Steve Brookstein. Joe McElderry. James Arthur.
If these names mean nothing to you, we’ve got something in common: I didn’t recognize them either, despite the fact that each belongs to a winner on the U.K. version of Simon Cowell’s flagship star-making machine, “The X Factor.”
Nine seasons into the show, it seems safe to say that success among British viewers doesn’t necessarily lead to success among American listeners.
One Direction, which finished third on Season 7, is an obvious exception, as is Leona Lewis, who after winning Season 3 went on to score a No. 1 hit in the United States with “Bleeding Love.” (That said, Lewis’ most recent album, “Glassheart,” hasn’t been released here.)
How, then, to account for Little Mix? In 2011, this four-member girl group finished first on “The X Factor,” then promptly released a dreary cover of “Cannonball” by the dreary Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice -- a sure sign, it would seem, that Little Mix was destined to follow Brookstein and McElderry into transatlantic anonymity.
Yet this week, the band’s “DNA” entered the Billboard 200 at No. 4, the highest debut ever for a U.K. girl group’s first album, as the trade magazine noted. (A press release issued Wednesday morning by the group’s label added that Little Mix’s achievement bests even the once-indomitable Spice Girls, whose “Spice” bowed on the chart at No. 6 in 1997.)
“DNA” sold well at least in part because it’s a good pop record, catchy and funny and vibrant, with big choruses and chewy production touches like the wobbly dubstep synths in “Wings” and the booming marching-band drums in “Stereo Soldier.”
There’s also “How Ya Doin’?,” an utterly irrepressible disco-funk jam built atop sizable interpolations of “Name and Number” by Curiosity Killed the Cat and the Whatnauts’ early-'80s funk tune “Help Is on the Way,” both of which De La Soul previously used in its song “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey).” For the single version of “How Ya Doin’?,” Little Mix even wrangled a guest verse from the great Missy Elliott. (Listen to the song below.)
T-Boz of TLC shows up too, though for some reason in the grungy “Red Planet” instead of “Going Nowhere,” a killer “No Scrubs"-style kiss-off in which the Little Mix ladies kick an Xbox-playing, no job-having, dirty shirt-wearing chump to the curb from whence he came.
But neither of those guest spots seems significant enough to draw American listeners en masse. And quality alone is hardly sufficient: A mere five years ago, we as a country all but ignored the English group Girls Aloud’s brilliant “Out of Control” album. (Xenomania, the production team behind Girls Aloud, helmed “Pretend It’s OK,” a so-so ballad on “DNA.”)
“Wings’ ” appearance on “American Idol” and “Glee” certainly helped elevate the group’s profile in the weeks running up to the album’s release. And judging by its Facebook photos, Little Mix appears to have put in some long hours on the crucial shopping mall-signing circuit.
Perhaps One Direction helped ease open the door, as well: Instead of playing down its English-ness in an attempt to appeal to American listeners, the cheeky boy band has used it as a way to distinguish itself from its peers. Now, Little Mix can pause “DNA’s” title track for a spoken bit in which the women sound fully like the young Brits they are.
Beyond that, though, I’ll admit that I’m surprised the group has been able to find a foothold here so quickly. Surprised and excited: America should always leave its borders open to great pop songs.