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Assessing the Girl Power of the Spice Girls — ’90s nostalgia or a lasting legacy?

It’s the ear worm that turned.

If you want to divide the people in a room into lovers and haters, just put on Wannabe by the Spice Girls.

Like bad eggs rising to the top of a pan of water, it swiftly clears out everyone bar those who were kids or early teens in the summer of 1996. 

Sure, the uncouth quintet — “animals”, Vivienne Westwood called them — would go on to make better records in their brief recording career, but to criticise Wannabe as “crap” (or, more often in various polls, “the most annoying song ever made”) is to misunderstand the magic and the cultural impact of the Spice Girls. 

Wannabe turned them into a global sensation almost overnight, though as a constructed confection, the Spices were immediately labelled as an industry fabrication; a merchandising scheme dreamt up by money men attempting to cash in on the void left by the newly departed Take That. Whatever happened to them?

The Spice Girls were never meant to be just another pop group, though. They were conceived from the beginning as a marketing tool, a multi-headed hydra of corporate synergy and focus group-tested feminine appeal. It was a right-place, right-time atom bomb of nonstop product placement and Thatcherite capitalist exploitation, delivered in a slick package of glossy pop ditties and smiling faces.

“We Spice Girls are true Thatcherites. Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology, Girl Power. Thatcher had ideals all right. We love Maggie.”—Geri Halliwell, 1996

But credit where it’s due. No one does super-fandom like the Brits, and back in the second half of the nineties, it looked as though Beatlemania might finally be outdone by the fivesome of feminism. For those young’uns, hearing five feisty ladies exhorting them to place friendship above romance, being their best selves, and not letting anyone get them down was a legitimately inspiring message.

With that unwavering momentum, the Spice Girls were comfortably the most popular and most recognisable musical phenomenon in a generation, enjoying a meteoric rise that was ample proof it’s possible to manufacture success provided you have the right formula.

Such was their saturate ubiquity by 1997’s caterwauling Spice Up Your Life that even my grandmother knew who they were: a pretty astonishing case of brand recognition considering that by that approaching nonagenarian point in her life, only the really top drawer musical names like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were still registering.

Nelson Mandela? Pah, he’s just a kid…

The Spice Girls’ reach went way beyond Britain, too, extending their decapod reach to all corners and races of the planet. The “colours of the world”, you might say.

Born in Los Angeles in 1985, Quentin Harrison was the perfect age to be captivated by their spell. He turned 13 the day the Spice’s seventh single was released (Stop — the one that lived up to its title and put an ungainly stop on their record-breaking run of chart-toppers). It was, as he recounted in his Perfect 10: Spice Girls feature for, an undoubted moment of kismet. The stars had aligned.

Now a writer, critic and author, Quentin chose the Spice Girls as the first entry in his Record Redux pop tomes, a meticulously researched ongoing book series that seeks to examine the varying discographies of the female artists in popular music that resonate most with him. The Spice volume has recently been completely revised and updated, so to celebrate International Women’s Day (or should that be International W.O.M.A.N. Day?) I’m delighted to present my robust and forthright interview with him, fun spice bombs and all. (QH and I have been digital friends for years, so it’s fair to say we know how to ping each other’s buttons.)

So, here’s the story from A to Z…

Three words: define Girl Power

Hmm. I’ve always seen it as something meant to empower, uplift and celebrate girls and women; specifically, to me, it is about trying to view the world through their more well-rounded perspective. Too often, the male view sorta cast as this default way of seeing things. That can become real boring quickly if that’s the only way one chooses to navigate life. Girl power helps to show that there is another experience to be considered – if that makes sense?

It does. Girl Power was likened to a social phenomenon but in reality, it was third wave feminism, the likes of which was already being espoused in possibly more articulate terms by the likes of Annie Lennox and Madonna — not to mention Geri, always its most vocal proponent, nicking the slogan from Shampoo’s Girl Power single released the week before Wannabe. Luckily for her, it flopped! But isn’t it a curious irony that so much was made of that angle yet every song the Spice Girls released was co-written by men?

Firstly, having a male co-writer doesn’t diminish the female thrust behind the song. There are plenty of women who have co-written with men and that didn’t take anything away from their message. Further, it was the Spice Girls who chose every single writer-producer they worked with – not the other way around. If you haven’t read it already, David Sinclair’s Wannabe: How The Spice Girls Reinvented Pop Fame really helped shed light on that process. I was fortunate to have Mr. Sinclair provide the foreword to the 2016 iteration of my book. Major respect for him. He was arguably the first British music critic to do what I set out to do with my project: focus on the Spice Girls’ music. 

