Five London taxi cabs carrying the Spice Girls at the 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony © Philip Pryke

Spicing It Up Again

14th December 2012

Jennifer Lipman examines the legacy of the original Girl Power group

They even beat Bolt. Oh, yes. When the Spice Girls took to the stage at the London 2012 Closing Ceremony, in a euphoric show of nostalgia and sparkling taxis, delighted viewers posted 116,000 tweets a minute. By comparison, Usain Bolt’s victory – surely one of the moments of the Games – prompted a paltry 80,000.

Fans lapped up the reunion, just as they have rushed to snap up tickets for Viva Forever!, the Spice-inspired West End musical, which opens this week. Proof, then, that the prediction of my junior school music teacher – that this talentless band of wannabes would disappear into obscurity by the millennium – was anything but accurate.

Sixteen years after Wannabe reached Number One, it’s undeniable that Baby, Sporty, Scary, Ginger and Posh have left a mark on the music industry. But – as a quartet who claimed to be standing up for Girl Power, yet pranced around in skimpy dresses; as a group who sang raunchy lyrics and followed provocative dance routines but marketed themselves as incarnations of the everywoman – how they changed it is less certain.

It’s hard to argue that they were not exceptional, even in a pop back-catalogue full of bright-eyed lovelies singing manufactured lyrics. Other British girl bands came and went in the 90s: Bewitched, Cleopatra, Eternal, even All Saints. Only the Spice Girls – famous a decade before London won the bid – were invited to sing at the Olympics. Everyone has a memory, or an opinion.

“They were a one off,” says Catherine, a professional baker from London. ”At least in terms of their global domination – a band have yet to do that since.”

Of course, it wasn’t just about the music; it wasn’t necessarily about the music at all, although with nine UK number ones, more than 100 million records sold worldwide and an assortment of awards, they didn’t do badly. They were a cultural phenomenon, influential in every branch of entertainment. “There were CDs, films, Hallowe’en costumes, sticker books, Barbies and a whole slew of other gimmicks,” recalls Elana, who grew up in Canada choreographing dance moves to Spice Girls songs with her friends.

The Spice Girls created a globally relevant brand, and they did it before the internet made it easy, when fans couldn’t just go on YouTube to watch videos over and over, or follow artists on Twitter to feel more connected.

For a generation of girls, they also represented a new breed of role model. “The notion of Girl Power – no one had ever really said that to me before,” Elana explains. “The Spice Girls introduced this new concept that made us feel that we could do anything, whether it be make our own band, or do well in school, or raise a lot of money for charity.”

Natalie, a Glaswegian lawyer, agrees. “They were loud, they were bolshy, they were basically the opposite of lady-like,” she explains. “They challenged the perception of the wallflower woman.” Indeed, who but a Spice Girl would have dared pinch Prince Charles's bum?

Part of what inspired their fans came from the individual Spice ‘personalities’, which surely paved the way for other artists who were more than musicians or celebrities, but characters with their own colourful stories, such as Lady Gaga or Lily Allen. As cynically manufactured as the Spice characters were, they conveyed to impressionable fans that it was acceptable to be different. “It’s not solely something which they did, as artists such as Annie Lennox were always true to their selves,” says Catherine. “But they were very good at making it ok to be who you wanted to be.”

And as a marketing tool, it was phenomenally successful. There can be few who grew up in the Spice era who didn’t dress up as one of the five, or argue heatedly over whether they were a Baby or a Posh, years before the question of whether they were Sex and the City’s Carrie or Samantha came up.

To their critics, though, the Spice Girls presented themselves as role models, yet were anything but. The brand of feminism they promoted – Girl Power and individuality – was derided as toxic, a distraction that discouraged women from demanding real progress. After all, the Spice Girls were unfailingly glamorous and sold, to male fans anyway, just as much on their sex appeal.

“Girl Power represented a passing use of a kind of feminism within fashion and popular culture,” argues feminist writer and music journalist Holly Combe. Although she acknowledges the benefits of having a group of outspoken women take centre stage in the media and publicly emphasise the importance of female friendship, she points out that it involved a lot of style over substance – and was all about catchphrases.

“It ultimately embraced the idea of being positive about women but not a lot else,” she says. “This meant it didn't really engage with feminist issues and also laid the concept open to ridicule from sexists and anti-feminists keen to make a mockery of feminism.”

Even if the Spice Girls themselves played off more than the fact that they were five beautiful women, it’s hard to claim that Girl Power actually challenged the overriding approach that sex sells in the music industry. In the era of X Factor, stars are given professional makeovers in order that they conform as quickly as possible. When female singers don’t fit the mould, as with Adele, for example, it becomes a media discussion: hardly a sign of progress.

“They did represent that sex sells,” admits Natalie. “But they were feminist in that they liberalised perceptions of women. They made it okay to wear skimpy clothes and to be flagrantly sexy.”

In 2007, when the Spice Girls reunited, tickets for the first announced date sold out in 38 seconds. Wannabe, Say You'll Be There and other hits still dominate at nostalgic club nights; Geri’s Union Jack get-up remains a popular fancy dress option. Viva Forever!, which doesn’t actually star any of the five, has been one of the most talked-about shows of the year.

The core of their fanbase may now be in their 20s and 30s, professionals, wives, mothers, but at a second’s notice they could do all the moves to Stop. For those of us who grew up listening to it, the Spice Girls’ music brings back memories of uncomplicated life, of the first posters we had on our walls, of the first live concert we went to.

“I now own a copy of Spice World,” admits Elana. “There was an exhibition in Leeds last year about the Spice Girls and I went with my sister and friends. It was such an amazing blast from the past to see their costumes, hear their music and relive a bit of our childhood.”

And maybe there is a meaning to it all. “The Spice Girls still remind us that there are women who work hard, enjoy themselves whatever their age and don’t take themselves too seriously,” says Catherine. “They are inspirational as family women and also as business women and show that you really can be who you want to be and still be successful.”

Perhaps that’s the point. They weren’t the most talented of singers, and they didn’t last in their original form for very long. They’ve battled their share of personal problems – from eating disorders to marital strife – and endured media sniping from day one. And yet they’re the ones who have come out on top, with an enviable musical legacy, international support and the ability to command an audience at a moment’s notice. As Catherine points out, “all girl bands now are compared to the Spice Girls and very few have measured up…”

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