The Spice Girls Generation: Uniting all women in the pursuit of girl power

Caity Weaver

When, through the nighttime murk of the Amazon river, an electric eel locates a feeder fish, what happens next is instantaneous: a jolt of electricity surges through the fish’s nerves. Its muscles contract simultaneously, and it is transformed into a living, floating statue.

This is roughly the same reaction that women born between May Day 1985 and New Year’s Eve 1991, approximately, exhibit when exposed to the opening seconds of the Spice Girls’ debut single “Wannabe”. Pharmacists, statisticians, probation workers, bank tellers, event planners, bartenders, psychologists, paralegals, market research analysts, junior members of Congress, phlebotomists, journalists – in the void between the salutatory “Yooo!” and the song’s first plonked-out musical note, all of these become temporarily incapacitated, frozen between heartbeats with lightning in their blood. If there is a silver lining to this tremendous national security risk, it is that the vulnerability is, in fact, global. The effect spans borders, races, income levels, sexual orientations, political parties, religions and all other aspects of adult identity, demarcating a distinct microgeneration.

Members of the Spice Girls generation are the only people in history to have both grown up with the internet and retained childhood memories that predated it. Born primarily in the mid-to-late 1980s, they are human bridges between two eras, whose anachronistic birth years, with their faraway century, will cause their heirs’ eyes to widen at their obituaries. Their ancestral parallels are the earliest drifters of the Lost Generation, born in the mid-to-late 1880s – people to whom Glenn Miller seemed unbearably young.

No apologies: the group demonstrated girl power in seemingly every situation (Rex)
No apologies: the group demonstrated girl power in seemingly every situation (Rex)

Tens of thousands of representatives of this cohort gushed through the back streets of residential Dublin one evening this past May, surrounding the terraced houses like a flash flood. From behind the superficial safety of one home’s gate, two young men gawked at the deluge, their expressions trapped between scoff and awe. The air was thick with tipsy laughter, ebullient plan-making and those breezy apologies particular to young women wherein the apology – often mistaken by other demographics for an expression of guilt – is in fact an announcement that the speaker is about to say or do whatever she wants, regardless of the laws of God or man.

“Gonna place that just there, sorry!” sang a woman, placing a glass beer bottle on the ground, where it was quickly trampled. There wasn’t time for trash cans. It was opening night of the Spice World tour (not to be confused with the 1998 Spiceworld tour, nor indeed, a “world tour”) and the 74,000 attendees were in a rush.

Girl power brokers

If it surprises the reader to learn there is evidence to suggest that the No 3 best-selling album by a girl group, ever, was released by the Spice Girls in 1997, it will confound the reader to learn that, as near as can be measured, the No 1 best-selling album by a girl group, ever, was also quite possibly released by the Spice Girls in 1997, nine months earlier. (In the US, at least – the international release occurred a few months before that. The reconciling of various countries’ convoluted sales certification criteria is one of many torturous undertakings that makes tracking past global album sales a lofty if not impossible goal.)

The group’s closeness had an obvious appeal for their younger fans (Rex)
The group’s closeness had an obvious appeal for their younger fans (Rex)

Yet the most extraordinary thing about the Spice Girls is not the lightning flash of their success but its peculiar longevity. A side-by-side comparison of international tour dates of the South Korean boy band phenomenon BTS to Spice World tour stops in the same period this year reveals that BTS out-grossed the Spice Girls by less than 1 per cent, earning $78.9m (£65m) to their $78.2m. This despite the fact that Spice World is the Spice Girls’ second reunion tour since 2008, and did not include the participation of the individual who is currently its most high-profile member (Victoria Beckham), and confined its stops to the British archipelago. BTS, for comparison, is by any reasonable standard the most popular musical group in the world. It is a testament to the Spice Girls’ good strategy and good fortune that their key demographic was young enough to receive an allowance when they launched – and that this relaunch is likely to find that same demographic midcareer with a modest disposable income.

The Spice Girls’ heyday was a simpler time, in terms of record industry economics – Geri Horner (then Geri Halliwell) announced her departure from the group almost a year to the day before Napster went online. But out of the gate, the Spice Girls’ arsenal included a weapon even more powerful than warehouses full of gleaming compact discs. It carried them to the top of the charts; it is stuck like glue in the subconscious of millions. It was a branding coup known as “girl power”.

“We’re all about putting forward positive ideas for girls and letting them see that they don’t have to conform to what people expect of them,” Emma Bunton (Baby) declared in a 1996 interview with the Glasgow Evening Times, shortly before the Spice Girls’ US debut. Another thing the group was “all about”, per Bunton, was “understanding that period in life”.

While this ethos – that girls are good and deserve positive ideas – was not complex, girl power boiled it down to an almost petroglyphic essence, enabling it to fit neatly on pencil cases, notebooks and T-shirts. It quickly became an affirmation – something the Spice Girls and their very young fans could yell to celebrate the Spice Girls and their very young fans.

