‘Reflection’: Fifth Harmony Makes An Instagram Ready, Reference Heavy Debut (Album Review)

Fifth Harmony

Each generation gets the girl group that they deserve, and today’s teens have Fifth Harmony.

Sure, there’s also Little Mix in the UK, and a whole bunch of fierce female troupes like 2NE1 and Girls’ Generation further on in the East, but no other girl group feels more authentically representative of The State Of The Youth Today than 5H…for better or worse: They are the generation of selfie sticks, hashtags, Tumblr reblogs and Vine famous celebs on fleek — which has all been captured within one LP.

The release of Reflection is nearly three years in the making, and it’s truly a wonder that it even happened in the first place.

Following a turbulent run as finalists on X Factor USA Season 2, having endured Britney‘s ruthless side-eye, the girls kicked off their post-reality TV career with their Better Together EP in late 2013. The collection, a straightforward pop set of fizzy, girlish delight for the Demi Lovato generation, from their anthemic kiss-off “Miss Movin’ On” to the Demi-lite wailer “Leave My Heart Out of This” to the deliriously dumb, name-dropping sleepover jam “Me & My Girls.”

Yet the songs never elevated past their feverishly obsessive Internet fan base and onto radio, which led to a sonic reinvention.

With “Bo$$,” the girls took a turn into #SomethingMoreUrban territory, doing the nae nae (an embarrassingly outdated reference already) and invoking the name of Oprah and First Lady Michelle Obama across Burlesque-lite finger snaps, brass and big beats in a burst of catchy, campy female self-empowerment. Lyrically, it was a mess — but the girls had no doubt grown better. And sassier.

Then came “Sledgehammer,” a return to a more pure, polished pop sound. The lush, ’80’s-leaning synth-pop earworm climbed to #40 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming their most successful single to date.

Where radio has largely left them cold, the 5H girls have largely been buoyed by new media — mainly, an intensely faithful online fan base which has championed the girls for years, from trending topics to a fan voted-Artist To Watch Award at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards, besting bigger acts like Charli XCX and Sam Smith.

And perhaps that intensely loyal online fandom is part of why Reflection feels like a mirror being held up against their Twitter timelines: Too often, the girls awkwardly trip over Instagram speak, as with the cringeworthy “Them Girls Be Like” (“Do you ever post your pics with no filter?/Hashtag I woke up like this too!”), and succumb to mindless teen talk on title track “Reflection,” using phrases already gone out of style before the album’s even done playing. (“Flex! Turn up! Don’t need no filters before you post it on the ‘gram!”)

Granted, The Spice Girls had some pretty dumb lyrics in their time, too. The only difference? No one knew what a “zig-a-zig-ah” was before the girls. They coined the phrase…not the other way around. It’s painfully obvious that all this #relevant speak has been carefully curated in label boardrooms — the equivalent of all those godawful “bae” brand tweets.

Even when the subject matter falls short, the girls’ voices generally still shine: Each Harmony member is featured pretty prominently throughout the LP. Sure, mini-diva Camila gets more microphone time — her voice is the most distinct, like a tiny R&B chipmunk — but it’s clear that all these girls all command solid pipes as individual singers.

While developing as a group post-X Factor, the girls impressed with covers of unexpectedly mature material, including Lana Del Rey‘s “American” and Frank Ocean‘s “Thinkin ‘Bout You.” But somewhere along the way, their left-leaning edginess (for a teen girl group, anyway) turned into more predictable bids for radio relevancy.

Reflection often plays like a tribute album packed full of references, from the hat tip to Destiny’s Child‘s “Bootylicious” at the start of the Meghan Trainor-assisted “Brave Honest Beautiful” to “Body Rock,” a cheap knock-off of Jennifer Lopez‘s “On The Floor” — which also happens to interpolate Dirty Dancing‘s “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life.”

But wait — there’s more! “We Know” samples DeBarge‘s “A Dream.” “This Is How We Roll” shamelessly bites the beat of will.i.am and Britney‘s “Scream & Shout.” “Top Down” breezily cruises down the road like a Kidz Bop take on Danity Kane‘s “Show Stopper.” “Worth It” is the younger, self-empowered sister of Jason Derulo “Talk Dirty.” Hell, even “Suga Mama” feels like something Jessica Mauboy churned out years ago.

When the group’s not referencing pop acts in the production, they’re calling ’em out by name: “Like Mariah,” an “Always Be My Baby”-sampling homage to the Elusive Chanteuse herself, uses Mimi to melodically frame their boy-crazy swooning. And deeper into “Brave Honest Beautiful” is a handy diva checklist in the chorus: “You can dance like Beyoncé, you can shake like Shakira/’Cause you’re brave, you’re fearless and you’re beautiful/Whine like Rihanna, go and pose like Madonna ’cause you’re brave, you’re honest and you’re beautiful!”

The problem with all this referencing and sampling, however, is that it all starts to feel like…well, teenage karaoke.

That’s not to say there aren’t a decent amount of redeeming tracks: “Worth It” might be a reductive Derulo monster, but it’s still great fun to hear the girls embrace their inner Freak Harmony. And the clap-heavy Flict deluxe track “Going Nowhere” is pure mid-’00’s throwback R&B-pop fire, playing like a cross between JoJo and pre-break up Danity Kane, filled with hi-hats and fiery vocals: “Boy, you better act like you got some sense/’Cause you got a dime and it’s money well spent!” Of course, the synth-filled “Sledgehammer” still hits as hard as ever as the album’s best moment. It’s just a shame they didn’t continue down in this direction rather than, say, “Them Girls Be Like.”

There are also some hints of depth down the road: The nearly acoustic “We Know,” especially, provides a peek at the genuinely talented girl group lying underneath the album’s more tired trend-hopping tunes, while “Everlasting Love,” which is almost certainly a leftover from Ariana Grande’s latest album, bring a kind of early ’90’s R&B nostalgia (which none of them are old enough to remember) in a sweet-sounding way.

Homage is a wonderful thing from time to time, but at a certain point, it’s hard to justify why we shouldn’t just be listening to the artists they’re referencing in all of these songs: “Brave Honest Beautiful” is no “Bootylicious,” and “Top Down” certainly has nothing on “Show Stopper.” And why bother with “This Is How We Roll” when Brit Brit’s already turned that shit up? As a result, Reflection feels less like a defining statement and more like the awkward growing pains of a girl group sifting through their iPod, still struggling to find their own voice in an already overcrowded industry.

What Fifth Harmony really needs now is to log off of Twitter and ditch the clumsy attempts to replicate past and present hits, take a good, hard look at the reflection in that mirror and find their own sound on the next go-around — one with a longer shelf life than a Vine.

After all, they’re worth it.

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‘Reflection’ was released on February 3. (iTunes)

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