Striking a pose to finish the first song in Fifth Harmony’s concert Sunday night at Club Nokia, Dinah Jane Hansen stumbled slightly on her high heels. The recovery came almost instantly, so quick that anyone paying only half-attention might’ve missed that she’d failed to stick the landing. But nobody at a Fifth Harmony concert is paying only half-attention.
Assembled by Simon Cowell in the same way he put together One Direction — by packaging five lackluster solo acts competing individually on “The X Factor” — this girl group commands an ultra-fervent following, one with a level of devotion out of proportion with (and dependent upon) Fifth Harmony’s limited mainstream impact. To idolize these young women, whose music largely concerns their will to succeed, is to identify with the idea that success hasn’t fully materialized yet.
So although I can’t be certain, I’m pretty sure it was Hansen’s wobble that inspired the guy next to me at Club Nokia to get back up after he crashed to the floor while dancing to Fifth Harmony’s second song. At that moment, his determination to be like Hansen exactly equaled Hansen’s determination to be like Ariana Grande or Mariah Carey — a powerful bonding agent between an appealingly rough-edged act and its fans.
Hansen and her mates aren’t the only strivers doggedly trailing the pop A-list. Among the similarly motivated that spring to mind are Rita Ora and Jessie J, two big-voiced Brits who keep pursuing the limelight despite a demonstrated lack of interest from American listeners. But where those singers have allowed the accrued disappointment of the last few years to sneak into their work, giving the music a slightly sour flavor, Fifth Harmony seems untouched by desperation. They’re thirsty, no doubt about it, but they don’t sound like they are, which makes all the difference.
On “Reflection,” the group’s debut album, which came out last month, what comes through is its exuberance, a teenaged enthusiasm that grows only stronger when the singers put a name to their ambition, as in “Boss,” where they envision a “purse so heavy, getting Oprah dollars,” and “Like Mariah,” which liberally samples Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” and requires no explanation.
Even in songs that aren’t specifically about reaching new levels of fierceness — like “Sledgehammer,” Fifth Harmony’s biggest hit, and “Don’t Wanna Dance Alone,” from the group’s first post-“X Factor” EP — they’re describing emotions in language that indicates their drive. “I got my best on / And I feel like dancing all night long,” they sing in the latter over a springy Whitney Houston-style groove, “Nothing’s gonna stop me / You’re what I want / So, baby, come and get me.” It would be exhausting if it weren’t so infectious.
Fifth Harmony maintained that sense of excitement at Club Nokia, where the group padded its 70-minute show with a medley of Carey tunes and a surprisingly rugged cover of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” (Old singing-competition habits die hard.) The women sang forcefully in “Better Together” and “Sledgehammer,” and they whipped their hair so hard in “Going Nowhere” that I was surprised not to see more people losing their balance. For the thumping “This Is How We Roll” the room turned into a miniature rave, while the set-ending “Boss” occasioned a confetti blast better geared to the dimensions of a stadium.
The only false note came before the encore, when a recorded voice boomed over the sound system spewing platitudes about how each of Fifth Harmony’s fans is capable of achieving his or her wildest dreams. This was a preamble to the group’s song “Brave Honest Beautiful,” in which the singers insist, “You can dance like Beyoncé / You can shake like Shakira.”
Nonsense, clearly. But the rest of Sunday’s gig — when Fifth Harmony was showing rather than telling — almost made you believe it.