Talking of Annie Lennox, I know that the girls recorded an as yet unreleased cover of Eurythmics’ Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves (though live renderings were aired in concert and on TV as a duet between the two Mels), though what’s interesting is the credit Simon Fuller — who managed both acts — later gave Annie: that she had a tacit role in advising the girls to play up the cartoon character element of the group, to give each of them a memorable individual identity. 

Though, of course, as you pointed out in your excellent, diligently presented A to Z is how then Top Of The Pops magazine editor Peter Loraine took Annie’s advice to its logical conclusion and gave the fivesome their famous nicknames over lunch in Notting Hill. Peter’s two years younger than me, and I used to watch his progress via the pages of a pop poster magazine in the mid-’80s, where he would ply his wares as a fledgling Bananarama fanzine editor. More recently he’s been Girls Aloud’s label boss and manager of The Saturdays, so clearly he gets pop music. You’re a black queer kid from Atlanta. What is it about British female-led pop that seems to strike a chord with a certain kind of impressionable young man the world over?

Thanks for the kind words about the book. Getting to your question, my answer kind of goes back to my response above. I think that gay men aren’t able to express themselves through that typical male filter, so the female filter, so to speak, offers more options in regard to relating to what’s around you. So, bringing it around to music — more precisely the pop genre — by design, is about pulling from other genres to create an amalgam sounds and influences. With women in that musical field, they bring that open, curious perspective to an artform that is, in and of itself, about the same thing. That appeals to young gay men who are looking to find themselves in a society that still, even today, is only but so receptive to them. 

From aficionado to author: what in the course of collating all the material for your book did you find the most surprising or revelatory?

While I was always aware that the Spice Girls, as a group and own their own, always worked with the best and brightest (writers, producers, musicians), I was really intrigued to see several names continue to pop up: Steve Lipson, Peter-John Vettese, Harvey Mason Jr., Cathy Dennis, David Frank (of The System), Phil Thornalley, Guy Chambers, Stephen Hague, you name it… just this amazing, eclectic list of tunesmiths who occasionally would work with one or more Spice Girls at a time on their solo work.

I believe that speaks to these five women and the respect (or curiosity) they sort of brought to bear in their working relationships as recording artists. I’m a sleeve notes nerd at heart, what can I say! (laughs.)

For what it’s worth, if I had to pick my favourite SG 45s I’d plump for the wonky R&B lite of Say You’ll Be There and the delicious disco pastiche Who Do You Think You Are. I even bought the latter CD single. It especially resonates with Brits, not only because of the whole double A package with Mama, but the Comic Relief Red Nose Day campaign it was tied to: the hilariously high-kicking video with Sugar Lumps, which was essentially Jennifer Saunders and the AbFab B-Team. I wonder where they filmed it? Edina Hotel?

In regard to my choices for the Perfect 10 article, I picked the songs I wanted. No more, no less. I like Wannabe, Say You’ll Be There and Who Do You Think You Are, but I’m also a bit bored of the obvious choices. Not only are there other singles worthy of selection/conversation, the Spice Girls have the output — collectively and individually — that’s ideal to peruse when it comes to deep cuts and B-sides.

And of course, there was THAT show-stopping performance at the Brit Awards.

While I do appreciate their performance at the BRITs 1997 due to its iconographic stature, they mimed; I much prefer their follow-up performances at the 1998 and 2000 instalments of that awards ceremony that were just as visually arresting, but evinced how awesome the Spice Girls are as live singers. Just my two cents. 

The thing about the first BRITs, though, was it captured the pop zeitgeist for a moment and essentially defined the Spice Girls image, so much so that they’ve refashioned versions of those outfits for their reunion tours and what have you. Talking of which, did you clock how many times the cameraman zoomed in on Geri’s crotch? It was almost like he was trying to embarrass the poor lass: “Hey Miss Ginger! You do realise you’re on stage without your trousers on?”

As I remarked, I get the iconography, but careers are made from more than just one moment. That was one moment in a career full of them. Regarding camera angles, I didn’t notice anything like that. I was just enjoying the totality of their awesome stage show.

What I find interesting are the vocals on WDYTYA. With the possible exception of Mel C, who does has the range and the ad-libs, Spice Girls weren’t exactly revered as vocalists. Yet Geri Halliwell puts in a really distinctive, sultry performance, with bags of vampish character that point the way to the drama queen direction she took with some of her early solo things like Look At Me and Bag It Up, and probably other three-word song titles too.

As I discuss at length in my book, the other four Spice Girls separate from Melanie C are far more capable than what you’re giving them credit for. Too Much comes to mind in regard to how well each one handles their solo lines between the first and second verses, but the chorus brings it all together with that blend that is signature and gorgeous. You always noticed when one was missing – whether it was Geri or Victoria — but I also enjoy watching how they rework their harmony approach when they’ve gone from quintet to quartet status.

