Five for the Power of Spice

Returning to the Golden Era of the Spice Girls

by Scott Elingburg

12 February 2012

What the Spice Girls had, at the risk of sounding errantly uncool, was magical. It helped teenaged girls define themselves and their world; jump-started teenage boys’ libidos; provided common listening ground for parents and kids; and, best of all, encouraged exuberant positivity -- something sorely lacking from our hollow, joyless decade.

“If the girls keep dancing, everybody’s happy. If the girls don’t dance, nobody’s happy.”
—Rob Sheffield, Love Is a Mix Tape

Ginger Spice: Check!
Scary Spice: What do you mean “check”?
Ginger Spice: I mean, check; my bishop’s got your king.
Scary Spice: Where?
Ginger Spice: There! You’ve either got to move it in front, or move it out of the way.
Scary Spice: Well I’ll move that fairground horse to there. Sort that out!
Ginger Spice: You can’t do that!
Scary Spice: Says who?
Ginger Spice: Says Mr. Chess!

—Dialogue exchange between Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) and Melanie Brown (Scary Spice) in the film Spice World

Spice in Bloom

The nostalgia reserves from the ‘90s are slowly being depleted. While I’m not entirely certain how much longer they will last, I do know they cannot last forever. All that goodwill, benevolence, and Bacchanalia that we exuded simply cannot maintain for much longer in this, our first post-millennial decade, the “Noughties”. We’ve burned through all of our resources and, like our endlessly debated national debt, suddenly we all woke up to one cold, somber reality: the self-indulgence is over and we just got stuck with the tab.

But there is still plenty of time to wallow in the now, plenty of time to sober up and wonder about the “what ifs” and the “should haves”. There were some naysayers and party poopers who tried to warn us of our exuberant decadence in the ‘90s. But we were all too busy checking our portfolios, buying silicon stock, and worrying about whether or not Ross and Rachel were going to end up together. There were lots of questions—but fewer answers—mostly from our biggest heroes, the ‘90s pop music stars. Dave Matthews Band wanted to know, “What Would You Say?”; Joan Osborne just had to know what we would do if God was “One of Us”; and, of course, Jewel was concerned with weightier affairs like, “Who Will Save Your Soul?” 

But there were just as many assertions in pop music: Marcy Playground smelled “Sex and Candy”; OMC quizzically, happily drew upon the “bizarre” nature of our time; Semisonic reminded us that it was, or soon would be, closing time; and Oasis encouraged us not to “look back in anger.”  And all of these questions and assertions seem oddly prescient now. Observations and revelations that, at the time, applied aptly enough but would only become fully relevant a decade or more down the road, like a fully stocked bomb shelter in our backyard that was there all along, but gains in meaning when the fallout hits.

But the ‘90s can only truly be summarized by the most powerful of assertions, the most aggravated, yet free spirited call-to-arms imaginable. While most of the male rock groups were exploring their sensitive, emotional sides (e.g., Live, the Verve Pipe, Nine Inch Nails), only one band of female compatriots were willing to get in our collective faces and taunt us by demanding, “tell me what you want, what you really, really want.”

So, let’s get back to a time those bubbly, saucy, patron saints of delight reigned. If we use the Spice Girls and their Stateside appearance dates as their “coming out party” (The Spices released “Wannabe” in January 1997 in the US, but released it in June 1996 in the UK where it immediately made them wildly successful) and move their appearance either forward and backward five years, 1992 and 2002, respectively, the pieces do not fit. The Spices’ pop revelry is absurdly out of place beside the onslaught of grunge and even more defiantly crass in the new millennium, making their 1997 arrival the most perfect time imaginable. The Spice Girls, of course, reunited successfully in 2007 for a new single and subsequent reunion tour in 2008, so we can argue that their demand never went away. But, like all the other bandwagon-jumping reunion groups who reunite but refuse to offer new songs, tour endlessly to adoring audiences eager to see their idols and now able to afford the pricey tickets, the Spice Girls’ reunion presented itself as little more than a cash grab by former superstars without successful solo careers. That is to say, it felt more than a little hollow—a perfect summation of the decade itself.

Years before their reunion, though, the Spices had asked us if we wanted to be their lovers and we said, “Yes, please!” Now, there was too much distance between us. There were two Middle Eastern wars, an economic meltdown looming, and a general malaise that not even good, old-fashioned escapism seemed possible of absolving. For a group that prided themselves on friendship and sticking together with your mates, this was a hard lesson in how you can’t, or shouldn’t, revisit the past. But revisiting—and reveling—in that past is exactly the type of nostalgic exercise that the Spice Girls might advocate in order to help us see we need to “slow it down, gotta have some fun”.

Spice Commodity

Arguably the weakest element of the total ‘Spice’ package when compared to their ubiquitous images in music magazine and their endlessly played videos, the Spice Girls’ music was, nonetheless, a critical element to their intoxicating formula. The strains of “Wannabe”, from the exuberant, off-the-cuff laughter at the beginning of the track all the way to the outros of “slam your body down and wind it all around—zigazig ha”, are as much a celebration of life and fun as they are nonsensical rhyming lines. Other Spice Girls hits—“Say You’ll Be There”, “Spice Up Your Life”, “Move Over”—reside in that same sense of celebration, each one reinforcing common lyrical themes that the Spice Girls’ recycled time and again: friendship is of the utmost importance, girls stick together, boys needs to slow down and move at the romantic pace the Girls’ demand, and life is one big party that the Spices are hosting. Look no further than the opening salvo of “Spice Up Your Life” for confirmation, if you ever doubted:

When you’re feeling sad and low
We will take you where you gotta go
Smiling dancing everything is free
All you need is positivity

Recalling these lines from memory, I have to stop and ask myself, “Is it true? Was there really ever a time when we bought into this ersatz festivity? This shiny, glittered world where it was true, that all you needed was positivity?” Clearly, yes. Not only did we buy into it, we bought it in droves. The Spice Girls have sold somewhere between 73 and 75 million records (probably more) as of the beginning of 2010, making them the biggest selling all-female group of all time and having the 18th biggest selling album of all time in the UK for their debut, Spice. All because the Girls sold it to us with a conviction that was unmatched in popular music at the time and can rarely (if at all) be found in pop music now. Even their ballads were convincingly exciting. Only the Spice Girls could have gotten away with encouraging audiences to “be a little bit wiser, baby / put it on, put it on”, an astute reference to safe sex at a time when the President of the United States was practicing his own form of safe sex with an intern.

But for all their prefabricated career moves, for all their staged sense of chumminess, the Spice Girls were just like any other pop group. Laced with infighting due to strong personalities and unwillingness to split the spotlight five ways, the Spice Girls marched on without Geri Halliwell and released 2000’s fatefully titled Forever, a bold move to continue with a lost appendage, for this Voltron of girl groups, and one that many point to as the final death rattle of the Spice Girls’ reign on popular music.

But like the Beatles before them, the Spice Girls’ musical popularity was intertwined indelibly with their fans’ need to see them, to fawn over them. And that pervading notion ran itself to the only logical conclusion: a 93-minute feature-length film. And said film, Spice World, is contrived, overbearing, clunky, void of resonance, and a ridiculous excuse for celebrities (mostly British ones at that) to show up to the party in cameos and reestablish their “cool” quality. But it’s also fun as hell.

Spice on Film

If the Spice Girls’ videos were staged glimpses into the front window of the ‘lives’ of the Girls’, then Spice World  was the exposure of their (artificial) inner selves to the masses. Not surprisingly Spice World pulls out all the necessary stunts and movie clichés, then crams them endlessly into a whisper-thin plot. There’s not one but two subplots involving filmmakers and writers trying to capture the zaniness of the Spice Girls on film and when that’s not occurring, a crazed media-mogul is attempting to slander the Girls by hiring spy to take their words out of context, then publishing front page ‘news’ about their gaffes. Plus, there had to be plenty of singing and dancing, touring, and the culmination of a final gig at (where else?) the Royal Albert Hall. All this, and Roger Moore petting lots of farm animals, too.

There are horribly cheesy moments that come off as cringe-inducing now, more than a decade later. There’s a fictionalized flashback of the Spices’ early days when they were dreaming of stardom; a fictionalized predication of the Spices as mothers, all of them pregnant and/or performing matronly chores; and, there’s an unexplainable scene involving poorly constructed aliens that left me feeling a little uncomfortable. But by the end of the film, as the Spices learn their lesson about friendship (that it never ends, duh), speed back to their live broadcast gig in their double-decker “Spice Bus,” and perform “Spice Up Your Life” for their finale, all is forgiven. During the final number, I found myself fervently yelling at my friends, “You can’t tell me you’re not enjoying this!” 

Spice World is slow to rev up, but once it does, mostly by abandoning its subplots and focusing on the antics of the Spices, it is unbridled pleasure at its celluloid best. There’s nothing close to resembling a seminal scene or piece of dialogue that grants that much hoped for moment of revelation where you gain some insight into the Spices through sheer accident. I half expected there to be, but, the Spices, for all their façade, were a carefully guarded commodity. If any unscripted moments were to escape, they would likely have been taken care of to preserve the Girls’ image.

The closest Spice World comes to inviting unscriptedness is when the credits roll and the cast is cavorting around the set asking questions about their characters’ motivations and generally breaking the fourth wall in a completely meta-fictional and riotous five minutes. The Spices show up to make comments and suggestions to the writer of the “film” (Mark McKinney) offering him advice and ideas for their characters’ portrayal in the film. “I don’t want to be on the exercise bike the whole time,” Sporty quips. Then, as actress Claire Rushbrook (Deborah in Spice World) walks by, the Girls mention how glad they are that she’s on board with the movie because they wanted, essentially, a real actor to lend the film some credit—otherwise the film might seem “superficial”. In other words, the Spices are not above surrounding themselves with real actors to detract from their inadequacies. And it’s all part of their lack of pretense; they can make fun of themselves if it means they get to do what they love.

Time, I’m afraid, has not been kind to Spice World. Watching it again recently reminded me of just how long ago that era really was—physically and metaphorically. The ‘90s, even the late-period era, feels as if it were more than a lifetime ago, and there are ruinous signs littered throughout the movie: newsprint is still considered the main form of media; the Spices’ atrocious wardrobes that were very much in vogue at the time; George Wendt in a lead role. The most telling sign, however, of just how far we’ve fallen from the vivacity of the ‘90s is to see how the Spices look in the film compared to how they look as of their 2008 reunion. Somehow they’ve gotten sleeker, thinner, sexier, more refined. The edges have been whittled down for a new millennial mass audience who is far less accepting of imperfections. After all, in 2008 the Spice Girls now stood in the vast shadow of the new world order of Girl Power: Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in the background, and Katy Perry and Taylor Swift looming large in the foreground. In Spice World the Spices are natural looking, a little rounder in all the right places, devoid of any one shot or pose or scene that might make them look too palatable. It’s likely why much of the film deals with the Spices attempting to shatter their self-imposed stereotypes, all while reinforcing them with a wink and nudge.

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