Teen idols have enthralled young people since the days of Rudy Vallée, and modern pop stars like Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez have reaped the benefits of their legal guardians’ foresight as the Nickelodeon and Disney audiences they cultivated as child stars have aged along with them. But the Spice Girls were adult performers producing adult music that both appealed and was marketed primarily to children; music for millennials back when they were still called “Generation Y”. Their biggest hits included explicit and oblique references to “lovers” and sexual congress, they sang the praises of push-up bras, and by the end of their first tour, half the group were pregnant. But the Spice Girls were never meant to pass as kids; their skill was in depicting a young girl’s idea of adulthood.

The aura of Spice Girl success was sleepover antics-turned career. Promotional photos depicted them spilling out of the same bed or piled onto a single couch, forever yanking one another into frame. In video interviews from the period, they cling to each other, all arms wrapped around legs, draped over thighs, tucked into neck crooks. While the average 30-year-old woman might prefer to perform some activities without being literally shoulder-to-shoulder with her four closest buddies, for an anxious 11-year-old the arrangement has obvious appeal.

‘Girl power’ boiled the Spice Girls’ essence so it could fit neatly on pencil cases, notebooks and T-shirts (Rex)
‘Girl power’ boiled the Spice Girls’ essence so it could fit neatly on pencil cases, notebooks and T-shirts (Rex)

And although the Spice Girls’ fans were old enough to understand they did not actually know the Spice Girls, they were recent-enough expats from the world of imaginary friends that the members of the group did not feel particularly far away. Being a Spice Girl seemed so easy and fun even a child could do it – and it was possible to remotely participate in the Spice Girls at any price point, from a 25-cent Chupa Chups “official product” lollipop to a $39.99 pink and purple Polaroid SpiceCam.

A cultivated air of regularness enhanced the illusion. The group members were capable but not extraordinary singers, and sentient but unambitious dancers – a stark contrast to say, the regimented perfection and musical aptitude of Destiny’s Child, whose virtuosic pop singles began topping US charts in their wake. The Spice Girls were not intimidating: an average group of grown-up women in mismatched outfits whose dominant personality traits were telegraphed by various solid-colour backgrounds. They even had easy-to-understand, somewhat adjectival labels: whether Sporty (athletic), Posh (rich), Scary (outgoing), Baby (young) or Ginger (ginger?), all were united by an antic pride in female dynamism.

That their token catchphrase was deployed a little excessively, and perhaps as marketing ploy, made the sentiment no less salient for its target audience.

What really happened

Here is a partial list of things the Spice Girls did in 1997: released the best-performing album of 1997 in the United States (Spice); wore the famous union jack dress to the Brit Awards (Geri); shook hands with the Queen (also Geri); arrived at Cannes by speedboat to announce plans for a Spice Girls movie (Spice World); recorded Spice World (the album) on the set of Spice World (the movie), so that Spice World (the movie) could have a soundtrack (the album); angered Maori leaders by performing the haka in Indonesia; travelled to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela, who described the meeting as “one of the greatest moments in my life”; squeezed and cuddled and petted 13-year-old Prince Harry at the same event, causing him to blush furiously (two months after the funeral of his mother, Princess Diana); published a book; appeared in Istanbul for their first live concert (a Pepsi production); turned 21 (Emma); released Spice World (the album); fired their manager (Simon Fuller, whom they have since rehired and who will produce an upcoming animated film featuring their music and voices); attended premieres of Spice World (the movie) in London, Paris, Rotterdam, Madrid, Dusseldorf and Brussels; shot the music video for “Who Do You Think You Are”; shot the music video for “Spice Up Your Life”; shot the music video for “Mama”; kicked off the annual British Legion Poppy Appeal to commemorate war dead; collectively earned an estimated £300m through merchandise sales.

We’re all about putting forward positive ideas for girls and letting them see that they don’t have to conform to what people expect of them

Emma Bunton, Baby Spice

Thanks to the digitisation of 1990s print media, if members of the Spice Girls generation are so inclined, they can now acquire within seconds all the Google-able context missing from their recollections. They can read that the five women learned to sing and dance together over the course of a year living, unpaid, in a home owned by a father-and-son management team; that the father and son’s strategy of dangling the promise of a contract without actually producing one failed badly, prompting the women to abscond with their demos one evening and subsequently sign to the record label of their choosing; that the group was originally called “Touch” and then “Spice”, “girls” being incorporated later because people in the industry tended to refer to them, with a whiff of derision, as “the ‘Spice’ girls” (it had the added benefit of distinguishing them from a US rapper already using “Spice”); that their signature nicknames were imposed by a British music journalist who, Melanie Brown later said, “couldn’t be bothered to remember all our names”; that the members co-wrote all their songs; that Melanie Chisolm invited Liam Gallagher of Oasis to physically fight her at the 1997 Brit Awards, while the Spice Girls collected their trophy for “Best British Single”; that Gwyneth Paltrow and Winona Ryder once dressed up as the Spice Girls and filmed their own version of the “2 Become 1” music video in Ryder’s apartment; that the Spice Girls were vehemently opposed to the United Kingdom adopting the euro as its currency (“The Euro-bureaucrats are destroying every bit of national identity,” said Victoria Beckham, then Victoria Adams); that, at the height of their influence, the academic consensus was that the Spice Girls were mock-feminists who had dangerously and lucratively misappropriated the Riot Grrrl “girl power” ethos for personal gain; that the media consensus was that they were all charm and no talent (and, by 1998, no charm); that they were the subjects of some of the first vitriolic hate pages on the web, where users graphically fantasised about torturing and murdering them; that the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood described their marketing as “child molestation”; that the music producer Phil Spector, currently in prison for murder, compared them unfavourably to a “porno film”; that Thom Yorke of Radiohead labeled them “the Antichrist”; that, at the time she left the group in 1998, Geri Horner (then Geri “Ginger” Halliwell) was living in a poky cottage at the back of a Hertfordshire dairy farm, where, in her own words, she spent her weekends “crying”.

