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Jan 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Wannabe”

Popular220 comments • 15,062 views

#743, 27th July 1996

WannabeWhat they had going for them, at the start, was instinct. The label – and manager – wanted a more street-smart first single: the group insisted otherwise. The band came up with the pell-mell structure of “Wannabe”, the tumble into rap at the end, and a nonsense-word that turned out to be a rocket-fuel hook. Every choice the right one.

But that first foot-down moment is the most important. The record label saw launching the Spice Girls as launching a band – something everyone involved (except the 5 women in the group) had done tens of times before. The group saw launching the Spice Girls as launching an idea, potentially far more powerful. And far more lucrative, of course. For that, the first single had to be a manifesto.

The more fans “Girl Power” reached, the more money it might make, and the more lives it might change – but this is true, in potential at least, of any music. What’s undeniable is that the combination of slogans and success guaranteed the band astonishing scrutiny – even among those who dismissed them, the Spice Girls were taken seriously in a way no pop band had been for years. People wanted ammo (there was plenty to find.) Picking apart the consequences and contradictions of the Spice brand became a critical cottage industry. Here I am, a 40-year-old man, and I’ve been lured aside by it in paragraph three.

Like most rock critics, I’m not a girl, and I don’t need any more power. Don’t trust me on this stuff. But it seems to me that “Girl Power” was about surviving – with a degree of independence and pride and fun – in the world as it was. It was never a Utopian project (like punk or sometimes rave) but it wasn’t purely an aesthetic one either (like Britpop). It was closer, perhaps, to Mod – celebrating economic strength, friendship and style in a world out to reduce you. It was grilled relentlessly, of course, because the marketing of it was so flagrant and successful and because the intended audience were small girls.

Was “Girl Power” an attempt at pop and personal transformation or a cynical plan to sell a remarkable amount of dolls? Both, obviously. We live in a world where women get to be the protagonists of adverts far more than of stories: the default way popular culture lets you reach a truly mass female audience is by selling to them. Once the Spice machine got going, there was plenty to sell. But to imagine that the Spice Girls – or any star since – must have unsullied motivation to have positive impact would be to imagine that young girls are a) uncritical idiots and b) not already used to constantly negotiating a world in which every pleasure or statement of independence is someone else’s weapon against them.

In the end we can only listen to the record, and see whether it hits its goal. Which was – simply – to refresh British pop music. Whatever happened next, does “Wannabe” sound and feel different enough to back up any claim it might make for itself? Absolutely, yes.

Generally speaking, the slicker the Spice Girls got, the less compelling they got. On “Wannabe” they are far from slick – they have a ragged chemistry, an obvious hunger and a song that’s a pile-up of hooks. They make nods in the direction of professional propriety – moving their best voices (Mels B and C) to the front and relegating their worst to a hollered “Slam, slam, slam, slam!”. They also have a production team tying the song together with a knees-up piano riff which adds Madness to the list of Spicecestors. They have the one-take video, which is inspired – it cements the idea that all this is somehow spontaneous, and also that this is an origin story.

Which it is – one of the most assured origins in pop culture, the strongest intro to a group since Fantastic Four #1. The actual work of character-building doesn’t happen much in “Wannabe” – or anywhere else in record – being mostly a marketing and branding thing and not always very helpful for what’s on record. Here the solo introductions are kept to a garbled one liner in Mel and Geri’s rap – the thrust of the song is its theme: power through friendship and fun.

So “Wannabe” starts with call-and-response – a riddle which seems annoyingly like a tease. What’s a “zig-a-zig-ahh?” – the point is that you only know if you’re one of the gang, and the rest of the song is laying that out: prove you’re part of the friendship circle, and maybe we’ll let you in on it. But you won’t find out just by asking. There’s a lot of other lines in the song you might take and hold on to as yours – “If you want my future, forget my past” – but the core of it really is as simple as ‘friendship never ends’.

There’s a few reasons why they pull it off. It’s urgently effervescent – under three minutes, from the opening footsteps and laughter to the final echoed “lover”, and the economy makes it a peep at a world you want to spend more time in. Great pop songs about friendship – girls’ friendships in particular – are rare enough that making a fuss of it helped “Wannabe” stand out. The group re-discovered the bubblegum tweenager audience – I think Britpop helped the Spice Girls enormously, by giving the impression of a world of celebratory, hooks-first pop then veering rockwards just as the next generation of fans wanted to play.

