Music

More Than Just Girl Power: How The Spice Girls Revolted Against Class and Taste

They weren’t flawless feminist renegades or working class icons, but The Spice Girls were always far more complex than they got credit for.

Outside St. Pancras Grand Hotel (‘Saint Pancras’ being the patron saint of fancy English things) five young girls jump up and down on the pavement like lads at a football game, either because they’re happy to see each other or because jumping is fun. “Are ya gonna do it?” says one girl. “Corrr!” says another.

The girls harass a family getting out of a private car. The family look like cartoon rich people. After heckling them (singing in their faces, blocking their path) the girls lose interest and run past a hotel bouncer. In the lobby, one of the girls who is wearing a babydoll dress, looks at a stack of papers and then throws them into the air with abandon. Later on, they startle a Catholic bishop and a dignitary in a red silk sash with their raw sexuality and reckless disregard for table manners. A girl in a lime green singlet throws back her head and laughs.

As a seven year old, I thought that the ‘Wannabe’ video was the most fucking punk thing that I’d ever seen in my life.

Later on, I realised that the Spice Girls’ first single off their 1996 album Spice perhaps wasn’t as groundbreaking as I’d first thought (that was also the year that I first saw the video for George Michael’s ‘FastLove’ and considered it the most provocative thing ever to be allowed on television) but 20 years later, dismissing it as innocuous pop drivel doesn’t seem right either.

“The Spice Girls weren’t flawless feminist renegades or working class icons, but they were always far more complex than they were ever given credit for”

‘Wannabe’ – and everything that came after it – revealed the Spice Girls to be disruptive troublemakers, pop princesses who were more politically engaged than they were given recognition for, contradictory figures who didn’t always represent a feminism I subscribed to, but who seemed totally at odds with other ‘manufactured’ stars of the time, devoid of opinions or personality.

The Spice Girls weren’t flawless feminist renegades or working class icons, but they were always far more complex than they were ever given credit for.

Sex, ‘Girl Power’ And Female Friendship

It’s almost impossible to discuss the Spice Girls without discussing sex.

These girls sang about sex a lot. And not in a veiled, ‘wanting-to-please-my-man’ way, in a “Are you as good as I remember baby?” way. “I need some love like I never needed love before (Wanna make love to ya, baby)” they informed us on the excellently, lazily titled ‘2 Become 1’.

Sometimes they wanted sexual pleasure devoid of emotional attachment, a ‘Cool Girl’ assertion minus the infuriating dismissal of other women as the enemy. In ‘Say You’ll Be There’ they make the confusing argument that they have given this fictional dude “everything” but at the same time admonish him for “throwing far too much emotions at me”.

The Spice Girls’ music swung like a pendulum between fury at the ineptitude of boys, an assertion that they were disposable, and breathless invitations to real men who were ready to handle them. They had appetites and they wanted you to know about them.

It wasn’t revolutionary to discuss sex in pop, but combining aggressively sex-positive videos and lyrics with a superficial, but well-intentioned ‘Girl Power’ focus on women’s rights, sure felt like it.

Geri in particular was famous for her staunch ‘Girl’s Can Do Anything!’ message, one that hit me hard as a kid. As an adult, some of Geri’s ideology – particularly that that places Margaret Thatcher of all people as the “original Spice Girl” just by virtue of being a woman in power – doesn’t sit so easily with me (even Geri later discarded her conservative politics).

The Spice Girls were true advocates of choice feminism that doesn’t resonate with my own, but it still seems remarkable that this pop group, who were almost always dismissed as trivial, were providing political explanations for their ‘mission statement’ when it was never required of them – although boy, did they have to spend a lot of time explaining that being feminists did not mean that they hated men.

“Boy, did they have to spend a lot of time explaining that being feminists did not mean that they hated men”

‘Girl Power’ is still regarded as a clever marketing ploy to cash in on some sort of faux-feminism — as if that was as lucrative in ’96 as is it now —  but the Spice Girls’ focus on friendship is notable, a thread that has been carried through to current groups like Little Mix. This meant it was all the more devastating when the band broke up, their friendships disintegrating from years of constant hustling.

