Spice Girls: Spice
Released: November 4, 1996
I used to hate the Spice Girls. The sound of one of their hits could drive me running out of a room, covering my ears. To be fair though, I was seven. My music taste didn’t stretch far beyond soundtracks and Weird Al Yankovic. I was a boy and I knew that girl things were for girls, and there was no girlier girl thing than the Spice Girls. For others, the Spice Girls might have seemed like a breath of fresh air. They took over the world at light speed, bursting through a dense and dreary fog of britpop and grunge, reawakening the world to bubblegum pop. But back then and still today, people much older than I was dismissed them for essentially similar reasons, reducing them to pure novelty, corporate drivel for silly teenage girls. In truth, the Spice Girls were part of a long tradition that we could all stand to learn from: the girl group.
The girl group may date back as far as the 20s, depending on your definition. In the 30s, the Andrews Sisters of Minnesota became arguably the first major female singing group, their “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” a wartime pop smash. The golden age of the girl group came in the 50s when a flood of female singing groups took hold of the charts. There was a sound for every kind of girl: the soulful mock maturity of the Shirelles, the rebel tragedies of the Shangri-Las, the romantic grandeur of the Ronettes. The genre was often pop at its most ruthless. Songs were recorded by studio singers and credited to nonexistent acts, shuffled between groups and recorded over by other artists. Early girl groups were frequently anonymous and invisible, keeping white audiences from finding out how many of them were composed of black singers.
Still, the music was often lush and finely crafted, and the best records of the era have become timeless teenage anthems. The politics were more troublesome. Girl groups mostly reinforced popular notions of traditional femininity and romance, sometimes controversially: Goffin & King’s tragic domestic abuse tale “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” became far more ambiguous and problematic in the hands of Phil Spector and the Crystals. The music industry taking notice of female audiences and making a direct appeal to them was innovative, but the young singers who comprised the groups were frequently taken advantage of, and while female songwriters like Ellie Greenwich shaped the genre, the industry was still male-dominated and men still took much of the credit. Greenwich, for instance, is far from a household name, but her sometimes collaborator Spector was (until his 2003 murder conviction at least) known the world over as one of the greatest composers and producers in pop history.
Though the girl group sound had mostly faded from the pop charts by the end of the 60s, all-female groups remained a force in soul music and later R&B. These groups—as well as new wave bands like the Go-Go’s and the Bangles and the riot grrrl movement—continued to evolve the girl group concept and keep it commercially viable, laying the groundwork for the Spice Girls’ sudden rise to global pop dominance.
In 1994, talent manager Bob Herbert published an ad looking for “streetwise, outgoing, ambitious and dedicated” singers and dancers to form a new pop group in London. Herbert and his family team wanted to create an alternative to the dominating British boy bands of the era like Take That and East 17. 400 applicants were whittled down over the next few months, eventually settling on five girls, Victoria Adams, Melanie Brown, Melanie Chisholm, Geri Halliwell and Emma Bunton. Living in a house together in Berkshire, they were christened Touch and recorded demos and rehearsed dance routines for months. When labels began showing interest and Herbert proposed contracts, the girls hesitated, unhappy with their lack of independence. They met manager Simon Fuller in 1995 and quickly signed with him and began touring and writing.
Label interest was intense but the group had principles, namely, they refused to allow any one of them to be pegged as a ‘leader,’ recognizing that their strength came from the fact that they were five unique personalities and not one star and a handful of backup singers. They finally signed with Virgin Records in the fall of 1995 and began working on an album in earnest. Their first single was written and recorded in an unusually frenzied fashion, stitched together from bits and pieces, orphaned hooks, jokes and gibberish. The fractured genesis of “Wannabe” might be what makes it work so well, the kind of bizarrely intoxicating blend of sounds that could have only been dreamed up in the 90s, a cascade of R&B oneupmanship and faux-rap lines over pumping house melodies, canned beats and funk bass, liberally slathered with studio sheen and sound effects. It is much of the best and worst of the past and (then) future of 90s pop condensed into three minutes. It eventually reached number one in 31 countries, and it is still shockingly, criminally addictive.
The song’s success was initially fueled by it’s video, a single take romp through a posh hotel filled with stodgy old aristocrats, played ad nauseam on European music channels in the weeks before and after the song’s release. The video succinctly establishes the Girls’ carefully coded personalities types: Adams, the supermodel socialite; Chisholm, the energetic tomboy; Brown, the outrageous center of attention; Bunton, the blonde girly girl; Halliwell, the sassy redhead. Posh Spice, Sporty Spice, Scary Spice, Baby Spice and Ginger Spice, as Top of the Pops magazine named them shortly after their debut. In one of their savviest moves, the group quickly spun the nicknames into semi-official monikers. The Spice Girls were now truly a set of distinct characters working as one, like the Power Rangers or the Sailor Scouts: a super team.
