A few important things took place in the 1990s. The Hubble Telescope, for example, was floated into space, some intelligent scientists cloned a sheep and named it Dolly, and the power switch was flipped to set the World Wide Web online. The 90s were a cultural success, too. Oasis and Radiohead released their debut albums; Leonardo DiCaprio whipped his free-flowing hair into a starring role in Titanic, and JK Rowling sat down on a train and invented a world of magic that would last a lifetime. Yet, as impressive as these victories are, they arguably pale in comparison to the decade’s defining moment. Because if you boil the 1990s down, leave it to strain and simmer, you’re left with one phrase: “zig-a-zig-ahh”.
That phrase was the centrepiece of the Spice Girls debut single “Wannabe” in 1996 and while it may have initially been devoid of any linguistic meaning, it’s arguably gone on to define the topography of the decade. When we think about the 1990s, we may think about Furbies, or Dr Dre, or Cat Deeley getting gunged on SM:TV Live, but it’s “zig-a-zig-aah” that captures a certain nuance of the era. It is the sound of girl power revving its engine up again, of the rise and culturally dominant nature of pop groups, of a better time where new friendships were formed over dancing, dressing up, and debating whether or not Geri Halliwell was a better singer than Sporty Spice. Look into the history books and you’ll see it. 1990s: the “Rachel haircut”, Adidas poppers, and “zig-a-zig-aah”.
The thing is - as is always the way with history and ideas and cultural retrospectives - not everyone agrees you can put the 1990s in a blender and end up with the cool, refreshingly powerful sound of the Spice Girls debut single. For a start, there are still a lot of people who think The Stone Roses are God’s only gift. But there’s also the fact that the Spice Girls attracted a fair amount of criticism for their brand of pop. To some, they killed feminism, subverted morality and embarrassed us all. To others, it was infuriating to see them emerge, supported financially by a major label and physically by Wonderbra’s, straight to number one. If you asked one writer this week, the eventual demise of the 1990s into today’s world of depravity is all down to the Ginger Spice, Baby Spice, Posh Spice, Scary Spice, and Sporty Spice. But fuck that. It’s now been twenty years since the release of “Wannabe”, and it’s hard to argue the importance that the track had on our collective experience through the years that have come since. Just in case anyone is confused, though, I’m going to do exactly that.
Before “Wannabe” was unleashed into the world, 90s pop music in the UK was dominated by men, with the charts saturated by either Britpop lads or boy bands like Take That and East 17. This isn’t to diminish the women who were making their mark on the charts - the likes of Gabrielle, Des’ree and The Cardigans among others - but rather than the intergenerational appeal of the Spice Girls, these were artists that mostly belonged in your parents CD changer. With their more simplistic, relatable take on cheery pop, Spice Girls felt like a perfectly-timed antidote. Even now, the opening riff of “Who Do You Think You Are” conjures up an almost irrepressible feeling of invincibility. With our saved-up pocket money, the Spice Girls taught a generation of girls that they were the new queen-makers.
Of course, “Girl Power” did exist pre-Spice Girls. The term was brought about by all-female group Mint Juleps back in the 80s with their song “‘Girl To The Power of 6”, before riot grrrl powerhouse Bikini Kill used the phrase in a zine. But it was the Spice Girls who brought the message into the mainstream, subsequently launching a consumer-friendly brand of feminism to a whole new generation. In many ways, the pop group were tied up in the spread of third wave feminism - a wave that was attracting a much younger audience. As a kid, I had no clue who Germaine Greer was, but I was all about my “girl power” crop-top. This was about girls being supportive to one another; about women and girls coming together, having a good time and accepting themselves. Whether you agree with their brand of feminism or not, pedalling a message of female solidarity and empowerment in the process can hardly be looked upon with disdain.
While boy bands were devised to sing to girls, the Spice Girls sang with them. More to the point, they were working-class girls, pulled from various regional suburbs, that appealed directly to other working-class girls. The Spice Girls represented a new window to fame based on singing and dancing, which, as Valerie Walkerdine put it in 1998, presented pre-teen working class girls with “the possibility of a talent from which [working-class girls] have automatically been excluded by virtue of their supposed lack of intelligence or culture.” Asking my friends now why they loved the Spice Girls so much, most of them say it was because they were five girls who were best mates, but who all had different personas that made everyone feel like they had a place. Obviously the dynamic wasn’t perfect – the only woman of colour being donned “Scary Spice” is all kinds of problematic (though maybe I’m bitter ‘cos, as the only non-white kid in my year, I was made to be her in the playground even though my favourite was Baby) – but it felt close to perfect at the time.
To high-brow music snobs - AKA, cynical husks who cannot understand the unrelenting positivity that’s instilled within the roots of pop music - a girl group who were “manufactured” may not seem very “cool” or “authentic”. But Spice Girls weren’t meant to appeal to fans of Radiohead. Besides, they co-wrote most of their own songs, and insisted – against the advice from label executives – on “Wannabe” being their first single. In fact, before they even released anything, the Spice Girls bailed on the management team that put them together in the first place, taking the master copy of their recordings along with them, which is pretty badass.
As the Spice Girls’ reign went on, they seemed to become less of a musical entity and more and more of an overt marketing tool, with Pepsi, Walkers, Polaroid, Barbie and more scoring very lucrative deals with them. But their success on the non-musical side of things only serves to reinforce the pop cultural phenomenon they had bestowed upon the British music industry and the world. A pop act having this much sway in the products people were buying was unprecedented – on that scale, it seems unlikely to ever be repeated. That a group of girls could have such monocultural significance was inspiring. You can roll your eyes and say “Girl Power’’ was a vapid marketing ploy, but the 2016 Wannabe remake “#WhatIReallyReallyWant” is proof of the staying power of the concept, and of how unifying the idea of women banding together to get their voices heard can be. Plus, Nelson Mandela called meeting the Spice Girls one of the best moments of his life. Are you really going to argue with Nelson Mandela?
If it hadn’t been the Spice Girls, maybe another group would have filled that consumerist pop vacuum, but they didn't. Two decades later, their songs still slay the dancefloor. Naysayers will point to 21st century celebrity culture and reality shows as being the “fault” of the Spice Girls, but I’d argue their impact on pop music was way more far-reaching than modern pop consumerism. Without everything that came after Scary Spice’s laughter at the beginning of “Wannabe”, could there have so easily have been a Britney playing coy girl next door without Baby Spice? What of Christina, Sugababes and – importantly – Destiny’s Child? The room for the latter’s focus on Independent Women was arguably paved by Girl Power. As recently as June, Adele chanted a bit of “Spice Up Your Life” whilst on stage in Amsterdam, and it made sense that one of the biggest female pop-stars of our time should feel indebted to the Spice Girls.
Truly, 20 years ago, those five determined girls from across the country inspired us all. Victoria, Mel, Mel, Emma and Geri: thank you for making female-led pop fun again. Thank you for spicing up our lives.
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