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The triumphant of return: how Sugababes reclaim their legacy

The triumphant of return: how Sugababes reclaim their legacy

Text: Aida Baghernejad

September 2000, I was eleven years old, coming of age out in Southern German sticks, looking forward to my twelfth birthday. Finally I’d get one year closer to the teenage life, one year closer to the what I imagined to be the real life, the exciting life I’d be dreaming about. Popular culture wasn’t yet playing a major role in my life: in elementary school, my friends and I adored the German girl rap crew Tic Tac Toe. But after they broke up publicly with a major fight during a press conference, that went quickly out the window. And while like any other human being on planet earth between the release of „Wannabe“ in 1994 and Geri Halliwell leaving the group in 1996, I was completely enthralled by the Icons that were the Spice Girls, they only seemed like a shadow of their former self as a quadruple. And even though Britney had just ascended to the Olymp of Popgoddess-dom, she seemed to sexy, to glamorous, to American to be relatable for a prepubertarian school girl somewhere in Hesse.

Later, I was gifted one of these monthly or quarterly compilation CDs popular in Germany named „Bravo Hits“ or „Just the Best“, but I would take a while for me to truly become a fan of an artist. Until they appeared: Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena and Siobhán Donaghy, better known as the Sugababes. „Train comes I dont know its destination, the three Londoners sang on „Overload“; their debut single released on September 11th, 2000. It was the beginning of Max Martin’s rise, of pop, that’s written in bold letters, that goes for a maximalist sound. But „Overload“ was the opposite of all that. The song wasn’t imitating enthusiasm and a saccharine sweet mood like for example their contemporaries S Club 7, and its hyper minimalist music video didn’t go for the in your face sexiness that were part and parcel of Christina Aguilera’s or Britney Spears’ image. On the contrary, the Sugababes always seemed nonchalant and relaxed, moody, melancholic and stoic at the same time. Their raspy voices sounded like they’d been through a lot, and the sound oscillated between pop and R’n’B, with soulful vocals and beats that were more than inspired by hip hop culture. Haunting, aloof, and cool they sang about being overwhelmed by having a crush. Think coming of age, but more that of a moody introvert than the exalted excitement doled out by „Baby One More Time“.

But all of that I only realised much later: with my less than mediocre English I’d learned at school, the only word I understood was „train“. But that didn’t matter, the vibe caught me immediately. I wanted to appear as cool and grown up as Keisha, Mutya and Siobhán – and saw my diverse environs, the people around me mirrored in them. While they weren’t as obviously casted as archetypical figures like the Spice Girls were a few years before and the German girl group No Angels a few months afterwards, I saw myself and my friends in the three women with different familial roots. Just like them, my friends and I, my whole community also looked far more „colourful“, as one would have said back then, than the German mainstream media landscape suggested German society to look like.

It is only today that I understand that this was, obviously, not a coincidence: Mutya and Siobhán were signed by the same talent agency, where they later met at a showcase and decided to band together. A short while later, Mutya Buena brought along her best friend Keisha Buchanan to a studio session – and their manager Ron Tom, of All Saints fame, decided that the three of them should form a trio. Why? As legend has it, he believed the young women looked like a „United Colors of Benetton“ campaign together.

Loving pop music always entails balancing its contradictions: pop music is art as well as business, it offers representation, but is also marred by racism. And there are few bands where this rings as true as it does for the Sugababes. Shortly after the release of „Overload“ and its accompanying album „One Touch“, Siobhán Donaghy left the band. She later opened up about suffering from depression, afterwards rumours about her being bullied by Buchanan made the rounds, which the label either couldn’t or didn’t want to repudiate.

„One Touch“ wasn’t a commercial success, the label dropped the band. But only seeing this part of the story doesn’t offer the whole picture: the three singers were just fifteen and sixteen at the time of its release, and not only did they impress with their vocals which seemed mature beyond their age, they also co-wrote all their songs, despite their young age.

And even though „Overload“ and „One Touch“ are today known as modern classics, they’d only achieve commercial success with the second incarnation of the band: Heidi Range, before a member of Atomic Kitten, would replace Siobhán Donaghy. Songs like „Freak like Me“ and „Hole in the Head“ would become chart hits, and propel the band into the mainstream – growing in popularity with every following album, at least until the mid-Noughties. With songs like “Push the Button”, or “About You Know”, the trio provided pop bangers that would become favourite sing-alongs of an entire generation. But the decision to replace one member of the band with the another singer like it wasn’t a big deal would quickly cement what would become a crucial part of the Sugababes story: members would be replaced and changed, accompanied by ugly rumours about bad moods and so-called „catfights“ – to use a sexist term that was thrown around at the time, and even made it into the title of their sixth record, “Catfights and Spotlights” – behind stage.

