If you enjoyed 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you probably knew as soon as you heard about Girls5eva, the latest sitcom co-executive produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, that you wanted to go to there—“there” in this case being Peacock, NBCUniversal’s streaming service. Like the rest of the Fey/Carlock corpus, this new show, which was created by Meredith Scardino, boasts an impressive joke-per-minute ratio. But because the show centers on a late-’90s/early-’00s girl group with frequent flashes back to that period, some of those jokes may fly over the heads of anyone who didn’t spend those years parked in front of MTV. If you’re one of those people, no worries, we’re here 5 you: The following is a guide to some of the bubblegum pop–era references on Girls5eva you might have missed.
The late ’90s saw an explosion of boy bands and girl groups, but for every mega-famous Spice Girls or Backstreet Boys, there were a slew of lesser-known groups vying for teenyboppers’ hearts and wallets. Girls5eva is supposed to have been one of these middle-of-the-pack groups, an act that had a few hits but never reached Spice or Backstreet heights. In the pilot episode of the show, Girls5eva member Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry) explains how they got together: “We’ve been best friends ever since we auditioned for a man in a motel in New Jersey.” This origin story, sketchy motel vibes included, echoes the beginnings of a lot of these bands: The Spice Girls met via an ad in a trade newspaper looking for “streetwise” girls, and the late disgraced music mogul Lou Pearlman discovered the Backstreet Boys and financed the formation of ’N Sync. (Girls5eva’s creepy manager, Larry, is also likely a reference to figures like Pearlman.) Girls5eva pokes fun at the prefab nature of many of these groups when one of the five, Ashley (Ashley Park), mentions that she’d been in six other groups prior to Girls5eva—one of the names she shouts out, Daddy’s Crush, sounds a bit like Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé’s former girl group, and also a lot like Eden’s Crush, an act that got together via a reality show and was the first but not the last ride on the girl group train for future Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. (Scherzinger’s name also gets name-checked in the show later on: One of the ways Larry used to bully Wickie was by implying he might replace her with Scherzinger at any moment.)
Like many of these groups, Girls5eva had five members, and in faux-documentary footage, Ashley tries to sum up each of their personalities in one word: “the fun one,” “the hot one,” “the fierce one,” etc. This is reminiscent of how a lot of these groups differentiated their members in the media, most notably the Spice Girls, whose members’ names will roll off many millennial tongues to this day: Baby Spice, Ginger Spice, Posh … you know the rest. We find out that Wickie eventually left the group, making her the group’s Ginger Spice, or Beyoncé, or Justin Timberlake, or any other pop star who exited a band in search of solo glory. When the events of the show begin, it looks like Wickie’s career followed more of a Ginger Spice trajectory than a Beyoncé one.
Girls5eva’s name nods to the naming conventions of the bubblegum era: Numbers and creative spellings weren’t uncommon, with popular groups named things like 98 Degrees, Xscape, All-4-One (who, honestly, even I don’t remember), and, probably most egregiously, 5ive. We also can’t forget the influence of Boyz II Men, though they preceded this period by several years. MTV parodied these wacky names and this era of pop while it was going on with its fictional group 2gether, an important forerunner of Girls5eva. We also can’t forget the linguistic influence of ’N Sync, often stylized *NSYNC, which the show winks at when the girls talk about “D*WASG,” their “secret weapon” and “word for this electric feeling we all get when we’re all performing together and we’re just in the zone,” as Wickie explains in a flashback Larry King interview. It comes from the first letters of the girls’ names—actually less ridiculous than the purported origin of ’N Sync, supposedly an acronym formed from the last letters of the band members’ first names.
Kev, the Boyz Next Door, and Pop’s “Royal Couple”
When the show starts, Girls5eva’s Summer (Busy Philipps) is married to her boyfriend from the group’s heyday, Kev (Andrew Rannells). Back then, Kev was a member of his own very popular group, the Boyz Next Door. The show tells us their relationship started as a PR stunt to sell Noxzema, an acne product brand, and both of these things sound accurate to the time: PR stunt relationships are an entertainment industry mainstay, and Noxzema was very trendy in the ’90s—remember “Noxzema girl” Rebecca Gayheart? Kev seems to have the same haircut in the present that he had then, which features period-appropriate blond highlights, and a less period-appropriate but still very funny swoop that could be read as either emo or Bieber-esque, depending on your perspective.
Summer refers to Kev and her as “boy bands’ and girl groups’ royal couple,” and the show flashes to a workout video they shot together, the implication being that Summer and Kev the couple were a thing back in the day, or wanted to be. This is very evocative of the real-life musical romances of the era, the most famous of which was probably Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, with Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey as a close second.
