Looked at one way, this had to happen. Reality TV pop shows weren’t going away. Lightning had struck for Hear’Say, then again for Liberty X, then so often for Pop Idol that you’d think Zeus had the ITV voting lines on speed dial. The maths of it was simple enough: the audience mobilised for reality shows was multiples larger than the crowds pop could normally draw for a new release. Anything a winner released would get to number one. Simon Cowell (and gang) had hacked the charts.

But in doing so they’d also surrendered control. If winning a reality show was the golden ticket, and what you released after didn’t matter, then the winners’ single could get away with far more drama and delight than Cowell’s starchy definition of pop allowed. Critics, me included, who gasped in excited shock when they heard “Sound Of The Underground” – it’s reality TV pop, but good – hadn’t twigged that this outcome was always a possibility. Once you shatter the link between quality – however conservatively measured – and results, you create an opportunity for anything, great or touch-my-bum awful, that’s blocked by the usual filters.

You can make too much of this idea – “Sound Of The Underground” is a superb pop record, but it’s not a revolution. From another angle, it’s cynically 2002. Puretone’s “Addicted To Bass”, which shares Dick Dale-goes-Drum’n’Bass chimera DNA with “Sound”, had got to Number 2 in January. Songwriters Xenomania – Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper – were picked because they’d already had a Number 1 with Sugababes’ “Round Round”.

And yet “Sound” clearly improves on both those tracks. “Addicted To Bass” is breakneck fun, but it’s all concept and attitude and not much song once the dust clears – Xenomania borrow its ideas and use them to soup up what was already a sprightly, hooky tune. “Round Round”’s intrigue lay in its mantric chorus and circular structure but also in the job it did to establish the Sugababes as a brand – its aura of distanced cool means it can’t be as eager to please and surprise as “Sound Of The Underground” is.

“Sound Of The Underground” does, in fact, establish the Girls Aloud brand, though that wasn’t clear right away. Its immediate job was to win the competition within a competition that ended Popstars: The Rivals, by beating boyband One True Voice’s “Sacred Trust” to Number 1. The ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ gimmick could easily have been an experiment in proving every feminist dictum about male mediocrity and undeserved success. “Sacred Trust” is an affable, mid-paced blob of a song, by lads whose happy-to-be-here vibe crumpled to injured bafflement when it became obvious how badly they’d been outclassed. “Sound” wasn’t just good because it could be; it had to be.

Even then, what were the girls really going to win? A few weeks into Popstars: The Rivals, Hear’Say announced a split, citing “abuse from the public” and with their label cooling on them. Their magnesium-flare career set a boundary on any reality TV group’s ambition – whoever won the Rivals, it would be a short victory, however beautiful.

Most reality TV winners have followed the precedent. Girls Aloud did not. Here we are looking with hindsight at one of the most beloved and successful pop groups of their decade, and “Sound Of The Underground” isn’t just a pop song, it’s the First Girls Aloud Song.

What does that mean? The band, Higgins remembered, were politely sceptical when he and Cooper played them their winning song – they “liked their R&B and Mariah ballads”, and expected something along those lines. As their career continued, and Xenomania took on full songwriting and production duties, the relationship became far closer – the group became Cooper and Higgins’ muses, and both band and songwriters quickly and jointly evolved their ideas about what a Girls Aloud song might do.

A Girls Aloud song might suddenly shift style and dynamics mid-song (“Biology”); it might feel like a layer-cakes of part-finished tracks (“Sexy! No No No”). It might spring left into pastiche (“Love Machine”). It might play structural games – delaying the chorus until halfway (“Biology” again), or letting two of them fight it out (“The Show”). The lyrics would be just as elliptical, jumping trains of thought, dodging narrative, pouring out feelings but remaining somehow elusive. Mixed-up signs, as “Sound Of The Underground” put it first.

What held it all together was a promise, mostly kept, that every new single would try something different, and the girls themselves. Cheryl, Nicola, Sarah, Nadine and Kimberley’s performing, enacting, inhabiting of the songs was the guarantee that this wasn’t some aloof exercise in game-playing pop-craft, but a method for making vignettes of 21st century life and love, in all its oblique, keenly felt, confusion. The surface inventiveness would beckon you in to where a half-line could make you shiver or blush.

On “Sound Of The Underground”, for me that line is “into the overflow / where the girls get down to the sound of the radio”, an evocation of some Morlock subterranea where girls (the band, their friends, their voters, all girls anywhere) go to listen, dance, hang out. It drags the Underground metaphor out of the realm of taste and knowledge and into the world of secret bonds and dens and communions. Girls, Allowed. It appears when the track is past its punchy verses, with their crisply sung lines and karate-chop drum breaks, and into the rolling release of the chorus, a thrilling mine-train descent into this secret world.

If this was all there had been, it would still be a coup. As it was, there was so much more. But to go back to the idea that winning a reality TV show was a license to innovate – one few took – the sad truth is that for most of their career Girls Aloud were an exception, not an example. “Sound” is the only one of their most famously inventive singles to hit Number 1, and we’ll meet their best work in the comments, as sharply enjoyable rebukes to the less imaginative music which outsold them.

“The broadsheets were amazing”, Higgins reflected later, but radio kept its suspicion of his TV stars turned critics’ darlings, which limited their airplay. More fool the playlisters, you might say, but in a funny way they were right. What let Girls Aloud stay fresh was the way Xenomania helped keep faith with one original promise of reality TV shows – that it was a way to see what happened when ordinary people were pushed into an outlandish adventure. The group stayed ordinary, the songs offered new adventures every time, the results were electrifying.

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