In 2009, Keisha Buchanan, then the last member of the original triple, was kicked out of the band. Another record, „Sweet 7“, was released – but without a single original member very few fans would give this new iteration of the band a chance. But the public was all the more excited, when rumours circulated that the original line up was about to reunite. At first, it was only a dream – but after 2012, it appeared to become true: Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena and Siobhán Donaghy were seen in public, were photographed at events together, and were even rumoured to have signed a record deal valued at one Million Pounds. The Guardian described an early gig at London’s Scala as „near religious“, and for their first comeback single, they collaborated with none other than Dev Hynes, also known as Blood Orange. All’s well that ends well, right?

Not quite: as they had not managed to wrestle back the „brand name“ Sugababes, they could only appear as „Mutya Keisha Siobhán“ – and after the initially muted response to „Flatlines“, their only recently finished album masters were leaked. The trio disappeared again for another decade.

But they would never be forgotten. Quite the opposite: in 2021, now finally under their original name Sugababes, they re-released their debut record to celebrate its 20 year anniversary. And it performed better in the charts than when it was first published. Artists like Dev Hynes and MGMT delivered Remixes, and the band would play bigger and more gigs than ever before in their history. At their show at Glastonbury in 2022, the Avalon stage had to be closed down as the bands’s draw proved to exceed anyone’s expectations.

Where is this excitement for the band, over 20 years after their complicated start, and with a history of rumours, scandals, and changes in their CV, coming from?

A gig at Boiler Room London in 2023 on Youtube gives a few hints: the band draws millennials, who grew up with the group and its complicated history, but also Gen Z, who know the sound from their childhood. Together, they form an ecstatic audience. But it’s not only nostalgia for a lost time, nostalgia for carelessness and lightness, and the resurgence of noughties aesthetics as scheduled in the trend cycle that has turned the Sugababes into icons of the contemporary – it’s also the feeling of rooting for the three women, who are all around their forties now, of standing behind them, being a community together. As Gen Z, as well as Millenials come of age, they rediscover the life-affirming and euphoric pop sound of the time which burst of positivity, hope, and optimism. This discovery however also comes with a reexamination of the culture of discrimination, sexism, and racism so rampant in the Noughties which female artists and particularly women of colour particularly suffered from. The return of the original Sugababes thus feels hopeful, life-affirming even, and as if a historical wrong could be righted, for once. Even though it may be a bit of a contradiction in this narrative of owning one’s own work that now Siobhán Donaghy takes over the parts originally sung by Heidi Range in songs like „Freak Like Me“ and „Round Round“, thus replacing her own replacement. In December 2023, the producer Joy Anonymous released a remix of “Push the Button” with new vocals by Siobhán, followed by another remix of the song by the Berlin-based DJ Heartstring – with the returned singer really making the song her own amidst the trance-y reinvention of the song, propelling the hit from 2005 into now.

Nevertheless, the story of the Sugababes, particularly their first iteration, is a also one of exploitation in the music industry. It’s a tale of tragedy, resilience, empowerment, and overcoming one’s own past to rewrite one’s history. Today, Mutya, Keisha and Siobhán speak about how they weren’t able to see each others exhaustion, fear, and pain as teenagers. How they were pitted against each other by industry figures. How the artistic project that meant so much to them, their bodies and voices, were simply perceived as a product by the industry. Sugababes was a brand where the personnel was utterly replaceable, they were nothing but surface onto which a more and more commercialised sound could be projected. A sound that, after the third record, aptly named „Three“, become more and more irrelevant with each and every new version of the band.

It was the sonic landscape of their debut that carries the band into the present: its minimalism combined with a mix of genres aged well. „Overload“ in particular still sounds fresh today. And even though the lyrics describe the first crush of a desperate school girl, they still appear authentic sung and performed by three grown women and mothers.

The Sugababes are back. The three young girls, who experienced the highs and the never-ending lows of the music industry in all its brutality, have become three grown-up women who tell their own story on their own terms and in in their own words. This alone should make us listen to them – and turn volume up for all they have to tell us, from the exuberant joy of “Push to Button” to the melancholy of “Overload”. And most importantly: their tale of survival and self-empowerment.

Text: Aida Baghernejad
Photo: Spyros Rennt
Video: Ozmoze
Audio: Sugababes – Push the button (DJ HEARTSTRING Remix)
Font: Terminal Grotesque by Raphaël Bastide, with the contribution of Jeremy Landes. Distributed by