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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. 91
    MikeMCSG on 4 Jan 2014 #

    #88 But which one is the best role model ? Non-singing clothes horse ? Deranged fame-chasing former nude model ? Notorious Manc slapper ( I worked for someone who knew her )? Failed actress willing to base her image on paedophilic fantasy ?
    The answer’s going to be the vaguely likeable scally but it’s not a great choice.

  2. 92
    Andrew Farrell on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Is it Notorious, Manc, or slapper that’s supposed to be the insult there? Either way, taken in bulk with the rest as they trip off your tongue, they all seem like badges of honour.

  3. 93
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 4 Jan 2014 #

    from mel c’s wikip entry: ” She has 11 tattoos on her body which her parents allowed”

    ^^^I totally salute this fact and the person who wrote it :D

  4. 94
    Alan on 4 Jan 2014 #

    On reflection this song may have steered me back from an indie-and-dance high zag to a chart-pop zig. Ah, I distinctly recall trying to excite my work/office colleagues about this, and using the NME’s ‘guide to the spices’ which I *think* had subtly different nicknames to the now-canonical spice-roster. An absolute attention-getter of a song — video aside. They were THE dead cert on my ‘end of decade’ 90s compilation.

    Because they were so successful and ubiquitous the weight of a wider-culture’s expectation on this pop band was always going to be too much. When half the world is making fun of the lightweightness of “zig-a-zig ah”, expecting them carry a wave toward a feminist utopia seems as unreasonable as expecting any band, Oasis say, to have already completed the project. There are certainly, after this, all-women acts that cut no lineage from them that are less successful and way more problematic through conventional feminist critique . And before this… Bananarama? Excellent and successful in their time, but no better or worse than the role models here and lacking a PR-gimme attempt at being positive. And they WERE trying to be positive, which gives them some points, even if it encompassed Thatcher-spice. :-(

  5. 95
    Chelovek na lune on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Ah, and here; the ‘political’ interview (with Simon Sebag Montefiore!), in the characteristically playful style of the Spectator, and some proposed alternative ‘alter egos’:

    Mel B as Claire Short; Emma as Barbra Castle; Mel C as Edwina Currie; and, now, for some gender-bending….: Victoria as Bill Cash; and Geri as John Redwood. ! ! ! ! !

    http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/14th-december-1996/14/spice-girls-back-sceptics-on-europe

    Hmmm. I guess they were right about the euro, for one thing.

  6. 96
    Kinitawowi on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Spice Girls on politics sounds like the sort of fake soundbites the Sun attributes to its Page Three Girls.

  7. 97
    Tom on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Behind all the smirking – I say fellows, it talks! – the Spectator interview is probably pretty close to one of Phillip Gould’s famous/notorious focus groups for New Labour, which he’d have been conducting around this time. Sebag isn’t a great moderator – and doesn’t need to be, he’s canny enough to know soundbites will sell the interview – so we don’t go any deeper.

    Two slightly more generous (and dare I say interesting) interviews from the first phase of Spice:

    http://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/dec/11/spice-girls-classic-interview – a reprint of a Big Issue piece that came out around the time of the Spectator one. Has a set of soundbite definitions of ‘Girl Power’.

    http://creaturesofcomfort.tumblr.com/post/18437270949/kathy-acker-interviews-the-spice-girls-for-vogue-in – Kathy Acker’s interview with the Girls for Vogue in early 97 (before “Wannabe” went to #1 there) – interesting reading given the arguments upthread, this is a feminist writer trying to work out where the group sit in relation to feminism.

    All of these interviews are fascinating for the inter-group dynamics and remind me how interesting and infuriating Geri in particular was at the time – every interviewer (kind or hostile) works hard to set traps for her and her strategy was always simply to charge straight into them and then shout her way out of them.

  8. 98
    Andrew Farrell on 4 Jan 2014 #

    The straight text of the Spectator interview, still bearing the justification hyphens from its original print form, does make it sound like it’s being conducted on and by Daleks – one in a Union Jack paint job, one with pigtails, etc.