There are some particularly great moments in their canon that demonstrate their uniqueness as singers: Take Me Home (B-side to Say You’ll Be There), The Lady Is A Vamp, Weekend Love, the list goes on. And as solo artists, they would each come into their own. My favourite Geri solo moment is a toss-up between Calling or I Was Made That Way, both lush ballads from her second solo effort Scream If You Wanna Go Faster (2001); I know I cite Passion as another Geri touchstone for me too.

In addition, Emma’s voice has always been radio ready — I’m assuming you haven’t heard Life In Mono? 

Oh, it’s always dodgy to assume, especially with almost every record that’s ever been released now available to listen to with one click via streaming. Life In Mono was the “more covers, more sixties” project from the Baby one. Normally, I would have given it more of a chance as I quite enjoyed What Took You So Long and Free Me. But when the lead single is a cynical, almost note-for-note carbon copy of Petula Clark’s Downtown — even down to the vocal inflections — you’ve ultimately lost the most discerning half of your audience already. Though it was a hit, it pretty much killed her presence on the singles charts in the long term.

It’s almost like an exec at Emma’s record label reminded her how much What I Am — the Edie Brickell cover with Tin Tin Out — sold and demanded more of the same. I know you’re partial to her version of Madison Avenue’s Don’t Call Me Baby and at least she put a bit of a Spanish spin on that one. Though I naturally prefer the original, which has absolutely nothing to do with my dating Cheyne Coates’s nephew Josh when I first arrived in Australia (laughs).

Well, barring Emma’s Petula Clark cover that you aren’t too fond of, Life In Mono is actually a really awesome record that built on her ’60s revivalist pop vibe set forward on her second album, 2004’s Free Me, a gold seller that spun off three UK Top 10 hits and was critically hailed at home. If it sounds like I am bragging on Emma, it is because I am, ha, ha, ha!

I think what’s interesting is that we come from polar opposites as far as our core musical tastes go, but part of that is obviously generational. Occasionally we do meet in the softer mallow pop centre now and then. I find it fascinating that you don’t rate Amy Winehouse — dismissing her as “contrived”. Yet you don’t think there’s an element of contrivance to a teenpop outfit like the Spice Girls, with all the crass cash-ins and brazen Thatcherite commercialisation?

Their ability to sell records doesn’t take away from their music being good. To say otherwise is just silly. Now, if it isn’t to your taste, that’s fine. Everything ain’t for everybody, as my grandmother used to say. It’s fair to assume that if the Spice Girls’ music wasn’t substantive, we wouldn’t be talking about them today nor would I have spent over a year writing a book about them.

Although I could never deny Ms. Winehouse’s talent, ultimately, I found her songs and image to be a bit on the nose for me. When I think of pop-soul excellence from the United Kingdom, women like Jessie Ware, Joss Stone, Sharleen Spiteri, Lisa Stansfield, Annie Lennox, and Dusty Springfield move me; and this is to say nothing of the actual British R&B vocalists I adore like Laura Mvula, Corinne Bailey Rae, Beverley Knight, and Mica Paris.

To be clear, this is just my opinion. I don’t deny Amy Winehouse’s impact or that she has an audience. She just isn’t for me. 

As Scouse Spice once said (above), come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough! (laughs). Because for me, Amy could be mannered but she pulled it off with oodles of soul and heartbreak, like Dusty Springfield before her. It’s all brilliantly cyclical, because Lulu credits Dusty as “the first person to demonstrate Girl Power.” And Ginger’s Spiceworld era beehive barnet was certainly something of a cross between Dusty and Margaret Thatcher at her most bouffant — a look Amy would take to the extreme with Back To Black. 

But getting back to the C-word, if you present a brand, an image, a package, a manifesto almost, that’s a contrivance, no? The Spice Girls are essentially a manufactured pop act designed to appeal to kids. They aren’t Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell pouring their hearts out over an acoustic in the West Village.

And that is contrived (laughs). It’s an affectation too. I would not spend a year, nine months and three weeks of my life writing about a subject I found contrived. But my point stands: the music is able to stand apart from the phenom and represent them as artists in their own right worthy of critical discussion. And that goes to the heart of why they’re still here. No one is reading a hateful News Of The World article about them in 2022, they’re listening to their music.

Being contrived doesn’t preclude talent, though. Many of my favourite artists have had moments of blatant contrivance: David Bowie and Pet Shop Boys being the most obvious examples. By their own admission they’ve never been about being real. Anyway, unlike them, in terms of recorded output, the girls’ legacy is relatively small. And with just two new songs since 2000, where do you think the Spice Girls stand in the pantheon of pop?

Personally, I’d love new music from them and think that if they wanted to put something forward they could, but it’s down to them. One thing I’ve learned being an active fan of these women across twenty-four years, they never follow anyone else’s path but their own and you can never say never with them. Who knows what the future holds, but I think it looks pretty bright.

