Huddled in the Trojans’ locker room at USC’s Galen Center, the members of Little Mix were describing a determination to win that’s “almost desperate,” as Leigh-Anne Pinnock said with a laugh.
“In terms of wanting it,” Jesy Nelson added, “we’re hungrier than we’ve ever been.”
The game they’re playing? Not basketball but pop music.
Since forming in 2011 on the British edition of “The X Factor,” Little Mix has become one of the most successful acts in Britain, with four No. 1 singles, clothing and fragrance lines and more than a billion streams on YouTube and Spotify.
Two years ago, when the quartet’s Perrie Edwards broke up with Zayn Malik (formerly of One Direction), the gossip news was as big across the pond as Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez’s split was here.
Yet so far, Little Mix, which also includes Jade Thirlwall, hasn’t quite cracked the United States, a market that’s proved stubbornly inhospitable to nearly every English girl group since the Spice Girls in the mid-1990s. (Pour some out for the Sugababes and Girls Aloud.)
“We feel like we’re making it everywhere else, but this is the one place that’s just so bloody hard!” Pinnock said, slapping a table for emphasis. “The country is so big, and we just haven’t had the time to properly do it. But that’s the dream.”
Fortunately for Pinnock and her bandmates, their moment may have arrived. Last year, the hugely popular One Direction went on hiatus, which created an opening for a British act in the U.S.; then, more significantly, Camila Cabello left Fifth Harmony, destabilizing that American girl group just as it was establishing a foothold on Top 40 radio with its hit “Work From Home.”
“Being in the right place at the right time — it’s obviously key,” Thirlwall said.
Little Mix has seized the opportunity, taking a gig as an opening act on Ariana Grande’s current tour even though it’s used to headlining arenas at home; the tour stops Thursday at Anaheim’s Honda Center and Friday at the Forum. And earlier this month, the women flew to Los Angeles after a show in Detroit to perform on Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards.
“I don’t even know where I am half the time,” Nelson said during a break in rehearsals at the Galen Center. Oversize sunglasses guarded her weary eyes from the harsh fluorescent light; beside her, Thirlwall wore her long hair tucked beneath a Jack Daniel’s trucker hat.
Musically, Little Mix stuck mostly to its appealing teen-pop formula for “Glory Days,” the group’s fourth full-length, which came out in November and topped the British album chart. The stomping “Shout Out to My Ex,” widely thought to be about Malik, sounds like a female version of One Direction’s “Story of My Life,” which itself sounds like a teen-pop version of something by Mumford & Sons.
But the women admit they tried to channel a distinctly American vibe with the slinky, R&B-leaning “Touch.”
“When we put the radio on here, it’s always Drake or Justin Bieber,” Pinnock said. “We definitely had that in mind.”
If Little Mix is facing specific challenges as a British import looking to compete with the homegrown likes of Grande and Gomez, the group’s members also know the struggles familiar to any young female pop star.
“Shout Out to My Ex,” for instance, scandalized some with a lyric in which Edwards says she hopes her ex’s new lover is “getting better sex” than she did.
“We’re 23, 25 years old now, but people still see us as little girls,” Thirlwall said. “It’s like, ‘We have sex, darling — we’re women.’ ”
They also feel the pressure to make themselves accessible on social media.
“We always think about this — like, what was it like for the Spice Girls?” said Edwards, whose understanding of the celebrity-industrial complex runs deep, given her connection to Malik.
“It was probably easier back then,” Thirlwall replied. “Not everything was so scrutinized.”
Even so, she added, the Internet has been a “massive” driver of what renown Little Mix has managed to develop in the U.S., with fans sharing photos, music videos and clips of splashy awards-show performances like the one the group gave of “Shout Out to My Ex” at last month’s Brit Awards in London.
“I don’t think I can describe how nervous we were about that,” Nelson said of the performance, which involved the singers interacting with dozens of dancers. Preparations were rushed, and there were problems with their costumes. “But somehow, it all came together in the end.”
That victory wasn’t Little Mix’s only one that night: “Shout Out to My Ex” also earned the group its first Brit Award, beating out tunes by Coldplay and Calvin Harris — not to mention Malik — for British single.
“We used to sit in the audience at the Brits and watch all these incredible artists and be like, ‘One day, we’re gonna be up there,’ ” Nelson said.
Maybe the Grammys will be next?
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