Spice Girls re­union car­ries great sym­bolic weight in our time

The Sunday Guardian - - Artbeat -

Once upon a time, in the early Nineties, lit­tle girls were taught to be sugar and spice and all things nice. “Be quiet and po­lite,” they were told. “Ac­qui­esce, and don’t take up too much space.” The mag­a­zines they bought ex­plained their value and im­por­tance would be re­lated to their re­la­tion­ships, es­pe­cially with boyfriends, and how pretty they looked. The pop charts were dom­i­nated by men, and the pro­tag­o­nists of TV shows and books were mainly boys. There was no Buffy, no Xena: War­rior Princess, even Pow­er­puff Girls weren’t a thing yet. Deep down, lit­tle girls knew boys were bet­ter and clev­erer, and there­fore al­lowed to do more stuff. Then, along came a girl group of five women, called the Spice Girls, who were quickly top of the pops and ev­ery­where. Each one was dif­fer­ent—Baby, Scary, Gin­ger, Posh and Sporty—but they all spoke their minds, and sang about what they wanted, what they re­ally, re­ally wanted.

The Spice Girls might have been man­u­fac­tured by record la­bel suits be­hind the scenes, but their en­ergy, mu­sic and chem­istry took on a life of its own. Soon, they were the big­gest band in the world, trav­el­ling in pri­vate jets from coun­try to coun­try, with mul­ti­ple suit­cases to fit their Buf­falo plat­forms. It only lasted a few years be­fore one—Gin­ger—left, but dur­ing that time, they lit a cul­tural wild­fire with their cen­tral mes­sage of “Girl Power”.

In their hey­day, writer and punk poet Kathy Acker in­ter­viewed the Spice Girls for The Guardian. “They both are and rep­re­sent a voice that has too long been re­pressed,” she wrote. “The voices—not re­ally the voice—of young women and, just as im­por­tant, of women not from the ed­u­cated classes.” And that was the thing about the Spice Girls: each one of the five had their own char­ac­ter and vibe, un­like pre­vi­ous girl groups whose mem­bers could be in­ter­change­able—which is why it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter that Posh Spice won’t be join­ing the re­union, de­spite Mel B’s hope­ful quip Vic­to­ria will join the Wem­b­ley date. It’s her choice and it’s in the Spice Girls men­tal­ity to re­spect that and let her get on with her life.

It’s strange, 20 years on, and with the June 2019 re­union an­nounced this week, to think back to the time the Spice Girls came out, and see, ac­tu­ally, how lit­tle has changed. The clothes and hair­styles and footwear and colours look dated but, in terms of women and con­fi­dence, the sim­ple, ba­sic mes­sage of say­ing what you want, do­ing what you want, and hav­ing the guts and spirit to be loud—or quiet, if that’s your thing—is more rel­e­vant than ever. The prob­lem has not been solved.

The phe­nom­e­non of the Spice Girls, and how it prac­ti­cally af­fected the lives of the group’s fans, is hard to mea­sure. But we know mu­sic and pop cul­ture in both pre-ado­les­cence and the teen years can pro­vide an im­por­tant sym­bolic back­drop and frame­work to try out iden­ti­ties, ex­press be­liefs and per­cep­tions, and try out dif­fer­ent val­ues and pref­er­ences.

I was 11 when de­but sin­gle “Wannabe” was re­leased. At that point, I wasn’t ex­actly au fait with sec­ond or third-wave fem­i­nism and I’d not read Ger­maine Greer, Naomi Wolf or Si­mone De Beau­voir. I wasn’t aware of the aca­demic crit­i­cism about the Spice Girls repack­ag­ing cap­i­tal­ist power, or cor­rupt­ing fem­i­nism with consumerism, or con­cerns about raunch cul­ture. All I saw was some­thing un­usual and atyp­i­cal: five women, in charge, hav­ing the time of their lives. Re­ally, it came down to a feel­ing: the spirit, the clothes, the forth­right foot­steps down the stairs and Mel B’s glee­ful cackle, the chaotic ebul­lience, the adren­a­line, the thrill.

Be­fore the Spice Girls gate­crashed the Brit­pop party, con­form­ing to gen­der stereo­types for pre-teens in the Nineties who hadn’t heard of Riot gr­rrl or ladette cul­ture meant be­ing a “good girl”, which trans­lated as be­ing po­lite, nur­tur­ing, car­ing and pretty. The Spice Girls re­sisted fem­i­nine stereo­types. They were the older sis­ters who showed you how to be brave and bold, how to con­struct your own iden­tity, how you could say what you wanted and wear what you wanted and that was more than fine. You could be girly, if you wanted to, and wear short skirts and bunches. Or you could be a tomboy and es­chew heels. The lyrics were ac­tive rather than pas­sive: tak­ing, grab­bing, lay­ing it down—all the things lit­tle girls were taught never to do. “Stop right now, thank you very much”. “Who do you think you are?” “I’ll tell you what I want, what I re­ally, re­ally want”.

In in­ter­views, they ex­pounded their con­cept of Girl Power with a pas­sion and in­tel­li­gence of­ten per­ceived as brash, gobby or “out­spo­ken”—the re­veal­ing words we use to de­scribe women who talk with con­fi­dence. “When you go and see a ca­reers of­fi­cer,” said Mel C in 1997, “and you sit down and say, ‘I want to be a space­man’, in­stead of re­spond­ing ‘Go study astro­physics’, they go, ‘Yeah, but what do you re­ally want to do?’ That is so wrong. I think there should be a class in—what do you call it?—self-mo­ti­va­tion. Self-mo­ti­va­tion classes, self­es­teem classes.”

Com­pared with the male-led Brit­pop of Oa­sis, Blur, Pulp and Suede, the Spice Girls felt truly rad­i­cal. For my­self, and I’m sure many oth­ers, the idea was planted for the first time that, even though we were girls, we didn’t have to be sup­port­ing char­ac­ters. THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

Spice Girls.

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