But most of all “Wannabe” convinced because the Spice Girls honestly sounded like friends. A group that’s cool is useful in pop, but what’s even rarer and more effective is when a group feels like they’re having more fun than anyone else in the world. What British pop bands from the Beatles to One Direction have realised is that you win the opportunity to transcend your moment by camaraderie as much if not more than by breaking ground. Innovation can be owned – and that way lies splits, lawyers and footnotes. Cameraderie belongs by nature to the group, is harder to fake and a lot more difficult to copy. The Spice Girls, at first, knew that better than anyone.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    morwen on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #27 – “Virtual Insanity” is unashamed about using the “Rope” trick, though.

  2. 32
    Pete on 3 Jan 2014 #

    The first time I heard it was on a bus, I believe Mark 7 Lard were sitting in for Chris Evans, and made this there single of the week which I thought was mind boggling. But I remember liking it instantly but thinking in the boyband heavy 90’s who on earth would buy it? I got a little obsessed with it for a week or so, and then I go equally obsessed with the video* (INSIDE ST PANCRAS!!!)

    Until the wheels fell off the Spice Wagon (Geri leaving I guess), I was with them all the way. I think Spice World is remarkably under-rated movie, the run of hits are pretty solid and the whole project was exactly what I thought pop needed. It certainly led the way for the current female domination of the pop charts. Its a 10 from me.

    *Whilst it is one take there is a bit where the whole thing is slowed down to get them back into sync, or possibly to allow Geri to run around the back of the camera to get into her final position.

  3. 33
    ciaran on 3 Jan 2014 #

    I also thought this was going to be a 10. Surprising there hasnt been at least 1 in 95/96 so far but there’s still time.That said I was expecting more than 3 ‘1’s up to now.

    Wannabe is a strange one.In one ways a perfect fit, in others an unwelcome nuisance. The link of video and audio is key here. Girls having a laugh in a boarding school or slumber party kind of way.A much needed kick up Barlow’s wimpish back-side. It looks like a great fun if your a teenage girl,less so if your a stalinist oasis/blur head.

    You would hear that intro about 4/5 times a day during its reign and by the third time it was onto another station to get away from it.I grew to hate it after a fortnight.Luckily the video had that 1-minute arsing-about intro so you could turn over before the music started.

    The relentless commercialism was another black mark against it.The almost brady-bunch/Famous five themed this-is-us story of ‘wannabe,absurd wonder woman-esque videos with the girls as martial arts experts, Pepsi, Nelson Mandela, Beckham (who made his breakthough at the expense of Neil Sullivan at the same time), the American success, the seemingly obvious planned months-in advance-single release dates, the scarcely believable character names of the girls,Track 1 Side 1 of Now 34 just after its release, The Brits and the Union Jack dress, even Emmerdale getting in on the act!

    Besides Becks these things now look a lot less annoying than they did then.The same I can say for Wannabe. The break-up has meant its not as played as much as it was even if it’s place in history is assured and none the worse for it.It wouldn’t be something I would have root out on itunes/spotify but I admire it much more than I did. A 180 degree change. Much more enjoyable now and worthy of a high mark.8.

    Even us male folk would have a good time of it later in the year.#b——sgonnaworkitout

  4. 34
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #30 The Madness song it calls to mind for me is “Our House” – which also ends with a rap! (sort of)

    & yes they were *all* “scary”!

  5. 35
    thefatgit on 3 Jan 2014 #

    My daughter was 8 years old when Spice Girls first appeared. And for the next year or so, anything with a Spice Girls logo on it had to be bought. Anything from duvet covers to dolls, pencil cases to skateboards and all things in between. Oh yes, my wife and I consumed like good citizens we were.

    For me, Spice Girls felt like the shot in the arm pop music needs every now and then. A genuine phenomenon, like Adam & The Ants and before them, the Bay City Rollers and before them, the Beatles.

