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Jan 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Wannabe”

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#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. 61
    James BC on 3 Jan 2014 #

    The only nickname of the five that was an accurate description was Sporty.

    Did anyone see Mel C on Jools’s Hootenanny, by the way? Apart from Charlie Wilson, I thought she stole the show.

  2. 62
    Izzy on 3 Jan 2014 #

    I was a little surprised to learn they formed in 1994, given that they exploded straight-from-the-box while managing to look charmingly amateurish doing so. What were they doing in the intervening two years?

  3. 63
    Cumbrian on 3 Jan 2014 #

    56: I would say that the original Hannah Montana incarnation of Miley Cyrus could stand toe to toe with the Spice Girls and possibly beat them in the stakes of blatantly marketed commodities. Certainly in the USA. Disney seems to try this sort of stuff with their female teenage actors on a regular basis, though I don’t think Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato got the same sort of marketing/product based push that Hannah Montana got.

    Although Tom’s point at #60 is a good one too.

    Is Cyrus a bunny? For that matter, is Hannah Montana a bunny?

  4. 64
    Steve Mannion on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #60 But the boybands (edit: Well all teenpopsters got it of course) got this too – the ‘manufactured/everything decided by one middle aged businessman in his suit and tie’ complaint that is. Perhaps it really was ramped up here because they were young girls though (plus ca change re Britney and so on).

  5. 65

    […] Ewing arrives at Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” a single whose impact in America paled beside what the […]

  6. 66
    ciaran on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Up to 60 comments already. Another ‘No Charge’ on the cards!

    Tom I would also argue that the wave of girl groups has not necessarily been a bad thing if the Spice Girls are responsible.Not that I believe its just down to them.En Vogue and Salt ‘n’ Pepa for instance before hand had their moments and as we will soon discover here, and indeed from Gary Barlow, most of the Girl Groups and Solo stars dont go straight for the ballads.If I’m right the next 2 different girl group Number 1’s are very different from the playful Spice Girls.

    Also Wannabe is the only song since 1991 comfortably in the Readers Top 100.Plenty of time for that to change.

  7. 67
    enitharmon on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #57 They hadn’t got a feminist bone in their collective bodies. That’s the problem. Apart from that I was rather of the opinion that punk thrust feminist women into the upper reaches of the charts, if one can put aside the whining machismo of some of the more publicised exponents. Kate Bush did it. In the context of an earlier decade I could make the case for Sandie Shaw although she may seem rather tame these days (and anyway was not best represented by her chart material). Alison Moyet and Annie Lennox did it in the early 80s. None of them resorted to the “you can have power over men by wiggling your bottom at them”. As for the role-model effect of Victoria “never read a book” Beckham, words fail me.

  8. 68
    Cumbrian on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #66. Not just En Vogue and Salt ‘n’ Pepa but there was also Eternal – though they are bunnied I believe. On that score though, I would argue Louise Nurding/Redknapp as the proto-Victoria Beckham.

  9. 69
    punctum on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #43: The Punctum Popular policy (a.k.a. the Direct Inject Anti-TPL-Bunny Ray Gun) is not to comment on any singles which also appear on a number one album. So you’ll have to wait until TPL reaches 1996 to hear what L & I have to say about the Spices*.

    *I admit that as TPL is currently still wading through the treacherous treacle of 1983 this may take some time.**

    **and is of course dependent on our still wanting to do TPL by then. Blog currently subject to rolling year-by-TPL-year review + existence of spare time to write it as currently planning GIANT DOUBLE MUSIC BOOK ONSLAUGHT.***

    ***in which event I’ll probably slope back here and say something about it.****

    ****WHY DON’T YOU JUST SAY IT NOW MC I have a genius for making things difficult for myself.

  10. 70
    Patrick Mexico on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Never heard of ’em. Sorry. A few thoughts for now..

    1. This is so much of its time I’ve no idea how to rate it musically apart from sounds like Buffalo Stance being repeatedly kicked hard in the face – a bit like the England football team wrecking those Hong Kong plane TVs (an event of its time nobody seems to talk about anymore, as well as the Atlanta Olympics, seen as a horrendous tribute to the worst parts of global imperialism even before the bombings. And on a lighter note, that “Tonight” show on Tyne Tees TV with such iconic, Breaking Bad-rivalling features like the “What’s On Cafe.”)