  9. 99

    Here’s the Kathy Acker interview in a slightly more readable typeface :D http://ilovecatparty.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/stealing-this-vogue-gym-was-pivotal.html

    Kathy actually lived in the London — I knew her a little — from the mid-80s to her death, which I think helps an interview in a US publication be a bit more grounded about the UK than usual. It was re-published in Guardian G2, and I have a copy somewhere in the house which I was planning to dig out. She’s better at digging into the complexities and contraditions and naivities of their ideals and impulses because a. she’s not just an elegantly misogynist dillweed; b. she is actually interested in what they think (and when and why they don’t); c. she’s very well aware of the generational (and other) fissures and fractures in feminism and far from pious about radical political institutions (this is very much on background here, it is after all Vogue magazine, but it informs Kathy’s approach).

    Sheryl Garrett was of course editor of The Face — and has written very funnily and perceptively elsewhere about the voracious and demonic energies of fandom, having been a Bay City Rollers fan herself in the 70s: the important element being that, even pre-internet, it was the fans that collectively set the tone of the reception of the item of worship, whose contribution was almost irrelevant. Fandom is very much not passive, and has often taken proto-feminist or proto-political forms (though I think it’s needed the internet to create spaces for these to turn into anything with lasting heft and lastingsocial presence — albeit largely mocked heft still, as far as many outsiders go).

    (ps I nicked the internet/politics point from artist/musician Karen D. Tregaskin: “It’s interesting to me, though, the association of talking about the Spice Girls with the advent of INTERNET THOUGHT. Because the Spice Girls were the first band where basically all of my talking about them was mediated through the internet. I got online in about 94, 95 or so, but all of the bands I discussed with early internet Fandoms were bands which had arisen Before Internet, and I just met other fans there. Everything about the Spice Girls (seeing the movie for the first time, in Texas of all places, with 4 other girls I had met solely through the internet) was addressed, discussed and digested through this new tool. The Spice Girls would rise – and bicker and whittle down – and fall. But it was the new tool for discussing music that would become inescapable.”)

  10. 100
    punctum on 4 Jan 2014 #

    #91: misogynistic and potentially actionable comment.

  11. 101

    Actually surely one of the ways that the Spicers were “like punk” is that their most important effect may have been a promise for change that couldn’t really be followed through on in the form it manifested: certainly I know quite a lot of youngish feminists (and also vigorous anti-sexist activists who crossly don’t identify as “feminist” despite surely being precisely what others would consider feminist)* who’d been big Spicer fans as kids, and who retain enormous affection for them as inspirations and such, while (perhaps) tracing their own entry into political awareness as a coming to terms with what was flawed abt their beloved SG, while still being fond of (and retroactively loyal to) what was, if not right exactly, then exciting and entertaining.

    *(cf generational and other fractures and fissures mentioned above — and I well realise I don’t really have standing to adjudicate what is good and what is bad feminism; that way lies mansplaining and this is EXACTLY not the thread for that…)

  12. 102
    Mark M on 4 Jan 2014 #

    There’s a pretty good Miranda Sawyer interview with the Spice Girls in the November 1996 issue of The Face (Ewan McGregor is the cover star – other coverlines show mixed lasting relevance: The X-Files, Tupac, Steve Coogan, Alexander McQueen, Space, Amsterdam’s Chemical Church Hits The UK. There’s also a piece on five hot movie starlets: Anne Heche, Fairuza Balk, Alison Elliot, Reese Witherspoon and Rachel Weisz).

  13. 103
    MikeMCSG on 4 Jan 2014 #

    # 100 Which one ? I don’t think there’s any shortage of evidence regarding Mel’s pre-fame behaviour in Longsight and her subsequent adventures hardly disprove the proposition. Typical that any criticism has to be immediately tarred as misogynistic.

  14. 104

    It wasn’t “any” criticism, it was quite specifically your poisonously misogynist contribution. “Role models” aren’t at all a smart way of looking things, but the answer to your question — as per Andrew upthread — is that ALL FIVE of them are better rolemodels than you, you mediocre bigot.