    The Girl Power tag was deliberate, but in hindsight cynical. But if I follow the feminist route in discussing the Spicies, I’ll have to check my male white privilege, so I’ll save that discussion for somebody much better qualified than myself.

    Sticking to “Wannabe”, it’s a clattering oaf of a debut, knocking over everything and shouting loudly to gain your attention. If you heard this on the radio before ever seeing the Spicies on TV or in Smash Hits, you’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about, because Bananarama and The Go-Go’s had done stuff like this before hadn’t they? . All those hooks sound great and made “Wannabe” earwormy, exactly the opposite of Barlow’s “Forever Love”.

    But I didn’t hear this on the radio first. Like most other people will recall, it was Our Cilla who introduced us to Spice Girls on “Surprise Surprise”. Cilla Black, the original Spice Girl, the first Wannabe?

    Five girls, five contrasting images. Which one did you notice first?

    Emma Bunton – Baby Spice. Blonde pigtails, pink babydoll dress and impossibly high platform trainers.

    Geri Halliwell – Ginger Spice. Dyed red hair, drag queen make up, ample bosom and tottering on high heels.

    Victoria Adams – Posh Spice. LBD, cheekbones and pout with a severe bob cut.

    Melanie B – Scary Spice. Animal print catsuit, impossibly high heeled boots and Sideshow Bob hair.

    Melanie C – Sporty Spice. Liverpool replica top, joggers and trainers. Severe make-up under scraped-back “Croydon Facelift” ponytail.

    These represented girls you knew: your big sister, your brother’s new girlfriend even maybe a glamorous auntie. Easily relatable. Simon Fuller knew exactly what he was doing.

  6. 36
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 3 Jan 2014 #

    a sneering piss-take version in the back of my geography exercise book

    ^^^blo-o-o-og i-i-i-it!

  7. 37
    AMZ1981 on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #29 beats me to it but just picking up on Tom’s footnotes the nicknames (Sporty, Ginger, Baby, Scary, Posh) were conferred by Top Of The Pops magazine and stuck – they weren’t part of the group’s own marketing strategy.

    At the time I was a fifteen year old gay teenager torn musically between twin musical poles of 80s rock and the guitar bands of the time; five females bouncing around hot pants screaming `girl power` was never going to appeal to me. As a pop record viewed away from the Spice mania that followed it’s not as bad as I would like it to be – I’ll leave it at that.

    Why, seventeen years on do I still want to hate it? Events last December reminded me of the Spice Girls most tasteless moment when, at the height of their success, they were introduced to Nelson Mandela and Geri Halliwell compared her `fight` for women’s rights with Mandela’s battle against apartheid. Incredibly she got away with it.

    Finally a 7 week reign does allow for a number two watch. The Fugees held on for two weeks before Robbie Williams was held at bay with Freedom (a blow because Barlow had at least hit the top and Williams needed to do the same), then the Macarena (shame we don’t get to discuss that really – I do like the bassline) followed by 3T duetting with Uncle Michael, George Michael’s magnificent Spinning The Wheel and Kula Shaker’s Hey Dude.

  8. 38
    @poohugh on 3 Jan 2014 #

    SPICE GIRLS – “Wannabe” | Popular – http://t.co/eePRhtEpnC incl. “Girl Power” as “Mod” analogy. Great comments too

  9. 39
    Izzy on 3 Jan 2014 #

    The Spice Girls don’t loom large for me at all, certainly not in light of the outpourings above – I moved abroad pretty much as this hit no.1; all I really know of them as phenomenon was a small colour photo in the local press of them launching the UK’s fifth television channel.

    When I returned a year later to be met with the first single from their second album (never realised ’til just now that they’d had two) they were already clearly burnt through, even if momentum did carry them more or less as far again. The proper lineage for me is from Frankie Goes To Hollywood, another group with little musical legacy (though much better records) but a ton of fun, and I wouldn’t dismiss the idea that that’s getting things the right way round.

    Anyway, I never really see or hear the Spice Girls played or discussed nowadays – Popular must move in a different orbit to me. I did happen to hear this at random a month or two ago and was a little appalled at how shoddy it sounded; the critique here made a second listen more friendly just now. I dislike Mel C’s voice though and wish it’d been mixed down – instead she seemed to become more prominent as they went on. I’d stretch to a (6).