Nelson Mandela and Prince Charles shake hands, flanked by the Spice Girls, in Pretoria in 1997 (AFP/Getty)
Nelson Mandela and Prince Charles shake hands, flanked by the Spice Girls, in Pretoria in 1997 (AFP/Getty)

Yet when one reads contemporary accounts of first-hand interactions with the group, the pervading sense is that the Spice Girls were all they were marketed to be: feisty, mischievous and bonded as tightly as covalent atoms. Their impression is of fast-talking strong personalities who delighted in returning rapid-fire volleys of questions to the dazed journalists sent to interview them; the kind of livewires who, for no reason, in the middle of a Rolling Stone interview, attempt the magician’s trick of neatly pulling a tablecloth off a table laden with china and glassware and food – unsuccessfully. Their demonstrations of girl power seemed almost nuclear. The experience of interacting with them may have been best characterised by Spice World screenwriter Jamie Curtis who, speaking to The Telegraph this year, recalled simply that the Spice Girls “were terrifying. Particularly if you were a man. If you walked into a room and it was just the five of them you would literally turn around and try and get out as quickly as possible.”

The real live women

If you walked into a room and it was just the five of them you would literally turn around and try and get out as quickly as possible

Jamie Curtis, ‘Spice World’ screenwriter

Today, the Spice Girls relish their status as legacy artists. In Dublin in May, as the Croke Park soccer stadium filled, a pre-show playlist administered shocks of nostalgia to the audience as relentlessly as a Milgram study participant. (The crowd applauded “C’est La Vie” by the Irish girl group B*witched as thunderously as if it had not been an audio recording.) The entrance of the band itself was presaged by the appearance onstage of four groups of back-up dancers, each representing a Spice Girl (or, at least, one of the four on tour). Baby’s dancers wore bubble gum pink and lavender fuzzy jackets. Sporty’s dancers warmed up in blue Lycra athletic gear. Scary’s prowled menacingly in leopard print, leather and chains. Ginger’s, clad red in British military-themed outfits, strutted around the stage vogueing, which is not a dance move particularly associated with Ginger Spice and therefore adroitly embodied the nebulosity of “Ginger” as an archetypal persona.

While the slightness of the Spice Girls discography revealed itself over the course of the two and a half-hour show, it’s difficult to imagine the hits could have been received with greater enthusiasm 20 years earlier. As big a draw as the songs, for the crowd, was the chance to watch the Spice Girls interact with each other in person, and here especially they delivered: they hugged, adjusted one another’s costumes and teased each other mercilessly – after Melanie Chisolm (Sporty) described an attempt at an Irish accent by Melanie Brown (Scary) as “a bit racist”, an insouciant Brown immediately quipped: “I’m allowed to be racist; I’m black.” When, in a final costume change, the members revealed themselves to be wearing glammed up versions of their outfits from the 1997 “Wannabe” music video, it was as predictable and joyful as a victory lap.

The Spice Girls live at Wembley Stadium this year (Timmsy/Backgrid)
The Spice Girls live at Wembley Stadium this year (Timmsy/Backgrid)

Many boys who privately loved the Spice Girls have grown into men who openly love the Spice Girls – a sizeable fan-base minority duly acknowledged in the Spice Girls’ new inter-song banter and merchandise – but the crowd at the show looked to consist mostly of women in their late twenties and early thirties. Or, rather, they were in their late twenties and early thirties and looked to be younger, dressed, as they were, in the distinctive raiments of the Spice Girls. The spring air was temperate enough that jackets did not need to intrude on ensembles of the truly committed, and so out of the stadium poured a stream of adult women in pink miniskirts, leopard print crop tops and body-scale union jacks.

That exuberant mania of a 1997 childhood still propelled the tide of concertgoers, striding boisterously through business district of North Dublin. At 11pm on that May evening, after the concert let out, they floated by darkened alleyways, uncowed by the prospective dangers that, were they not travelling en masse, would have forced them onto less direct, better-lit routes. There was not just safety but joie de vivre in numbers. Marketing ploy or not, “girl power” had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

© New York Times