Nothing on the album that was released a few months after “Wannabe” lives up to its captivating energy, but it maintains the single’s unruly, genre-hopping sensibilities. Take “Say You’ll Be There,” a sparkly, 80s-style pop tune grafted onto a g-funk inspired beat, with a gloriously bizarre harmonica solo shoved into the bridge. The disco workout “Who Do You Think You Are” is a big highlight, and—thanks mostly to the genre’s enduring influence—is blessedly undated compared to the 90s-drowned sounds of the rest of the album.
Some styles don’t take as well: a sexy chorus and languid production make “Naked” a halfway believable Erotica imitation, but the flat, unconvincing spoken word/rap verses kill the mood. And the “Humpty Dance”-sampling “If U Can’t Dance” stops dead in its tracks when Ginger Spice starts rapping in Spanish for some reason. Like many pop acts, the Spice Girls stumble most often on the ballads. “2 Become 1” is a candle-lit PG slow jam so slow it’s nearly a sedative, and “Mama” has a strong melody and good intentions but its strummy, gospel-tinged sound is bland and sappy.
Despite its occasional unevenness, Spice made the Spice Girls the fastest selling British group since the Beatles, topping charts in over 50 countries. “Wannabe” was not released in America till the beginning of 1997, but overwhelming global sales made even the difficult US market an easy domino to topple. The next year saw the release of another album, millions more in sales, awards, global tours, meetings with royalty and world leaders. Upon meeting them, Nelson Mandela called them his “heroes.” While it may have looked like the whole world was in love with the Spice Girls, they had their fair share of detractors, and a growing backlash
The tabloids had been after them from the beginning, publishing old nude photos of Halliwell and speculating constantly on potential infighting. While initial reviews of Spice were positive, critics began to question the legitimacy of the group as they became more popular. As endorsement deals kept rolling in, people began to see the Spice Girls as cheap and manufactured. In the days just before music criticism’s contrarian shift towards so-called ‘poptimism,’ there was little pressure to defend the absurd and sometimes garish Spice Girls, despite their charms.
At the end of 1997, the group dumped manager Simon Fuller. The firing kicked the ‘Spicemania’ backlash into high gear as the media rushed to pronounce the group dead. It was ironic: Fuller had been the chief architect behind the incessant merchandising and endorsements. His firing could have been construed as a sign that the group was reclaiming their independence. Instead, Fuller was seen as the true mastermind of the Spice Girls, without whom they would just be five ditzy models striving for a break. The group saw the subtext clearly. “The thing about the media is that it’s a very male-dominated industry,” Adams said after the firing. “Maybe they don’t even realize sometimes what they’re doing, but a lot of men, they liked the fact that they thought that a man was behind the Spice Girls. And they don’t like the fact that now it’s five girls taking control. We’ve always been in control anyway, but I think they find the new situation quite hard to accept.”
The biggest hook the Spice Girls had was something they called ‘Girl Power,’ a sort of vague, consumer friendly rebranding of feminism which the Girls carried as their banner. Girl Power was, like everything else about the group, coy marketing. Remember, they were brought together as an answer to the dominance of boy bands, who had in the 80s and 90s achieved massive success. While Bob Herbert thought the appeal of Touch would rest in their ability to attract (and stimulate) teenage boys as effectively as they could draw in girls, the real power of the Spice Girls came from the way they cannily reinvented the girl group for the 21st Century, making themselves representatives of the modern woman: challenging tradition, loving freely, treating feminism as an essential value.
Despite all it’s goofiness and “zigazig-ha,” “Wannabe” offers a subtly powerful premise, demanding respect and satisfaction from a male partner and affirming that female friendships are more important than any man. That theme of sisterhood runs through almost every song on the album. It’s bold, even now. In today’s pop world, otherwise talented writers like Taylor Swift still can’t help over-idealizing dewy-eyed, boy/girl fantasies that prioritize finding a male partner above all else. Just as the Spice Girls refused to be molded or ignored by labels and management, they also refused to be defined by their relationships with men. Idealistically, the girl group and pop music itself had come a long, long way from the 50s.
In 1998, Geri Halliwell left the Spice Girls to begin a solo career. While the effects of Simon Fuller’s dismissal seemed to be greatly overstated, the rumors of turmoil and tension had not been. The four-piece Spice Girls continued touring and recording and released one more album before announcing their “hiatus” in 2000. They’ve reunited twice since then with much fanfare in the UK but otherwise, they’ve all moved on.
But what about the girl group? The form has continued with success in the UK, where the impact of the Spice Girls is still mostly keenly felt. South Korea and Japan have revolutionized the girl group in their own ways, lineups sometimes ballooning into skirt-clad armies. But America, still the biggest and toughest pop music market, seems to have lost all interest in the girl group. Why is that? Today feminism penetrates pop music more than ever, and it no longer has to be dressed up or rebranded. Beyoncé samples feminist TED talks, and expressing disinterest in the topic is now more eyebrow-raising than embracing it. So where are the girl groups? Maybe groups like the Spice Girls are just too tacky and old-fashioned for today’s pop landscape, for any label to take a chance on them. Or maybe a group of smiling, casually empowered female friends is still threatening to lots of people, maybe it still makes little boys cover their ears and run from the room. Maybe we could all still use a little Girl Power.