Girls Aloud were two bands uneasily sharing one career. They were the TV competition winners who kept one foot in the light entertainment paddock, reliably putting out a cover version whenever a telethon required it. And they were the pop band – what a pop band! – who teamed up with Xenomania to treat ‘manufactured pop’ as a raid on a lego factory. That Girls Aloud smashed bright-coloured pieces together in combinations which couldn’t possibly work but somehow always did and topped them with a flurry of impressionistic one-liners, cut-up postcards and magpie gleanings from the mess and delight of modern living.

Pro-pop critics – me included – liked to pretend that the modernist pop Girls Aloud was the only one who counted, quietly and collectively agreeing not to let a “See The Day” or “I’ll Stand By You” spoil the band’s parade. But when it comes to a project like Popular, that isn’t possible. After three of the group’s most sparkling, startling pop singles stalled at No.2, it’s “I’ll Stand By You” that goes one better.

That might be because of the extra marketing muscle that came with a charity song – it was the 2004 Children In Need single. It might also be because it was almost Christmas and the public just liked a big, cosy, familiar ballad more than whatever five-chorus electro-skiffle oddity was under the Xenomania tree. On this conservative reading, the remarkable thing isn’t that “Love Machine” or “The Show” failed to hit the top where this did, it’s that they came so very close.

And it’s also quite possible that the division I’ve outlined just isn’t one most of the group’s fans or single buyers would have even recognised – for them the dinosaur ballads and the robot pop were all part of the same enjoyable package. (One thing to be said for this is that a pop band’s label will demand ballads, and they weren’t Xenomania’s strong point as writers and producers – why wouldn’t you outsource the slow numbers?). So let’s try and treat “I’ll Stand By You” as not a tiresome aberration, just the next Girls Aloud single. How well does it work?

Brian Higgins’ production team reportedly toyed with a dramatic reworking of The Pretenders’ power ballad before deciding that a straightforward version would do the job better. They were right: the original already has everything you could possibly want from a huge, end-of-year, charity weepie. Even in 1994, in the waning glory years of the power ballad era, “I’ll Stand By You” was notably stately, its pledge of support without limit brought to somewhat gruelling life by its unending tramp of piano chords.

But “I’ll Stand By You” gains a degree of stature from who’s making it. Like “Everybody Hurts”, it finds a veteran songwriter and alternative darling taking on the stadium ballad form like it’s a personal challenge: what of herself can Chrissie Hynde find in a sound this huge? Her answer was what it’s always been – that voice. World-weary even on her debut, by 1994 she could manipulate her flows of exhaustion and strength with easy precision. “I’ll Stand By You” is a showcase for Hynde as her own interpreter, selling the grit in the song, finding a twist of conversation where another singer might just find bombast. The bits that stick in my mind, unusually for a song with such a juggernaut chorus, are the parts in the verses which feel most personal – “if you’re mad get mad”, “I’m a lot like you”.

This means Girls Aloud have the same issue Westlife did on “Against All Odds” – the song doesn’t just happen to be written for a solo singer, it draws a lot of its emotional weight from the sense of that singer taking on this burden by themselves. But unlike Westlife’s song, the meaning here doesn’t break entirely when five voices step into the place of one, it just shifts. The Girls Aloud choruses are soothing where The Pretenders are obdurate, turning the song into one of more simple comfort.

The problem is more with the verses. Girls Aloud can sing – it’s why they exist in the first place, and in a way “I’ll Stand By You” is them going back to their competitive roots, splitting the song’s verses up across the band in a relay. It’s a pleasant thing, this reminder they could still do that original job. But there’s no line reading here as interesting as the original, no sense that the group have got into the bones of the song.

And that’s the real difference between Girls Aloud the metapop poster girls and Girls Aloud the dutiful balladeers – even if they aren’t a group you go to for individual showcases, collectively, on their best singles, they do inhabit the songs, sharing in the material’s delight in its own panache. Yes, they could have fulfilled their 2002 brief, but they didn’t, and every time they’re forced back to that world they sound ordinary.

Score: 4

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