Do you think the limited output gets superseded by the cultural impact aspect, though? Compare some of their so-called contemporaries, for instance: Sugababes in all their myriad variations have released seven albums, while it’s five apiece from All Saints and Girls Aloud. With the Spice Girls on just three LPs (and one of those is 2000’s generic Geri-less Forever), in a funny way they remind me of my own early teen fave raves Adam And The Ants. At their peak, they burned brightest for roughly the same duration: around 18 months to two years tops. 

The Spice Girls’ output as a group reminds me of the Go-Go’s canon; they recorded three studio albums in their ’80s pomp and one more in 2001. That makes four to the Spice Girls three. However, regarding both groups, I think it is very much a point of quality over quantity. While no one can deny the pop culture furore the Spice Girls continue to stir up, much of it comes down to how well the music has held up. As such, I’d still rate them having their own place within the pop pantheon, especially when it comes to girl groups.

But with only live reunions and no album for 22 years haven’t the Spice Girls become the pure nostalgia act you regard people like Adam Ant as peddling? Melanie C and I have something in common as the insect warrior was the first recipient of poster love on our bedroom walls, but I had to look this up — because I stopped buying his records when I was 14 — but Adam released his tenth album in 2013. That’s considerably more recent than anything from Geri or Mel B or Victoria Beckham, for instance. Even Emma’s only released one LP in the last sixteen years. As you yourself said to me, one’s nostalgia isn’t living history for everyone else. Touché!

Well, they’ve certainly tapped into that for their last tour — nostalgia doesn’t have to be a dirty word. To be clear though, the difference between Adam Ant and the Spice Girls is that the latter generates the type of press coverage and robust ticket sales that typically reserved for any contemporary pop act today. This makes them singular. When, and if, they decide to do draft new music, they will have the space (financial or otherwise) to pursue that path because any record label will recognise not only their unique place in the nostalgia market, but in today’s modern market too.

Further, Melanie C has been actively recording and releasing material for some time now. Her eighth studio effort returned her to the British Top 10 in 2020, even though she has never had an album debut outside of the Top 60 since she went it alone back in 1999. No need selectively cherry-pick, Steve. Everyone knows that some of the girls have actively retired from solo music pursuits for many years. There are room for all of our heroes and heroines and if you’re going to question the modern-day validity of mine, as you so often do, that same joust can be returned to yours, OK handsome? (laughs). En garde!

OK, I’ll put my handbag down! I understand that 2019’s Poshless reunion tour was essentially to help Mel B out of a financial black hole, so perhaps the Spice Girls don’t consider themselves a going concern?

I can’t speak to that. I know that she was open about the tour helping her financially given what her second husband put her through, but I can say that her four friends rallied behind her and continue to support her personally and professionally. That is true Girl Power in action, yes?

Keeping up with the Mels, I’m not sure if I told you of my almost interview with Mel C. Other than accompanying my sister to see Spiceworld at a cinema in Leicester Square on Boxing Day, the only time I’ve seen a Spice Girl perform was when I happened to be in the audience for Channel 4’s Music Of The Millennium, where Mel did Madonna’s Like A Prayer. We met a few months later in 2000, at the after-show party for Old Spice’s private gig at Brixton Academy. By then I was working at Q magazine, and when I could tear her away from Natalie Imbruglia I engaged MC in conversation and discovered she’d recently become a Bowie fan. We hatched a vague and possibly ever so slightly drunken plan for me to interview her purely on her Bowie collection. I recall Diamond Dogs was a particular favourite.

It probably helped that Alan Edwards was the British press officer for both acts, so she had access to whatever back catalogue she fancied. Alas, it got caught up in PR politics and didn’t actually happen. Alan’s Outside Organisation were royally pissed off with Q because we’d dared to give more of the cover of our Glastonbury issue to Moby than Bowie! Lead balloons everywhere ran for cover. Mel was nice, though — very keen to stress her rock credentials. Her first solo single even paid a subtle tribute to Bowie’s Speed Of Life, though as Dame David himself noted in a post on BowieNet, she was careful to modify the run of notes to avoid royalty claims, of which he could be notorious. She’s aged exceptionally well, I think, despite not marrying a multi-millionaire (laughs).

Melanie C is quite a lady. Her own solo back catalogue is quite diverse and accomplished. I had a chance to speak to her in 2017 and it was definitely one of the highlights of my professional writing career. She was warm, candid and very funny. It was a pleasure talking to her and I’m excited to see that her recent shows in support of her recent self-titled effort have gone down well critically and sales wise at home in Britain.

Anyway, we made it through the entire interview without mentioning Zig-a-Zig-ah!

Viva Spice Girls forever!

Quentin Harrison was talking to Steve Pafford. That’s him Refacing/defacing Say You’ll Be There. Possibly

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