Re-Evaluating: The Spice Girls
25 years after the Spice Girls’ international invasion, Planet Slop considers why the Girl Power legacy has loomed so large.
When the Spice Girls announced their reformation, sans Victoria Beckham, for a 2019 UK stadium tour, there was an expected reaction; everything from the delirious, to the mocking, to the smug “I’m better than you because I like shoegaze” sense of self satisfaction.
Truth be told, at one time I was probably in that category. I’d roll my eyes whenever they appeared on television, and moan about their catchphrase-spouting brand of almost feminism. I was around nine or ten when they broke through, and I was guilty of letting other people’s ire poison my perceptions.
By that age, I had taken to trawling through my parents’ record collections. My dad seemed to know his music, so when he complained about the Spice Girls, I went along with him, and no doubt the millions of other mums and dads around the world who hated the sight of them.
It’s only in more recent times that I have re-evaluated not just the group, but what they created. Despite everything I was told, I realised that the Spice Girls mattered. The vast majority of female artists today seem to cite them as their first love; whether that’s a multimillion selling songstress like Adele, or DIY punks like The Tuts or indie stars such as MØ. There is something to this that goes beyond bubblegum pop.
Like most things, this is all about context. The Spice Girls came out of nowhere. Sure, they were manufactured (no more so than, say, The Monkees), but you can only manufacture so much. You can’t go as far as to dictate people’s reaction, no matter how much hype you throw at something.
At that time, the charts were a mire of laddish Britpop. There was hip hop, which in a state of hyper masculinity was deep in the throes of the East and West Coast divide that would claim the lives of two of the genres most iconic figures. Pop world was dominated by boybands, though that was winding down with Take That and East 17 both calling it a day.
In the middle of it all this testosterone came the Spice Girls – five slightly naughty, gobby young women who didn’t care what anyone thought of them. They were loud, obnoxious and proud of it. Interestingly, these were all qualities that were derided in the case of the Spice Girls, but lauded for Oasis.
Young girls could relate to this like probably nothing before it. There had been many female role models in pop, but they were either a cutsie girls next door like a Tiffany, or you had someone like Madonna who was probably a little too sophisticated for primary school kids to fully grasp.
With the Spice Girls, each had a defining characteristic, and each could be found in the playground. Everyone had a loud friend like Scary, or an innocent friend like Baby, or a fun and flirty friend like Ginger, or an athletic friend like Sporty, or a friend with as many clothes as Posh. They were either you or your friends, and they looked like you, coming in all different shapes and sizes, not stereotypical wafer thin girls ripped out of magazines.
They were caricatures, sure. But they had to be for mass consumption, and introduce a feminist wave in the middle of the laddish dredges of post-Oasis Britpop.
Now, the whole “Girl Power” movement was like an advertising slogan. Feminism is a complex topic, and simply screaming “Girl power” and doing a peace sign doesn’t really cut it. But such a criticism relies on a context where those complexities could be understood.
The Spice Girls weren’t aiming for well-read women in their mid-30s, they were talking to kids who could not yet fully grasp these topics. And they managed to plant the idea in the minds of millions of young girls worldwide that they mattered, that they were talented, beautiful and perfect as they are.
There was an inevitable backlash. In fairness, they quickly became oversaturated. For the life of me, I can’t name an inescapable phenomenon quite like it in my lifetime. But I can’t help but wonder if there was another reason for it.
Just a few months after the debut of Wannabe, the 1997 Brit Awards was arguably the most iconic Spice Girls moment, especially Geri Halliwell’s infamous Union Jack dress. But what is often forgotten about that night was that Liam Gallagher pathetically boycotted the event because of the Spice Girls, going as far as to say he would smack them if he bumped into them. Joking or not, it’s pretty shocking to read the singer in Britain’s biggest rock band of the time openly threatening physical violence to a group of women he finds a bit annoying.
Indeed, Gallagher did stay away in 1997, but the Spice Girls didn’t let the comment go. Millions of those young girls who had grown so attached to them tuned in to the Brits that night and saw the girls stand up for themselves, with Melanie C looking directly into the camera and brashly exclaiming “Liam, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough“.
Incidentally, Gallagher did in fact bump into the Spice Girls years later, at the Olympics in 2012. Thankfully, rather than “smack” them, he posed for an excitable, cutsie, fangirly selfie with them and plastered it all over Twitter.
You can argue that cases like this were all part of the cynical publicity machine, but I would counter-act that this is beside the point. A commercial decision or not, the Spice Girls’ audience were sent a clear message by instances like this, and they celebrated not only the power of women, but the diversity of their own personalities.
What’s more, they didn’t do it in a way that felt preachy, they did it simply through their own existence. They managed not to be too heavy handed with the approach on the debut album, Spice, with the exception of a few choice lyrics.
The most obvious example is Wannabe, which probably sets the mission statement for the group; “If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my friends” – this isn’t negotiable. In a way it harks back to the Lesley Gore classic You Don’t Own Me; “Don’t tell me I can’t go with other boys”. If you want me, you take me as I am, and that includes my friends.
The video for the song only emphasises both the joy and the message of the song. The five women take over a mansion full of stuffy posh berks, colouring it with their anarchic spirit. As an introduction, the message was clear – we’re coming for you. We’re coming into your house. We’re taking over the world. In the context of the toxic masculinity that plagued much of the mid-90s, this almost borders on subversion.
But this is littered throughout the album if you care to look for it. Second single (and arguably the album’s true highlight) Say You’ll Be There is based around the same concept, but is a far more inventive song, complete with an always unexpected harmonica solo.
Mama has always interested me. Although it verges on corny, witnessing the relationships between mothers and daughters through the years, the lyrics actually do ring true. It is probably one of the most honest accounts of the mother-daughter relationship ever committed to record.
But, despite being full of effervescent earworms, what really sells the record is their personalities. None of them are great singers, but they sell it. You believe it. You can put a group together, but you can’t manufacture how they gel together, and the chemistry is undeniable. There is a pure joy in it, the kind that all the greatest pop music is infused with, right back to Frankie Lymon setting the template for pop as we know it with the exuberant Why Do Fools Fall In Love. In fact, it’s a joy that has been absent in much of modern pop for the last few years, and the first thing that jumped out at me when revisiting them.
All of this is why they couldn’t survive without Geri.
When Ginger left the Spice Girls, the illusion was broken. They were sold to their fans as a gang – it’s right there in the lyrics to Wannabe; “Friendship never ends”. It was supposed to be forever. Geri’s exit in the middle of the 1998 Spiceworld tour changed that. They remained successful as a four piece, but significantly less so. Forever, the sole album in this formation missed the top of the UK chart and just about scraped into the US Top 40, peaking at number 39.
One lasting legacy of the Spice Girls is that they blew open the door for British acts in America again. For the most part, Britpop wasn’t of interest to America, or even most of Europe. The Spice Girls reversed this more or less single handedly. The debut sold over 30 million worldwide, and only one of their singles – the Motown inspired Stop – failed to reach number one in the UK, stalling at number two.
Only four of the Spice Girls came together for their 2019 tour. This could have been a bad omen if the disappointment of Forever is to be believed. But enough time had passed for that illusion to no longer matter. Their fans are older now, and have a more realistic view of life.
Maybe they were wrong to say “friendship never ends”, but there’s nothing wrong with revisiting a time when we all believed it to be true.