through non-lexical vocables: “You don’t know about a girl, I’ll take over the world, and I’m gonna party like woah-oh-oh-oh-oh; you don’t know about a girl, the meaning of the word ‘cos we just wanna party like woah-oh-oh-oh-oh”. They don’t objectively mean anything, yet somehow convey precisely what About A Girl is trying to say. Some may have felt that was a slightly reductive approach for the Sugababes to take, particularly when coupled with a refrain of: “So we gon’ sing it oh-oh ha-ay-ah oh-oh ha-ay-oh; oh-oh ha-ay-ah oh-oh ha-ay-oh” but proved to be an immensely catchy – and often very successful – device.

The accompanying music video for About A Girl is very much a product of the uncertainty surrounding the Sugababes in that it’s a brilliant concept, which ended up being executed quite chaotically. As intended, it was styled on Kill Bill and was supposed to feature the group taking part in action-packed sequences where they fight a group of dodgy businessmen in the desert. However, nobody knew which of the Sugababes – if any – would be available for the shoot, so their stunt doubles were used instead. That created a few complications, the most immediately obvious being their likeness to Amelle, Heidi and Keisha. The video also opens with spoken dialogue between the men, which later turns into subtitles when interacting with the stand-ins. That might have happened anyway, but it seems at least partly dictated by the circumstances. The fight scenes themselves are terrific as a business exchange in a caravan turns gratuitously violent (although by Kill Bill standards, it’s understandably tame). It effectively sells a storyline beat that the women are more than capable of physically overpowering the businessmen rather than relying on provocation and feminine wiles.

That, instead, is where Amelle, Heidi and Jade come in because the footage they shot uses the same location and set pieces but without any extras for them to interact with. So, they’re left to drape themselves seductively over the scenery with some bum-slapping choreography that is iconic in as much as it feels distinctly like something the previous line-up would not have done. This is all slotted around the narrative, which cuts between them and their stand-ins, coming across as hoping nobody would notice. Even rationalising that the broader context in which the video had been made was widely known, it’s still quite bizarre to watch About A Girl try and pretend this was business as usual. Clearly, everyone involved muddled along as best they could, and what the visuals wanted to achieve was still evident. However, the plot ends up happening around the Sugababes, lacking the sass and attitude they’d have brought to it. If they’d participated as planned, then this video would probably be among the group’s best and possibly even created a bit of a pop culture moment for them.

Publicity certainly wasn’t an issue when About A Girl was eventually released, though inevitably, the group spent as much – if not more – time answering questions about their identity. The single peaked at #8 in the UK and eventually sold 109,000 copies, making it the Sugababes’ 11th biggest hit overall. That probably would have been regarded as a disappointment way back when the track first premiered, considering the number of acts queuing up eager to work with RedOne. However, given About A Girl was consumed – and directly impacted – by so much upheaval, the fact the song made it out the other side at all is nothing short of a miracle.

Sweet 7 was subsequently pushed back from its intended release date to be re-recorded with Jade Ewen’s vocals, but the Sugababes were now in a difficult position. The absence of any original members was routinely thrown back in their faces by interviewers, and it was evident how quickly that became a source of frustration for them. In the group’s defence, any line-up change – regardless of who had left – would likely have created a dubious reaction. But what crept in that had never been there before was Heidi, Amelle and Jade having to justify why they should still be regarded as Sugababes at all. It was a line of interrogation that made routine promotion at times tense, awkward and – for Heidi in particular – quite disrespectful.

About A Girl isn’t exempt from the debate; if anything, it’s probably the starting point. But the song is good enough to look past that for three and a half minutes, and maybe – just maybe – had it been delayed rather than hastily patched together, the Sugababes would’ve stood a fighting chance at a big comeback.

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