“Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains…”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865.
“‘I just want to rock and roll all night, and party every day.’ That’s an old Kiss song. But back when the song was new and my wife Leslie was 12 years old (this was before we married), she heard it as, ‘I just want to rock and roll all night, and part of every day.’ OK. Again, a necessary mistake, to make the dream accessible — imaginable — to a 12-year-old.”
—Frank Kogan, ‘Let MTV Ring’, Village Voice, 5 June 1990
In the mid-90s I was working as a sub-editor at the film journal Sight and Sound, a job I enjoyed a lot: the people I worked with were smart and friendly and entertaining; the magazine’s subject matter was detailed and interesting, and a lot of it was new to me; during work hours focusing on and absorbing the history of cinema, in my own time researching earlier histories of music and technology, I was able to push to the back of my conscious mind how exhausted and burnt-out I was on paying mind to present-day music; how dispirited and heartbroken I was at losing my job at The Wire, though this wasn’t the cheerful story I told myself. A brief season as chief explorer of an amazing secret path under the pop entire battlefield! And now an exile; or double exile, really… since I’d embarked on the path to slip away from the bad directions pop and rock discussion had increasingly been taking in the inkies in the late 80s, and the intense frustration and alienation I felt at that (a tangled story for another time…)
By the second half of 1996, two new portals had opened for me. The first was (in retrospect) pretty unsurprising, given my rather monkish lifestyle as a writer and an editor; I fell unhappily in love with someone who wasn’t interested, and who found my attentions actively tiresome and stressful. This was the opposite of great for both of us, obviously; I was discovering (more or less for the first) that infatuation is an exhilarating drug with a fairly horrible comedown; and on their side, having an ungrounded fantasy projected onto you — largely because there was no chance of it’s being realised, as they crossly pointed out to me at one point — has little upside. At the root of the fantasy was somehow the idea that this person would be key to me finding my way back to the amazing secret path, if not another better one. Of course this was a completely unasked for burden and responsibility for them, and probably the one good thing that came from it was that I was starting to think and write my way through and out of the curious subterranean emotional rigours an dead-ends that punk had led me into long before.
[The essay this all led to, CONCRETE so as to SELF-DESTRUCT, used to be up at my old website -- but the pitas archives are all squirrelly these days, and I can’t right now link to it. A task for later in the year maybe.]
The other portal – a very different one — was the Spice Girls. In December 1996 S&S ran a piece by Gordon Burn on the films of Russ Meyer: it wasn’t particularly good; or at least, it was half-good, which is how I feel about most of Burn’s work — he may intuit some of what’s problematic about the cultural upheavals of the 60s, especially in the overlooked subcurrents, but he rarely knows where to take what he glimpses; too often there’s just an unspoken gloze of “today we see clearer; yes we’re better than that now” over the end result.
He began the piece, strikingly enough, and topically, with the Spice Girls. Desert-set, the video for ‘Say You’ll Be There’ is a visual hommage (for those who see it) to Meyer’s brutal and very creepy and darkly funny 1965 film Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Burn sets up an apparent contrast between the candy-kicking karate-teen simulacrum of the independent woman that is ‘Girl Power’ and the sexually voracious, near-feral, and (of cours)e large-breasted women in Meyer’s cult movies, the better to suggest that these poles are not actually so very different; yes, Meyer’s homicidal go-go dancers may be “revered by by riot grrls, bad girls, feminists and dykes alike” (Burn quoting the Guardian here), and yes, sassiness may these days be seen by some as “somehow synonymous with self-determination and independence, and vulgarity a sign of strength” (as it happens the legendary teen magazine Sassy had closed earlier in 1996, but I doubt Burn’s research went this deep). Nevertheless, whatever some girls and women think they’re getting from all this, the true content is certainly determined by the manipulative structures everything emerged from. The Social Real can only ever be the Male Gaze etc etc. OK, this wasn’t quite how Burn phrased it — he mostly just dug back into Meyer’s own discussions of his own lewd pleasures and intentions (which are much as you’d imagine) (you can’t have lewd without eewew ew) — but re-reading his piece now it seems to be the underlying takeaway.
My task at S&S was to read, to correct typos and grammar, and report to the editor where I felt arguments were going astray; to flag up any flaws and omissions the writer might need to address before we published. Burn’s piece bothered me — the close of paragraph above explains roughly why, though I don’t think at the time I found neat words for it — and soon I was busy watching Spice Girls videos to get best purchase. (In the end I think it ran much as he delivered it; right or wrong, Burn is a readable essayist and a bankable name, and the editor at the time very much believed that a magazine’s job is more “starting the argument” than it is “only saying stuff that’s OTM”).