The show tells us that Summer and Kev are conservative and Christian—they host a Bible study; they support the troops—another throwback to the time of purity rings and the Bush administration. Post-9/11 and certainly after the backlash the Chicks experienced after they criticized the president, pop stars were unlikely to express strong liberal viewpoints, and oftentimes they did the opposite: In 2003, Britney Spears once famously said, “I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes.” Whether Spears strongly believed this, it was coming from a place of naïveté, or she just didn’t want to say anything controversial, it was a pretty standard sentiment for the time. Not that faith has disappeared from mainstream music—these days, we’ve got stars like Justin Bieber, noted former haver of swoopy hair, carrying the Christian pop star mantle. Summer and Kev wouldn’t be at all out of place at Hillsong, the trendy church Bieber attends.
As for the Boyz Next Door’s music, we get a taste via the video for “Boyz Next Door (Puber-Dude),” whose self-referential title is very “Backstreet’s Back.” We also briefly hear Kev croon (in a Cameo Summer has ordered that she is pretending is a FaceTime call) what are presumably lyrics from another Boyz Next Door song, “You’re too pretty for college.” This is a more blatant version of a common pop music trope, the line that sounds like it’s complimenting a woman but is actually a neg.
And why was Summer pretending Kev FaceTimed her? Because she didn’t want her bandmates to know that their marriage is on the rocks—the reason for which, it’s strongly implied, is that Kev is in the closet. Girls5eva member Gloria (Paula Pell), who was closeted herself during the group’s time in the spotlight, tries to gently suggest as much to Summer. There are plenty of real-life counterparts to these characters, the most famous being Lance Bass, whose membership in ’N Sync made him an object of lust for legions of adolescent girls, but who came out as gay in 2006, a few years after the group went on hiatus.
Girls5eva’s Songs and Music Videos
In an interview with Slate, show creator Meredith Scardino and Jeff Richmond, the show’s composer, talked about their writing process and some of the influences behind the songs. A few of the allusions are fairly obvious—“Zoom Zoom Boom Boom (Carma)” screams Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”—but in other cases there’s a little more to say, especially concerning the music video snippets that appear throughout the season. Let’s start with Girls5eva’s biggest hit and the song that serves as the show’s theme, “Famous 5eva.” In the title sequence, we see the girls dancing in sync, in kind of a generic brightly lit space, the type often seen in music videos of this period: Think the nonmarionette parts of ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” or the non–toy store parts of “It’s Gonna Be Me.” The way the video cuts from individual shots of each girl serving face to all of them dancing together particularly calls to mind “He Loves U Not,” by Dream, a girl group that was together from 1998 to 2003 and, funnily enough, did reunite Girls5eva-style in 2015. (It didn’t last.) The girls’ military-inspired looks are reminiscent of the camo outfits the members of Destiny’s Child wear in the “Survivor” video. All the choreography here is a decent approximation of that of the upbeat, dance-y videos of the time, though the way Dawn (Sara Bareilles) flashes four and then two fingers (while singing “4-ever’s 2 short”) throws it back to a slower jam, the Spice Girls’ “2 Become 1.” Speaking of our favorite English roses, Gloria (played by Erika Henningsen in her youthful incarnation) has a signature move, a kick she calls “the excelsior,” which seems like a pretty clear Sporty Spice homage.
The title sequence is the most we see of any of Girls5eva’s early music videos, though we do get flashes of others. As Scardino told Slate’s Karen Han, “Planes in My Heart” is part of the “long history of very ill-timed music and movies that come out that seem horribly tone-deaf or horribly off.” (That particular song came out the day before 9/11; the Coup, whose album Party Music was scheduled to be released in late September 2001 with a cover that showed the rap duo detonating the Twin Towers, narrowly escaped a similar fate.) The song, whose chorus goes “quit flying planes in my heart,” however, sounds a lot like the Backstreet Boys’ hit “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).” In addition, there’s a bit of choreography in the video, when the girls make their hands into heart shapes over their chests, that is unmistakably similar to a memorable bit of the choreo from Britney Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again.” The girls perform the dance in stewardess costumes, making for double Britney references in “Planes in My Heart,” but they would also heavily reference “Oops!” in a different song, “Space Boys”—the snippet of the video we see in one episode borrows heavily from the intergalactic look of Spears’ Mars-set video. (One more good Britney reference in the show doesn’t come in a song or video but in the girls’ vocal warmup: They practice their “Britney scales,” playing on the distinctive vocal stylings of Ms. Spears and the era at large: “Ow ow ow OW ow ow owww!”)
