Five for the Power of Spice: Returning to the Golden Era of the Spice Girls

“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.

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.