As I’ve noted elsewhere in FT pieces and Popular threads, after I left The Wire in early 1994, I’d pretty much been keeping my distance from current music, popular or avant-garde — Brit-pop, for example, more or less passed me by — and this was my first project for some time involving thinking about pop right now (we didn’t entirely ignore the charts at The Wire when I ran it, but we certainly didn’t foreground them). I disliked what I saw as Burn’s unruffled middlebrow fingerwagging. Sight & Sound was reasonably free of it at that time but it was a mode of address I’d been pushing to manoeuvre away from as a music editor — bcz God save us all from mere minatory dullards, especially in and around pop. You didn’t have to love or trust it; you DID have to be paying detailed attention if you were going to diss it. Anyway, I took a cheerfully pro-Spice line in the office — not least to take my own mind off stuff hunting around in back of it — and as a consequence I was assigned the film review of Spice World.
I loved it. I loved its colours and its look — its uncluttered put-the-show-on-here simplicity, which transferred the feel of Saturday Kids’ TV onto the big screen in exactly the right way: and I don’t just mean shows like Live and Kicking (feat.Andi Peters and Emma Forbes; then Jamie Theakston and Zoe Ball), but the adventures series before or after it (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers), and the amazing run of cartoons threaded through it — The Powerpuff Girls didn’t arrive till 1998, but Dexter’s Laboratory began in 1996 and Cow & Chicken/I Am Weasel in 1997. It wasn’t quite in the league of the latter, of course — really not much is, this was the Golden Age of Kids’ Animation — but it was in reach of them; came from the same sensibility and was deft enough not to sell it short. I was watching TV most Saturdays, as a relaxation and an emotional detoxification for sure; but also as a genuine pleasure and interest (let me explain Xena Warrior Princess to you… )
Anyway, I gave it a thumbs-uppish write-up, which I entirely stand by. And re-reading it, I’m amused to see that it’s another outlet for my thoughts about my relationship to punk; what it gave me — permission, access, a helpfully engaged perspective that told itself it was cleverly flexible — and all those possibilities that all this had increasingly, as it congealed into habit, been denying me. In particular, right there in the closing paragraph of the review is the understanding that some of the deepest value of adolescent enchantment is the use you afterwards put disenchantment to, when things don’t turn out as you wanted or expected, as they never will. Which is after all where 70s feminism very much came from: exasperation and more at how the big revolutionary love-in of the 60s was actually turning out for women, and organised pushback against that. And today I can point to a dozen or more younger activists across my larger social-political media-sphere remain who cheerfully unrepentant about their tweendom as devoted spice fans. I’m not the one to draw the definitive map of their self-enabling disenchantments until they do of course – but they sure didn’t need Burn’s super-orthodox disdain to hip them to the flaws and problems; but it’s obvious that their present-day politics partly emerges from working through the tensions between what they loved as kids and what turned out to be a bit (and sometimes a lot) rubbish.
(I can also, to be fair, point to others who were total detesting spicehaters as kids, and remain unrepentant about this: we don’t all arrive through the same door at the same time.)
Another trope — admittedly less foregrounded in the review — is the matter of the gang.
Now this is a long-standing device in children’s fiction, back at least as far as Five Children and It: a disparate group of equals as a kind of substitute family, sometimes bickering of course but always looking out for one another (in Nesbit they actually WERE usually families of siblings, but nevertheless in effect parentless, latchkey, the agents of their own immediate destinies and the loyal helpmeets of one another). And it has deep roots in British pop culture; think of the Bash Street Kids or the St Trinians mobs (and haha the New Model Army and the Peasants’ Revolt and __________ and _________). Its modern essence is — as much as anything — that the grown-ups aren’t around (or anyway aren’t helping), so we’ll have to end-run all the faff of official adult-sanctioned Leavisite-Reithian cultural discipline (“proper singing”; “real music”) and do-it-ourselves, with tools we snatched up and re-purposed; or sometimes invented.