They made their young fans feel like they were their friends too. In the video for ‘Mama’ the girls sing about finally appreciating the sacrifices their mothers had made for them, surrounded by little girls who are obviously screaming the words back, staring at them wide-eyed like they were five luminous moons.

Middle Class And Proud

It’s tempting to frame the Spice Girls as class warriors in flatforms, because they did not look or sound like other polished female pop musicians. Mel B had a thick Northern accent that seemed to get thicker when she got excited about something (so, all the time). Mel C’s Leeds drawl meant that everything that she said sounded like a question. She wore Adidas tracksuits regardless of the occasion.

The Spice Girls were unapologetically brash and did not try to hide how middle class they were – something that was commonplace for British rock bands, but not so much for pop princesses (for example, please enjoy Mel C challenging Liam Gallagher to “’ave a go if you think you’re hard enough” while on stage at The Brit Awards ’97).

“The Spice Girls were unapologetically brash and did not try to hide how middle class they were”

The fact that they get on a bus and not a limo at the end of the ‘Wannabe’ video kills me. Their lack of refinement was at odds with the other female singers I was listening to at the time; they weren’t slick like Madonna or Mariah Carey, didn’t have a furious sophistication like Alanis Morisette or the glamour of Shania Twain. They seemed like grown-ups playing dress ups.

In Kathy Acker’s perplexed interview with the Spice Girls in American Vogue, she contemplates why this generation (millennials, in retrospect) took to the Spice Girls more than any other musical act at the time. “In a society still dominated by class and sexism, very few of those not born to rule, women especially, are able to make choices about their own work and lifestyle. Very few know freedom. None of the Spices, not even Victoria, was born privileged…” she wrote.

“They’re the girls never heard from before in England… they’ve found a voice. Listen to the voices of those who didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, or even to Sussex or to art school.”

Little Bread Crumbs Of Rebellion

Twenty years ago this week, the Spice Girls announced that they were appearing in their first ever film, a motion picture scrapbook that was basically just an excuse for them to dress up like film stars and hang out with every famous person in the UK.

The film wasn’t really about anything. “Spice World has occasional knowing, funny gags but only the barest semblance of a story line,” said the New York Times’ review. The remarkable thing wasn’t that Spice World was a just shameless excuse to make a pop star film for the sake of it. It’s that despite knowing this – and they must have known this – the Spice Girls had the gall to announce their film at the 50th Cannes Film Festival.

At the most prestigious film event in history, the most mocked bubblegum pop band on earth told everyone that in seven months they were going to release a 93-minute, nonsensical music video that critics would hate and fans would adore. It was the most bizarre and ambitious dismissal of taste they could possibly muster.

The announcement brought the block around the Hotel Martinez to a standstill.

The Spice Girls’ heyday is littered with stories like these, that seem too pointed to be accidental.

Why would they announce Spice World at an event that actively tried to exclude people like them? Why, on the day that they were due to sign a highly lucrative contract with Virgin Records, did they send a private car with five blow-up dolls dressed like them and go to a party on a boat instead? “If Virgin didn’t know yet who they were dealing with, they would now,” Victoria said later in her autobiography.

“How did they know they would get away with shitting all over traditions of class division so publicly?”

Why did Mel B kiss Prince Charles and Geri pinch him on the butt, breaking centuries of royal protocol and causing a national scandal? “You know, I think you’re very sexy,” Geri says mockingly, while Prince Charles appears to be suffering a mild heart attack. How did they know they would get away with shitting all over traditions of class division so publicly?

I wonder if all of these moments that broke the narrative of well-behaved pop stars were products of ignorance, or if the Spice Girls were leaving little bread crumbs of rebellion whenever the could. For a band who seemed to regularly challenge standards of class, taste and respectability, they are still considered as far more innocuous than they really were.

They may have been a construction, but that didn’t mean they didn’t bend the rules, even just a little. Maybe Ginger Spice wearing the Union Jack as a glittering, deeply disrespectful mini-dress was kind of punk after all.

Sinead Stubbins is the former Entertainment Editor at Junkee.