    2. “Mel C sounds like an alright person to me. At least she never acted like an imperialist in America, unlike John Lennon” – Mark E Smith

    3. There’s a great home video of my sister and her friend dancing to this at the time, but we won’t see it again unless she gets married – here’s hoping the wedding guests react better than Christopher Moltisanti’s family did to Cleaver

  11. 71
    ciaran on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Was this one of the 10’s you would have given for 1996 Marcello?

  12. 72
    punctum on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Yup, I’ll tell you that much.

  13. 73
    @DrewLichtenberg on 3 Jan 2014 #

    “one of the most assured origins in pop culture, the strongest intro to a group since Fantastic Four #1” – http://t.co/Iqbln8V4I9

  14. 74
    lockedintheattic on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #45 – presumably Posh has stuck partly because it’s so familar as part of the phrase ‘Posh & Becks’, and partly as it fits better in tabloid headlines than ‘Victoria’ (whereas all the others have shorter names than their nicknames)

  15. 75
    weej on 3 Jan 2014 #

    I think I might have a lot to say about this but need some time to formulate it, so for now please enjoy the clip that introduced me to the band – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2s_Lxn1MCA

  16. 76
    Chelovek na lune on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Off the top of my head, I’d suggest that Mel C had a part in not just the best post-SGs single, but quite possibly the three best post-SGs singles, if not more than three, subjective as this may be.

    EDIT: well, three of the four best post-SGs singles, anyway

    I might also posit the existence of a positive correlation between the mediocrity of a post-SG musical career and the period of retention in popular usage of the performer’s SG nickname.

  17. 77
    Billy Hicks on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Baby/Emma was not only my grudging favourite (she seemed the ‘nicest’ out of the lot when I was a kid) but released possibly my fave post-Spice track, ‘Maybe’ in 2003 which sadly charted five places too low to be on Popular.

    Saying that Mel C definitely had the most consistently good run of tracks, looking forward to revisiting her 2000 bunnies.

  18. 78
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Someone upthread asked why the Spice Girls took so long to happen, given they formed in 1994 – what were they doing?

    Well, partly they were doing what every other band does – rehearses, gets material together, shops around for a deal, etc. Even if you assume the band were “manufactured”, that doesn’t mean “identikit” – once you have these particular 5 people you and they work on tracks that fit them.

    A lot of it is timing – it’s easy to say all this in hindsight but other launch dates mightn’t have worked. Summer of 1994 – too soon, the band and material wouldn’t have been ready. Summer of 1995 – Britpop dominated everything, there’s no room for any other story to cut through, and Britpop at that point still has a swagger. At this point, though, the swagger is gone, Euro 96 is over, the biggest Britpop bands are resting between albums, Take That have broken up – it’s as good an opportunity to push something new through as there’s ever been.

    But the third reason for the delay, I reckon, is that people were very wary and unsure that the group will sell. Other labels were launching new pop acts – we’ve got one coming up right away – but they aren’t girls, they’re very much new twists on the Take That model. The Spice Launch isn’t late, it’s EARLY – a gamble (which in this case probably IS down to Fuller) – and you can tell it’s a gamble because nobody else had anything else ready to go for close to a year. The Spice Girls were remarkable in having basically no serious competitors for 18 months – no other big pop success has had anything like that clear a run.

  19. 79
    Billy Hicks on 3 Jan 2014 #

    When we get to 1998 there’s an astonishing shift into a majority of female acts hitting #1 all year, helped by two new girl groups, a few surprise returns of past megastars, a new teenager on the block and a sinking ship. SPOILER – the Spices are still there too.

    After the mostly male-dominated 1990s it’s somewhat of a hint of things to come in the new century, given that most of the biggest stars of the last few years have been women.

  20. 80
    Tom on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #78 – oops, wrong about the next No.1 being a new launch, as I’d forgotten his earlier (also bunnied, to my subsequent horror) hit a few months before.

  21. 81
    Auntie Beryl sans login on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #63 Yes and no.