  10. 40
    Kat but logged out innit on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #37 I rate the Macarena as one of the best dance tunes of the 90s. It’s chock full of disconnected noises that shouldn’t work together, but somehow stretch and combine into a track with tons of momentum (despite being quite slow!)

  11. 41
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    The main difference w/Frankie (aside from bigger global success for longer) is that FGTH were in many ways the last hurrah or culmination of a pop wave. The Spice Girls are at the beginning of theirs – before them you have to go back to SAW to find young women making pop as a prominent chart force: after them, the deluge, and it’s never really gone away.

    The question of how much the Spice Girls caused this or just caught a wave, and how much “legacy” their specific moves, ideas and songs had, is a very interesting one – but this is the first of seven or eight #1s (I forget) so we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it.

  12. 42
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    It is a shame we don’t get the Macarena, tho I look forward to Lena’s piece – one of Mark S’ favourite points to make is that Britain really doesn’t “get” Latin rhythms at all, and here’s another datapoint to that theory :)

    (I am far less upset not to be discussing Kula Shaker, particularly the execrable “Hey Dude”)

  13. 43
    swanstep on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Wonderfully persuasive essay Tom – well done! You’ve got me paying more attention to the track and its video than I ever have before and think that perhaps at last I *get* it. The punctum here (I’ll be interested to know whether Marcello agrees) is the re-introduction of ‘Slam your body down and wind it all around’ after the shouted ‘Slam Slam Slam Slam’ in the final chorus. The vid then fixes on Baby and Posh (sorry, in the US, as I was at the time, we stuck with the nicknames a lot longer, indeed I don’t think they ever went away) who go into a series of rigidified poses staring into camera as the other spices fall in around them. Now I can see it, it’s a great, chill-giving, ‘is that a tear in my eye?’ moment; in its loopy way a real moment of ‘envisioning female equality’ (the way people used to have bumper stickers urging people to just ‘envision world peace’). I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself agreeing that this is a solid 9 and with the vid. that it feels important the way the imagery from the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night does.

  14. 44
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Hah, I am not sure I’d want to live in a world where Sporty is a more positive appellation than Ginger!

  15. 45
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 3 Jan 2014 #

    SPORTY IS THE BEST SPICE <– science fact

  16. 46
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Sporty is positive because it’s the only one which assumes the girl is proactive and might have interests – the other nicknames are all either purely descriptive at best or, in Scary’s case, about the effect she is presumed to have on other people, which is even worse.

    It’s interesting which ones have stuck – the Melanies and Geri moved away from their nicknames quite quickly, you still see Emma introduced as Baby occasionally, and Victoria Beckham will be Posh to the grave, I think.

  17. 47
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #26 blog it! – but also, yes, important to note that a lot of the people who really detested the Spice Girls (their biggest haters, in my groups of friends) were young women. Which will be useful to remember when we start getting to their records that edge more towards trying to ‘speak for’ people outside the Spicenexus.

  18. 48
    Cumbrian on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #45: Victoria Beckham will be Posh to the grave, I think.

    Some are born Posh, some achieve Poshness, and some have Poshness thrust upon them.

  19. 49
    23 Daves on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #37 – I think you’ve reminded me of other reasons why Geri Halliwell was a guilty (rather than straightforward) crush of mine – more so than any of the others, she frequently used to spout a lot of nonsense. While other members appeared to be having more fun, she was at times almost going Kevin Rowland/ Adam Ant on our asses and asking us to absorb a new manifesto. I was never sure what to make of that.

  20. 50
    Erithian on 3 Jan 2014 #

    They were ubiquitous all right. On the way home from work one night I was asked by a girl of about ten sitting on her garden wall, “who’s your favourite Spice Girl?” I think she might even have been doing a survey of passers-by for a school project or something. I gave her the short answer – “Emma” – although I suppose the full answer might have been Emma as the prettiest, Mel C for a night out and Mel B for a night in.

