Five for the Power of Spice

Returning to the Golden Era of the Spice Girls

by Scott Elingburg

12 February 2012


Spice Boys

If there’s a lack of in-depth analysis, so far, of the Spice Girls’ music, it’s intentional on my part. Because what I’ve discovered after delving in the realm of the Spices is that their image was and is much more powerful than their music could have ever been. On its own two (ten?) legs, the Spice Girls’ music is relatively thin, both in substance and output. But accusing their music of lacking substance is a bit like pointing a finger at Lady Gaga and questioning why she insists on being so theatrical. Because it’s the way pop music works—you trade small substance for big payoff. You don’t have to think, you have to watch.

But as for their musical output, what the Spice Girls lacked in number of albums (two as a quintet, one as a foursome, not including the Greatest Hits album), they consistently made up for in media appearances. And this pre-internet media blitz was another product of the ‘90s, a decade where it wasn’t unusual to only have one or two popular songs from a single album and then milk them for all they were worth with consistent video rotation, radio play, endless touring and festival appearances. Often hit single after hit single would come from one solitary album that remained on the charts for years. Counting Crows, Matchbox Twenty, Beck, Paula Cole, Alanis Morissette and countless other artists used this formula to their advantage, coasting through the decade with one, maybe two albums that were central to the ‘90s pop scene and staples of record collections everywhere. The Spice Girls were no different. Their musical output was sparse, but spawned single after single, keeping the airwaves flooded with Girl Power.

And the musical landscape of the mid-to-late ‘90s was indeed littered with the soft, smooth harmonies of various boy and girl pop groups. Take That make it okay again for heterosexual men to fall to their knees in the rain and swing their leather jackets open wide in romantic displays of passion. 98 Degrees, N’Sync, and The Backstreet Boys made it safe to wear hair gel, take hip-hop dance lessons, and admit your longstanding appreciation for New Kids On the Block. Destiny’s Child was on the horizon and poised for stardom, and former Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were busy making Lolita seem like a sensible love story. Other girl-, and girl-fronted, groups ran in tandem with the Spice Girls—All Saints, Aqua, No Doubt (who’s music was becoming overtly shiny and less rough around the edges), TLC—but none experienced the same level of recognition and notoriety that the Spices did. They still hold the title of biggest selling all-female group of all time.

But why, exactly? What did the Spice Girls possess in spades that made them inescapable in the media and unknowingly engaging to the casual music fan? Marisa Meltzer in her excellent book Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music (New York: Faber and Faber, 2010) rightfully poses this theory:

One of the keys to the success of the Spice Girls was that it was easy for girls to imagine being one of them. It didn’t matter that the five women were particularly talented singers or dancers; it was their appearance of ordinariness—along with their message of total empowerment—that was their greatest asset. They were indeed styled and slick and beautiful, but not in a supermodel way, and as singers and dancers they were in possession of the kind of talent attainable to anyone with enough training and dedication (79)

Meltzer is entirely correct for the most part. We can address the potential talent in the Spice Girls brand of everywoman appeal, but the fact remains that the Spices never seemed unreachable on an artistic level. They had no pretentious notions of creating high art like PJ Harvey or Kate Bush, or appealing to marginalized groups of listeners like Cyndi Lauper or Madonna, and they weren’t out to try to purposefully appeal to hypersexed adolescent boys and girls. They didn’t even play instruments. And their message of “girl power” was aimed squarely at the broadest audience possible. “Girl power” was a message nearly all listeners could get behind—it wasn’t “Fight the power”, or “Where have all the cowboys gone?”, it was empowerment for women. Or, perhaps more significantly, girls. All the Spices sought to project in their message was to take care of your friends and don’t take any crap from people who don’t like who you are. If you just be yourself, you can’t lose and your talent can take you where you want to go, a message totally in line with the social liberalism of the ‘90s and one that would soon be crushed by the weight of heavier themes in the Noughties.