Perhaps as a consequence of a quite solitary and bookish childhood (I have a sister and we’re close, but when small she was outdoorsy and the opposite of bookish), I’ve always been very drawn to the dream of the kid-gang against the world, as as romance and as adventure, as escape and ideal: I loved it in The Banana Splits, I loved it in Buffy, I was profoundly invested in the potential of the Sex Pistols to be something, I don’t know what exactly — punk as gang, punk as anti-gang, the rules that you set yourself to end-run the problems as you imagined them of tribes and parties and movements and hive-minds in general — – and so was deeply affected by the group’s unravelling, the failure of the fellowship, and the ugly careless tragedy that embodied its failure. It’s an element that structures the entire tale of rock music, from its precursors to its successors — how groups work or don’t, how the relevant conventions shift over time — and so of course I loved this new (manufactured quasi-cartoon girl-group!) twist. Right there, centre front of the film, was one of the most interesting conundra in the tale, ever since the Pistols’ arc had smashed into debacle. Can the management-as-enabler ever be one of the sexy notional “equals”? Is Svengali necessarily always the unbiddable Charlie to the compliant Angels? Must Adam and the Ant-democracy always merely become Adam the dictator Ant? Explore these undercurrents and pretty much every artist’s tale becomes more fascinating story, a snapshot at least of the turbulent floods and riptides they attempt to swim in.
Time maybe to sidetrack briefly to the Question of Geri: Geri who has now and then described herself as the group’s leader; as its conceptual creator. In the Spice Girls threads, people have pointed to her not-very-tremendous singing, her neediness and self-involvement, her anxious over-eagerness to please, and clumsiness when it came to team-playing, her irritating and often silly political pronouncements, as reasons why the group were best shot of her. None of the criticisms are invalid, exactly — nevertheless I’ve always had a soft spot for her. To me there’s honestly something quite Adrian Mole-ish about her: she’s someone basically kind-hearted, despite a head full of misgrasped unhelpful unself-aware political boilerplate, someone eternally game, eternally hapless, eternally left-out (even when world-famous); someone eternally driven yet hobbled by family sadness and parental failure… She may believe she was the one who best understand how it all worked, or ought to; but actually she was always the one who never quite got it — not precisely a passenger, but a sort of representative of all the members of the audience who’d love to be up there but aren’t up to it. Viz the BEZ (as others have pointed out): and the point of the Bez is that you’re indispensable, even if no one (insider or fan) can identify what sandwiches it is you’re bringing to the picnic. In the MTV piece I quoted up top, Frank Kogan carries on (this time discussing a video by long-forgotten strip-metal outfit Slaughter): “if you’re a bubble-metal band that wants 12-year-old girls in your demographic, you’ve got to give them something in their range. At 14, Leslie wore black leather and cheered in homeroom whenever it was announced over the intercom that the school’s football team had lost. When you’re 14, everything’s possible. But 12-year-olds have a sense of reality.” I’m not sure I’d be as cut-and-dried about the numbers, and my guess is Frank’s basically channeling an off-page joke of Leslie’s here, but nevertheless the general point is excellent and important: our outlook and our sense what’s possible (for us; for the world) does indeed shift around with age; and which of our past selves we’re channeling at any given moment. We are a multitude within, of squabbling personas and imagos, of ourselves at age x and y and z, all battling to be re-animated the useable go-to in whatever situation we currently find ourselves. Without Geri, the Spice Girls could never have fashioned themselves into the exact cloud of characters they were; because they would never have broadcast so strongly the sense of openness — of imagineability — to the audience. Despite and because of her seemingly serene and often misplaced braggadocio, she is kind of the on-stage figurehead for the anxious and the uncertain and the self-hating, that portion of the fans who — as realists? — seriously doubt themselves and what they can ever achieve. If that twerp can break through, maybe I can too? (Cue Glee-style loser-L symbol hoisted pridefully to forehead…)
As I say, I loved this cartoon idea of the gang: and all the loyalty and camaraderie and all-for-one one-for-all equality within it, as ideal and as sit-com plot-device. And the way — in some mysterious, revolutionary, impossible way — the entire thing was somehow also open to every one of its clued-in fans; not just that you can step up across the footlights, and onto the stage; but that you the performers are also largely your own audience; that you don’t need the stamp of adult approval to be get something valuable (invaluable) from it all. Kids playing dress-up to save the world — because this is a lot of what learning really is; trying things on; trying things out. This had been very important to me in my own early attraction to rock culture, and later to punk when rock’s openness appeared to be faltering and contracting… and then (when punk’s many aftermaths seemed increasingly more about exclusion and impasse) off towards the secret passageway under all the world. And that passageway had now been shut to me also — and truth be told was even more about exclusion and impasse, however much I had battled against it — and now, suddenly, something once more signalling that the line between performer and audience is once again radically unclear…