  22. 82
    @jayasax on 3 Jan 2014 #

    Pretty much exactly why I listened (h/t @unbornwhiskey) http://t.co/Nuz1LosQwB

  23. 83
    Chelovek na lune on 3 Jan 2014 #

    #80 not a new launch for the talentless singer, but nonetheless a new launch for a (co)-songwriter who has gone on to inflict much misery upon music-lovers (quite a bit of which you will have to endure here) ever since. As I discovered to my surprise. There’s a party over there. I strongly advise not going to it.

  24. 84
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Jan 2014 #

    I know this is slightly unfair, but now that I know it’s Rosie, the sight of Enitharmon suggesting the kids should have taken inspiration from acts who hadn’t hit the top ten in a decade is quite funny – we’ve made a punk of you yet!

  25. 85
    Pixie_Solanas on 3 Jan 2014 #

    “enitharmon on 3 January 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.”

    Oh how distressingly formulaic of you. I think the fault lies not with the product itself, but with an audience attempting to find larger meaning in such product. They couldn’t have been more obvious and self-aware, why were you not privy to the game being played?

  26. 86
    iconoclast on 3 Jan 2014 #

    This is the last paragraph of a longish essay (more of a rant, actually) which I was going to throw into the discussion but decided against for several reasons.

    While an unqualified success as marketing, “Wannabe” is clearly no masterpiece by any artistic standards; indeed as an actual song it’s only Just Good Enough, although it’s thankfully far from the aesthetic disaster it could have been. The A section (the notorious “What I really really want”) has, by its third appearance, long outstayed its welcome, and the B section (“If you wannabe my lover”) is really quite slight and distinguished only by its lyrics about the power of female friendship (to which the Girls contributed, it should be said). It is lifted out of mediocrity by the Girls themselves, whose personalities
    and performances are strong enough to give the song character and even some likeability, most notably at the the end when both sections come together for the one moment when the song threatens to catch fire. And it earns another extra point for being over and done with in under three minutes – less than a third the length of an overblown dregs-of-cocaine-addled-Britpop bunny from the following year. SEVEN.

  27. 87
    enitharmon on 3 Jan 2014 #

    When I was 14 I took quite a lot of inspiration from acts that hadn’t been in the top ten for ten years and more. Is that different? I took inspiration from films that came out when my dad was 14. What is your point Andrew Farrell @84?

    Where in the concept of “girl power” is the notion that you, too, can be an astrophysicist, a computer whizz, a hedge-fund manager, an airline pilot or generally an achiever in your own right as opposed to being dependent on men? As opposed to, wiggle your bottom provocatively and you can get a rich, if dim-witted, husband? Polly Harvey is active and Amy Winehouse is just around the corner. Much better value as independent, sassy women don’t you think? Not that I’m suggesting Amy as a role model, that would be unfortunate.

  28. 88
    Kat but logged out innit on 4 Jan 2014 #

    There is a big difference between being bombarded with bottom-wiggling women from all angles (and this being presented as the ideal/norm), and 5 women suddenly appearing from nowhere as a noisy island in a sea of hairy dudes and srs bsns Polly Harveys, who for all their waily singing and important songs, never got their message across to me because I’d never bloody HEARD their songs at that point – I spent my pocket money on Just Seventeen, not Melody Maker. I listened to Capital FM, not John Peel. I watched the Big bloody Breakfast and did my homework and went to swimming training and was an uncool nerd more interested in growing my fingernails than playing the guitar, and I STILL knew exactly what Geri Halliwell thought about Margaret Thatcher, and so did all the girls at school and all the girls at my swimming club. I think that was the first time I’d EVER heard a woman on the telly state a preference for any political party. So with all due respect for your 14-year-old experience and influences, there might just be a possibility that the Spicers had an impact on 90s feminism and deserve a bit of credit.

  29. 89
    hardtogethits on 4 Jan 2014 #

    On the subject of nicknames, I was recently playing a quiz-based board-game with someone whose memory is fading away. You know the score.

    I read out the question “What was the nickname of the Spice Girls’ Mel C?”

    The reply came “Mel C. Obviously.”

    Oh how we laughed. It’s not what was on the card, but it’s right, isn’t it?

  30. 90
    Andrew Farrell on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Of course it’s different – discovering stuff from the vaults, particularly if you feel like it is speaking right to you, is a great feeling, but feeling like it’s speaking to you and a million other people at the same time is something completely else.

    As regards the second question, the notion is wedged between the words “Girl” and “Power”.

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