What Meltzer doesn’t address, however, is the male acceptance of the Spice Girls. If it was “easy for girls to imagine being one of them”, it was just as easy for boys to identify with and be attracted to their stereotypical personas. Their pouty looks and choreographed bouts of unpredictability as best showcased through their numerous videos, served as a just-out-of-reach yet almost attainable female love interest. They were a bit rude, a bit sexy, clearly lots of fun to hang around with, they were British, and they were, for all intents, rock stars. And all of them were easily identifiable through their personas. Scary, Sporty, Baby, Ginger, and Posh all represented a calculated cross-section of the expected female archetype in pop music. Not an actual cross-section of women, mind you, but one that was a close enough representation of our imaginations. Having five distinct identities, yet a singular group identity, never automatically forced the listener to choose between which one was the better personality, the better singer, dancer, or, even the best looking. All of them shared equal stage time, equal singing time, and equal camera time. No one Spice was given the preferential treatment when it came to the groups’ product. And although obligatory polls were conducted asking fans to name their favorite Spice Girl, the group and their gang mentality made it okay to admit to a favorite Spice, as long as the implicit understanding was that the Spices came as a total package. In other words, if you wanted to be their “lover”, well, you know what you had to do (because friendship never ends).

For males, young and old, that’s the entire package times five. Because the Spice Girls were smart enough give the impression that they were five distinct personalities, instead of a single female pop star attempting to encase all of those elements into one. Essentially, you could have a friend, a lover, a drinking partner, someone to go the club with, and racquetball buddy all in one—which ones you chose were entirely up to you.

So there’s an inherent attraction for males to the Spices based simply on their spunkiness. They were uncannily compulsive to watch on screen, a little intimidating, too, and they were having fun being rockstars. Not only did the Spice Girls make superstardom seem like a wholly achievable career option for their fans, they appeared to celebrate in it and actually encouraged their fans to pursue their dreams of stardom through their music and their attitude. That’s what girl power was about, the sort of naive and worthwhile aspirations that seemed not just plausible, but possible. In an era where bands like the Gin Blossoms and Hootie and the Blowfish could be unheard of one day, and multi-platinum artists the next, The Spice Girls were the living embodiment of “never giving up on the good times” and always believing in yourself as an individual.

No More Spice For Us

Spice World, sadly, is where it ends for the Spice Girls. Or, more appropriately, where it feels like it ends. During a number in the film, while the Spices participate in a “boot camp” for dancing, they sing: “Would this work with only four?  We need five for the power of Spice—it takes five for the power of spice!” It’s a painful prophetic moment, as Geri Halliwell would exit the Spice Girls soon after and the remaining four would go on to make their first and only album as a foursome. But the Spice Girls had a buoyant ride, all things considered and Spice World is their swansong, in the best way possible. It’s a natural ending to the maniacal trip of stardom, but, despite its inherent jubilation, it came across as too much; a sentiment the Girls’ ironically expressed in their opening song for the film, “Too Much” (“too much of something is bad enough… too much of nothing is just as tough”). After consuming the Spice Girls on our own terms, we suddenly gorged ourselves on their presence, their stardom. It was akin to eating a piece of cheesecake and then returning for seconds only to end up eating the entire cake. It was enjoyable while it was happening, but then we all felt sick afterwards. Later we puked up the new millennium and lived to regret it.

Now, nostalgia is back in bloom. But what the Spice Girls had, at the risk of sounding errantly uncool, was magical. It helped define teenage girls, jump-start teenage boys’ libidos, provide common listening ground for parents and kids, and, best of all, it encouraged positivity—something sorely lacking from our hollow decade. It encouraged having fun, enjoying life, and valuing friendship above all else. It was all so beautifully raw that imagining that that time could be recreated seems like a feat not even Dr. Frankenstein could pull off.

Maybe once again, before I die, I’ll see a collective embodiment of goodwill and harmony like the Spice Girls with platform shoes, snappy outfits, and songs that I can fist pump to in my minivan as I speed down the highway to drop the kids off at school. In this era and at this rate, though, I’m jaded enough by the state of commercial radio and the drivel that Top 40 artists produce to recognize the state of the past for what it is—a brilliant, brief flash of momentum that carried us on its shoulders, holding us high enough for everyone to see the adopted peace sign of Ginger Spice, signifying Girl Power for all. And for most of us alive in that decade, that was enough. That was all we needed. That, and maybe one more glorious, shining hour before the dawn to slam our bodies down because the party was, forever, all around.

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