Girls Aloud - Manchester Arena

Poor Javine. You remember Javine, right? If, as the defence would argue, that the phone polling for ITV’s Popstars: The Rivals was beyond reproach, then Javine was the unluckiest girl in the country back in 2002. As the boy group vs girl group reality show came to a close, six singers vied for one of the five places in a manufactured-by-viewers vocal group. Nadine, Nicola, Kimberley and Cheryl booked their spot and it came down to the final two. There was Sarah, the brassy Manc, gobby but good. And there was Javine, the series favourite, better than good, a soul belter generally recognised as the show’s strongest performer. As Davina McCall paused before the final announcement, Sarah slumped, heartbroken and resigned to a return to the Stockport pubs and clubs.

You know the rest. Don’t pretend you don’t. For the past decade, Girls Aloud have been going about breaking a tiny but significant portion of the rule book – the chapter that says girl groups don’t sell. With the US-breaking Spice Girls an anomaly still resisting scientific explanation, the challenge has been slimmed down but remains rock hard, nigh on impossible. With only the ever-mutating Sugababes and the The Saturdays having had a sniff, Girls Aloud have held their corner of the market in a commercial half-nelson. Even when they spend a couple of years dicking about with their own ‘projects’ to varying degrees of success, even something as limp as a second best-of (the platinum selling Ten) is springboard enough to fill the country’s arenas yet again.

Manchester isn’t quite full tonight – the rear of the upper tier is mostly curtained off – but they’re here for three nights. That’s the best part of 50,000 tickets at £37.50 a pop. They’ll sleep, you suspect. Note, too, the audience demographic and a notable shift away from kids with mums and (arms folded, grumpy) dads to gangs of women in their thirties, a healthy crop of gay guys and families with teens. Most of the kids are teens – there’s ya loyalty. And in Block 115, row H, seats 18 and 19, you’ll find father and daughter, the latter a five year old convert from the moment ‘Sound Of The Underground’ charted at number one in early 2003. “Wanna come see Girls Aloud with me?” A pause. Kiddie fandom made way for the dubious charms of indie pop years ago. But a freebie, and a potentially quality freebie at that, never loses its appeal. “Yeah, go on then...”

The Ten Tour: a ridiculous sack full of hits, then. They mostly play ‘em all. A career smartly overseen by Brian Higgins’ Xenomania outfit has given Girls Aloud a back catalogue both likeable and sharp. They might, to some, be plastic, grasping harpies but if, in the early to mid noughties, you were part of the target audience as either fan or parent of fan, they brought welcome glitter to the charts (while, of course, we still had bloody charts). You might even have, um, fancied a couple of them. Maybe. Tonight’s show, supported by a rock-solid band, a troupe of dancers and a dizzying, blinding level of spectacle that sees them air-lifted on a huge GA logo to a second stage at the rear of the arena, is as good a staging of a show of this type as you will see.

‘Love Machine’. ‘No Good Advice’. ‘Biology’. ‘Can’t Speak French’. ‘Untouchable’. Best of all, that unexpectedly chill ballad 'Life Got Cold'. It’s mega whizz-bang commercial pop sweet enough to rot your teeth from outside the venue but tuneful enough to grab your cool resistance by the throat. They might still parade and giggle like the pissed-up checkout assistants that fate, had it woken up in a worse mood, had perhaps intended for them to be but that’s hardly the point. They were never that slick. They’ve never set out to challenge or transport. And, coming back to the whole "Where were you when Javine got voted out?" conspiracy, they’ve never shown much in the way of soul. In many ways, they’re the ultimate embodiment of white girl pop, but, to their credit, staying always just an inch ahead of being white bread.

That sliver of cred has been challenged every now and then by their extra-curricular activities, sure. Chery’s solo (though aided and abetted by some popular pals) success aside, they’ve hardly shone on their own. But at least they have the common sense to understand what pays the bills. There’s the odd minor irritation tonight, though. Cheryl, officially now the proud owner of the world’s worst tattoos, gets the loudest cheers throughout but her own enthusiasm starts to irritate – we know we’re in Manchester, pet, please don’t keep reminding us. Then there’s that chest-thrusting shimmy she seems set on making her signature move which is less Girl Power and more Lad Indulgence. (A wag next to me: “She’d definitely make the best stripper.”) The set aims for perfect but a clutch of covers derails momentum: ‘I’ll Stand By You’ and ‘Jump’ are understandable enough but Carly Rae Jepsen's ‘Call Me Maybe’ is a little cynical and a lot unnecessary, especially as it highlights the only key omission of the night, the glorious Pet Shop Boys-penned ‘The Loving Kind’. Still, all told, petty trivialities.

The Girls Aloud live experience is a blast and irresistible - exceptionally well performed (you know they can actually sing, right?) and great, great fun. If, at the end, you spot a middle-aged fella and a teenage girl heading out with a skip in their step and big, daft smiles on their faces, just, you know, keep it to yourself. Alright? And don’t tell Javine, either.

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