    The nicknames were a stroke of genius, even if they did come out of a magazine feature rather than the record label’s masterplan. Not sure I’d go along with the idea that calling the only black member “Scary” was a disaster – it seemed very much a case of judging not by the colour of her skin but the content of her character, and a trait she played up to. As you say, it helped to make the group members distinct from the outset, and set a trend (remember the James lyric “she likes the black one, he likes the posh one, cute ones are usually gay”?)

  21. 51
    enitharmon on 3 Jan 2014 #

    The sound of 100 years of feminism crashing in flames. Dismal and depressing. Sorry folks, this was the biggest backward step that pop took in my lifetime.

    Next stop, the wave of pastel pink that has flooded the shops ever since.

  22. 52
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #46 rubbish sporty interests though!

    (she is of course the best Spice – which is why she has the best post-Spice single)

  23. 53
    thefatgit on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Posh was the exact halfway point between Holly Golightly and Anna “Nuclear” Wintour.

  24. 54
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #51 None of them wore pink! (OK, Emma sometimes maybe)

  25. 55
    Matt DC on 3 Jan 2014 #

    It feels like their era went on for ages but looking back on it their imperial phase was over remarkably quickly – it lasted 18 months max, maybe?

  26. 56
    enitharmon on 3 Jan 2014 #

    I never suggested that they were directly responsible, Tom. But they (or at least their marketing handlers, because no act before or since has been been more blatantly a marketed commodity, I suggest) were responsible for the rise of the cult of “girliness” and female passivity.

    They also mark the most obvious onset of middle-age for me. I was going out with somebody who had a teenage daughter, and found myself asking “who are the Spice Girls?”

  27. 57
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #51 What’s your alternative? Which other trend would have eventually broken exciting feminist* women into the top reaches of the charts?

    * point taken of course that their success required that they had to deny feminism before the cock crew – I was a little surprised not to see their declaration of Thatcher being the first Spice Girl reappear at the obvious point last year.

  28. 58
    Steve Mannion on 3 Jan 2014 #

    I do think the nicknames were awful all in all (lazy at best, insulting at worst) and limiting in a way that each member’s image felt freer from (how different the girls were from each other beyond this never felt as clear – they all wanted to be pop stars if not just rich famous MegaBabes after all). Show don’t tell basically. It’s funny that their debut outfits are what have stuck in people’s minds (apart from Geri’s being replaced by the flag frock) and they could never quite surpass the impact of this debut in the end (not that later singles weren’t as good if not better).

    At least with ‘Posh’ it’s not something she really tried to play up to (as opposed to nouveau-riche) – iirc an anecdote in the press about them labelling Kula Shaker with this same tag backstage at TOTP or similar.

    Not convinced Mel B ever really acted the ‘Scary’ part either. Any sense of intimidation the girls gave off came as a group, and this combined with their variety felt broadly positive and I’d have thought the basis of any counter-argument to any alleged anti-feminist effect, especially as this was also still the time of many visible alternatives (although successful bands featuring more than one women may have started to decrease).

  29. 59
    flahr on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #42 “Macarena” and “Hey Dude” are equally good and for many of the same reasons, BUT I REFUSE TO REVEAL HOW GOOD THAT IS BWAH HAH HAH

    Careful consideration* since my last comment reveals this is actually a 7 after all, by the way.

    *imagining how I’d treat it if it was a Bananarama song

  30. 60
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #56 I’m not disputing your diagnosis of the underlying cultural trend at all, but the Spice Girls seem a very odd group to pin it on – a band that fired their manager at the height of their success and presented themselves before and after that as anything but “passive”. The politics of Spiceworld – especially its rapacious commercialism – are definitely open to criticism, and received a lot – but meekness was never on the agenda.

    It’s interesting that people assume the Spice Girls had no agency in their career – not just you, Rosie, there are plenty of dismissive mentions of Fuller etc. upthread – something that was assumed right from the off with not a huge amount of evidence. It’s like people see colossal commercial success and decide it had to be the “management” or the “marketing” (which, as with the nicknames, was adaptive more than machiavellian) behind it. Girls have to be either completely autonomous or puppets – no middle ground.

    The Spice Girls were so successful that there was a NEED to believe it had to be manipulated, it couldn’t be even slightly down to them and their decisions. I think if we let them own the shit decisions – and there are plenty to come – we need to let them own the good ones too.

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