Fifth Harmony And The Destructive Power of Fame

It’s time to let go of manufactured pop groups

Just before the holidays, Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello broke the hearts of Harmonizers worldwide when she pulled a Zayn and bowed out of the band, initially leaving only what seemed like an all-business statement behind.

Which was just the tip of the dramatic iceberg. On top of making the band’s name null and void, Cabello’s departure quickly began seeming a lot less amicable than the band wanted us to think — especially when the singer claimed she’d been let go from the group without her knowledge and 5H counterpointed with another statement insisting that Camila pulled the plug. Woof.

But the thing is, we’ve seen this all before. Especially because if there’s one thing to be gleaned from pop groups, it’s that they’re destined to either implode or boringly dissipate before eventually getting back together (when most members feel comfortable addressing former turmoil, misunderstandings, or the realities of being young and famous).

And yet we’re still surprised when somebody leaves or needs a break. We refresh Camila’s Instagram in hopes of answers or we comb through Zayn’s memoir looking for the smoking catalytic gun. We forget that in a few years, we’ll be granted a documentary like The Backstreet Boys’ or a tell-all interview like All Saints’. And we also forget that being a young person in such a high-pressure situation is probably terrible, and no one can sustain that type of momentum for long.

Which brings up the most important point: Why do we keep putting young pop singers through this? Why do we watch groups like Fifth Harmony compete on series like The X Factor and pretend we don’t know what will follow? At no point has any group — not The Beatles, The Monkees, nor New Kids on the Block — told us that their experiences as teen and twentysomething idols were healthy and balanced. Instead, we hear from Geri Horner (née Halliwell) that her time as Ginger Spice was spent battling with body image issues. Or we watch Nick Carter and friends reminisce about tirelessly practicing dance moves in a warehouse in Florida (before they cry about their residual ’90s-era frustrations). But we still seem shocked when someone says, “No thanks!” and opts out of group-dom.

Of course, incidences of infighting and heightened tensions aren’t contained to pop exclusively (see: every rock and roll band ever), but because of the spotlight we put on pop artists — and the spotlight they keep marinating under — we tend to see rumors, speculation, and our own armchair analyses perpetuate an overfamiliar cycle. Popularity leads to world domination which leads to increased pressures, tighter schedules, and group members’ inability to live out of the public eye. And while solo artists suffer the same realities, they’re not surrounded by their fellow musicians in the same way and can take a break from the persona they’ve adopted for the world stage. When together, One Direction always had to be One Direction. Little Mix must always be Little Mix. And Fifth Harmony was always Fifth Harmony, until it was not.

So while 5H’s evolution is not a breakup, it’s certainly reflective of a breaking point. And while Camila’s departure is understandably disappointing, it’s also just the next step in the pop group trajectory, another ticked box in the life-of-a-pop-group checklist. Next, they will announce their hiatus and explore their own creative endeavors before reforming in some capacity, where they will tell us all about the realities of life in Fifth Harmony circa 2016. And, likely around the same time, we’ll be shocked when another young pop group dissolves in the wake of them growing up and moving on.

But the thing is, the whole routine has gotten tiring. It’s tiring to watch as fans, and even more tiring to know that we’re putting young singers through an exercise that seems consistent in breaking people. While their music is solid, we know that X Factor–bred pop groups aren’t the same as a band formed organically in someone’s parents’ garage, particularly since the aforementioned seem to exist for the sake of making adults money. We’re watching young artists act as cogs in multibillion-dollar machines — ones not designed to let talent change or grow or creatively experiment, which obviously leads to implosion and tension and upset and breaking points. So what do we do?

Well, to start, we acknowledge the necessity of Camila’s departure. Not only was she and the group clearly unhappy with their current arrangement, but girlfriend might also have Zayn-levels of high notes to record on her own.

And then we look at our roles in the rise and fall of pop groups. At what point do our expectations become what makes our favorite artists feel trapped or pressured? How do we learn to take a step back and let singers start to creatively experiment (or take time off) without us sparking an uprising? Maybe it’s as simple as reciting a simple mantra: no matter what pop group members end up doing individually, history has taught us that they always come back.