The return of all-girl pop groups -- A look at chart-toppers Seduction, En Vogue, and Sweet Sensation

When San Francisco hairdresser Maxine Jones popped into an audition two years ago, she thought she was trying for a job as a background vocalist on an album. Instead, she discovered that the producers running the session were looking to form an all-female group. Jones, with her earthy voice and looks, fit the part. Soon after, the 23-year-old found herself one-quarter of En Vogue, complete with two hit singles (”Lies” and the No. 1 ”Hold On”), a best- selling debut album (Born to Sing), and an expensive new wardrobe.

Any long-suffering musician looking to break into the record business may be dismayed by such an ascent, but the music industry isn’t complaining. Since early this year, the top 10 has been full of near-soundalike girl groups with such names as En Vogue, Seduction (”Two to Make It Right,” ”Could It Be Love”), and Sweet Sensation (”Hooked on You” and the recent No. 1 ”If Wishes Came True”), with the Good Girls and Pajama Party hot on their sharply spiked heels.

Ever eager to promote ties with the past, the music industry has trumpeted these groups as successors to the Ronettes, the Angels, the Shirelles, the Shangri-Las, the Supremes, and other producer-dominated girl groups of the ’60s. And, in a sense, they are. Seduction’s throbbing ”(You’re My One and Only) True Love” and En Vogue’s sensual ”Hold On” — two of the best examples of the current wave of female harmony — are hip-hop updates of the same teen- heartbreak sentiments behind the best of Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich, Carole King, and other masterminds of the original girl-group sound. (Pushing the analogy, Sweet Sensation even recorded a dance-oriented version of the Supremes’ 1968 hit ”Love Child.”) ”I’m too young to know about them,” says Seduction’s Michelle Visage, 20. ”But every time you put some girls together, somebody’s going to say it’s history repeating itself.”

Robert Clivilles is not one of those people. The 25-year-old producer has, along with partner David Cole, 28, written and produced records for Seduction, the Good Girls, and Pajama Party. Says Clivilles: ”The Supremes, all they did was the Motown sound. Seduction can do ballads, rap, and house music.”

Early last year, Clivilles and Cole decided to form a multiracial female group to, in Clivilles’ words, ”represent unity — people working together and all that.” Through auditions and word of mouth, they selected Visage, April Harris, and Idalis Leon (later replaced by Sinoa Loren). The two producers then wrote and produced Seduction’s 1989 debut album, Nothing Matters Without Love. Says Clivilles, ”To be a successful producer you have to have an education in marketing as well as be a successful songwriter. Our first priority is music, but you have to market your product. When you buy juice or lotion, you look at the ads. And if it’s good, you buy some more.”

Clivilles’ view of his singers as an enticing product waiting to be packaged isn’t far removed from the way girl groups of yesterday were handled. As Ronnie Spector admits in her just-published autobiography, Be My Baby, such Ronettes hits as ”Baby I Love You” didn’t always feature the other two group members. ”But to tell the truth,” Spector writes, ”the way Phil (Spector) worked, it didn’t sound a whole lot different from our other records.” Continuing that tradition, Seduction’s first single, ”Seduction’s Theme,” featured only Harris, and several of the new groups have already shuffled personnel.

The emphasis on marketing has its price, however. ”No one’s giving them respect,” Clivilles grumbles. ”They say they’re just puppets. But they’re talented. They can write, and they all sing lead and background vocals. Not all the background vocals, but most.” Says Visage, defensively: ”It was their concept, but we have equal input. It’s our vocals, our dancing, our creative input into the visual side.” Seduction, Visage insists, is ”three sexy, sophisticated women who want to be positive role models for the children of the world.” Not every member of the new girl groups looks at herself and her role so ambitiously, though. ”I just wanted to sing,” says En Vogue’s Maxine Jones. ”So it worked out great for me.”