I said all this was a portal: I had no idea to what. At the time it just felt somehow like the idea of an idea of a way out. As it happens, I saw Spice World at its Leicester Square debut screening, as Tom Ewing did, with his (and now my) friend Alex, awkwardly surrounded by the exact same impatient 12-yr-olds and their fed-up parents, or anyway — because I don’t know how many debut screenings there actually were — by very similar impatient 12-yr-olds and their fed-up parents. And three years into the future, Tom reads something I’d written (on rockcritics.com) about Paul Morley and the charts, and invites me to contribute to ilx; ilm as it then was. So this turned out to be a portal to ilm, ilx and Freaky Trigger. To me finding a way to clamber back on the horse that had thrown me; and finding the right vehicle and the right voice; a world-wide gaggle of friends and a fruitful milieu; a space in which to improvise in real time, to treat conversation as a challenge and a game, a fight as well as a flirtation, a social activity — all elements of writing that spread over time and fed into the extant pre-internet machineries, are very easily smothered and overlooked. I’ve said elsewhere that ilx was like starting afresh in the sense of getting the chance to go back to college, except this time getting college right; getting what I needed out of it, meaning better all-night arguments with better opponents in a forum shaped and structured by its own participant-audience (so not a bit like any existing college). I got to extricate myself from the seeming prison of my professional writing career and established voice, to reset style and persona and topic portfolio; and be a (kind of a) mischievous kid again (except I never felt I was this, really, first time round). Few if any of ilx’s readers were actual real 12-year-old girls — though some key contributors were still teenagers (hi Ethan!) and some (thank god) were older than me, important new sparring partners to learn from and to tease, like the late and much-missed Martin Skidmore (I already knew Frank); but there was something bracing and thrilling and — yes — unbiddable — about its age range and gender and background range (of course not universal, but certainly wider than any of the carefully policed catchments I’d encountered in all my time at several successive magazines).
All of which is maybe why “Spice Up Your Life” — which OF COURSE works best as the closer to the film, when everything comes right and all the world arrives at the climactic show, and OF COURSE is a slogan-to-trust when that life is a writer’s, much of it so solitary, and OF COURSE has a Latin energy and flavour, a gliding jigjagging dance-move that reliably leaves British fingerwaggers non-plussed — to this day remains my favourite Spice Girls song. Their triumph and their farewell, because now (soon) I will for the second time be all grown-up kinda sorta, and no longer need them all the time as a soundtrack. COLOURS OF THE WORLD! EVERY BOY AND EVERY GIRL!
The very late 90s and early noughties (and hence the early days of ILM) coincided — for me — with an unexpected and amazingly exciting upsurge in chartpop quality; a sustained highpoint profusion in post-war pop history, right at the moment (doubtless not unrelated) that the entire media landscape was transforming, quite chaotically; and also at the moment when “post-war” was more and more an an unhelpful descriptor (because by now this lump of time was too big not to be generationally divided against itself).
Undoubtedly presaging this upsurge, the Spice Girls were nevertheless never quite part of it, and not just because they were already dissolving before it arrived. There are things they do pretty well that you now see everywhere — popstars as ferociously able dancers, for example — which distinguish them from much of what went before; they overlap with a generation of teen pop singer-dancers emerging full-formed and limber from the Mouseketeer hothouse (or stageschool or TV/reality show equivalent); but they don’t quite fold into the coming regime, of phenomenal high-end professional technique, and canny superstars as their own marketing svengalis and CEOs. There’s a (very English) amateurism which does indeed hark back to punk and the come-as-you-are aspects of the 60s rock boom — I can’t say that mode hasn’t survived, but I think it’s dwindled more than it’s prospered. The knotty dialectic of stage-talent vs management has continued to mutate; so that one of the most interesting issues being dramatised remains how power and creativity interreact, when it works and what’s stopping it when it doesn’t. The clash of the machinery (instruments and technology; the layers of extant social and organisational structure) and the ordinary unperfected body (i.e. YOU, as a still-learning still-evolving atom or molecule or groupuscule or genre): this is not soon going to go away, and anywhere the tension between these forces is acted out and tested, portrayed and explored, consciously or unconsciously, there will be a rich drama that stuff can learned from (for example: addressing a very different trajectory, here’s Ian Penman on Kate Bush a few days ago).
The first element of the word ‘manufactured’ comes from the latin for hand, manus: in collective and/or highly technologised work the issue is always whose hands where, and how many, and how much the less obviously visible hands make or mar the whole? “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
The eggman is never not on point.