An Eccentric Swede
Where did the sometimes strange vocal pronunciations of the era come from, anyway? One responsible party is likely Max Martin, the Swedish mega-producer and songwriter responsible for songs like “… Baby One More Time” and “I Want You Back,” among many, many other hits of the period (through to the present). Martin, a non-native English speaker, occasionally wrote lyrics that were a bit strange if you thought about them, “Hit me baby one more time” being a prime example, and it may have been him who favored all those ow’s and It’s gonna be MAY’s. On Girls5eva, Martin and producers like him are parodied in the character of Alf Musik, the Nordic producer (played by Stephen Colbert) the girls turn to when they’re in need of new songs. Colbert isn’t styled to look particularly like Martin, but they do both have long hair, and they work similarly in the way they churn out hits. In the same way Martin didn’t always have a perfect grasp of English, Alf writes songs with slightly wonky titles like “Seize the Tonight (Right Now)” and has trouble grasping what the Girls5eva ladies are looking for in a pop song. And though he is himself a reference, Alf has references of his own, such as when at one point he says, “One has got to get down on Friday”—as in the Rebecca Black song.
TRL and Other TV Shows
When we first meet Girls5eva, it’s in a flashback to one of the group’s appearances on a show with a strong resemblance to the Carson Daly–hosted Total Request Live, the countdown show that was central to pop music culture in the late ’90s and early ’00s and would have been an essential stop for any music group on the rise. The show’s host is dressed in a Daly-style casual short-sleeve T-shirt over a long-sleeve T-shirt, and though he’s only seen from behind, his voice is dubbed by the real Daly. Like Jimmy Fallon, who invites Girls5eva onto The Tonight Show in the pilot episode, Daly is part of the NBCUniversal family, and was probably pretty easy to call in for a favor. (MTV, whose shows are on rival streaming service Paramount+, might have been less keen on
licensing its logos.) The clothes on the Girls5eva girls in their TRL scene are worth appreciating, too: The bandanas and bad denim are good representations of some regrettable old looks from everyone from Beyoncé to Christina Aguilera, and they do a good job of communicating the tacky matching aesthetic of many girl groups.
Similar to the TRL clip, we see a Cribs clip in another episode that, upon closer inspection, may be more of a simulacrum, stripped of the MTV branding but still signifying the excesses of the time period: Cribs was another important cultural artifact of this era, providing a stage for celebs to show off their lavish homes. It’s where stars like Mariah Carey established their diva personas, so it’s fitting that Wickie would have wanted to be on it. Wickie’s house, precariously built on a cliff, appropriately features Warhol-style art of herself; a blown-up cover of her solo album, Yesternights; and the poster for a movie she starred in (with, uh, José Canseco) called Mr. Dress—judging by the poster, it looks like it was a cross-dressing comedy in the vein of 2000s hits like Big Momma’s House. (We’re told it eventually swept the Razzies.)
One more important TV show from the era that Girls5eva re-creates is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the Regis Philbin–hosted prime-time game show that became a surprise cultural phenomenon in 1999. We see Wickie passionately talking about her decision to leave the group, and then cut to footage of a confused Philbin, who, in a very “Ma’am, this is a Arby’s” moment, says, “Well, that’s, uh, interesting … what charity are you playing for?” (Her answer? “Oh … um, medicine?”)
Late-’90s/Early-2000s Boy Toys
Girls5eva’s noncloseted members really got around in their heyday, and the show makes cheeky reference to some of their supposed dalliances. A few of these love interests were fictional, like Kev, or the members of the Boybies, a boy band the girls hang out with in one flashback. When Gloria gets uneasy upon a bandmate telling her one of the boys likes her (“The bad boy Boybie just yipped at you … I hear he is gelled from tip to tail”), this results in a fun reference to a certain very famous Britney Spears performance: Gloria begs off to practice choreography—and feed the snake the band performs with.
The show also carefully picks the nonfictional men the girls might have been involved with back in the day. At one point when she’s remembering their late bandmate Ashley as a “big sister,” Gloria recalls, “She got us through all our breakups with Moby.” A few years ago, Moby, a musical artist who achieved huge success in the late ’90s, was very publicly criticized for saying he’d been in a relationship with Natalie Portman when she was in college and he was in his 30s. (Portman remembers it differently.) Derek Jeter, who was a hotshot player on the Yankees during this time period, gets similar treatment in a later episode—Dawn says that some of the members of Girls5eva slept with him one night after meeting him at a Yankees game they performed at—and were given a gift basket for their troubles in the morning. This is in reference to a long-standing rumor that Derek Jeter, well, gives gift baskets to the women he beds.
A few of Wickie’s beaus or would-be beaus get off slightly easier: She claims to have dated Rick Fox, the basketball player turned actor, though none of her bandmates actually ever got to meet him and he may not exactly have been aware of the relationship. Still, this is flattering to Fox if anything. Rapper Ja Rule seems to have been a real Wickie conquest (in that he is a real person, not that they actually hooked up): She says they made love on top of her clear/sometimes invisible piano. And she never actually got together with Hugh Hefner, the Playboy magnate who still had a very active love life during this period, but it was a point of pride for Wickie that she heard through the grapevine that he “would.” Circa Y2K, what more could a young woman dream of?