  15. 105
    MikeMCSG on 4 Jan 2014 #

    # 104 It would be interesting to know how you would define the purpose of a teacher if the “role model” concept has no value.

  16. 106
    tm on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Can you imagine if it was a man you were talking about? “Robbie bedded hundreds of women before he joined the band”. I don’t think slapper would be the word anyone (except maybe Mark E Smith) would use.

  17. 107
    enitharmon on 4 Jan 2014 #

    @106 But it does speak volumes about a pernicious social attitude that nobody from Bessie Smith through to the present day via the Spice Girls has succeeded in puncturing, alas.

  18. 108
    tm on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Yeah, it’s crap: men call women slags for enjoying casual sex then complain when they don’t want to sleep with them. I think a certain self-loathing underpins it: “We’re awful people so anyone who wants sleep with us must be a slag etc”

  19. 109
    weej on 4 Jan 2014 #

    This is still the best critique of the Spice Girls I’ve come across, although reading that spectator article is a fairly effective one by itself. I wonder if they’d have different ideas if you asked them now.

  20. 110
    tm on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Seems as good a time as any to mention Richard Herring’s routine about the Spice Girls representing the five different types of women (“not just two like you and Skeletor think, Stu”) Apparently Lee and Herring met the Spice Girls and Mel C told them they were fans and had heard L&H done a sketch about them. Mel C was ‘ugly women who can jump’ which Herring truncated to Women who can jump in her presence…

  21. 111
    Erithian on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Similarly, sadly, Frank Skinner, who got quite a laugh with the line “Spice Girls – why the ugly one?” Presumably meaning Sporty and reflecting the idea that you can’t be both athletic and attractive, which hopefully has been seen off by the likes of Jess Ennis. Leave alone the fact that Mel C has arguably the best voice and the warmest personality of the lot.

    Mel C is also the only Spice Girl I’ve seen live – she did a short set to the happiest crowd imaginable, the crowd in Trafalgar Square in 2005 that had just heard London had been awarded the Olympics.

    Totally agree with tm and Rosie above too.

  22. 112
    Cumbrian on 4 Jan 2014 #

    #108: Called to mind. “Son, I’m 30, I only went with your mother ‘cos she’s dirty, and I don’t have a decent bone in me”. There’s possibly an element of truth in your comment. It could just be old fashioned double standards too tho.

  23. 113
    Job de Wit (@JobdeWit) on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Als je dit weekend maar één stukje over popmuziek leest, lees @tomewing over „Wannabe” van de Spice Girls. http://t.co/ACJy24ET8n

  24. 114
    tm on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Re 111: to be fair to Richard Herring, his routine was written in a spirit of comic irony, meant to make his onscreen character look like a blundering buffoon. But that always was a problem with post alternative comedy: they wanted to have their ladish cake and eat it ironically.

  25. 115
    MikeMCSG on 4 Jan 2014 #

    #106 I fully agree that it’s unfair that there isn’t an equivalent word for men. I’ve no time for bedroom boasters male or female. I refute the misogyny tag ; my antipathy to the Spicies is class not gender-based. They’re obnoxious people who’ve got too much money for people who left school at 16 and with due regard to the Mels being able to sing are not obviously talented. I’m fine with people taking a pot at me over that.

  26. 116
    @foxbasegamma on 4 Jan 2014 #

    SPICE GIRLS – “Wannabe”
    http://t.co/7kkHG78GaF

  27. 117
    tm on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Read the Spectator piece. I never realised they were so Tory. Obviously I knew about the ‘Thatcher was the original Spice Girl’ quote but I’d assumed nthat was out of admiration for her rise to power in a male dominated world. I never knew they had such strong views on Europe, the monarchy etc. In truth their views are no more peurile than a lot of musicians’ more left leaning attitudes but I always find it depressing to hear pop stars saying ‘I’ve worked hard, why should I pay taxes?’ It just seems so tawdry and petty coming from people who are meant to be the brightest and the best of us.

  28. 118
    taDOW on 4 Jan 2014 #

    wow the vapors the spice girls can generate – who knew??? loving these clutched pearls!

  29. 119
    Mark G on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Well, it’s good to find out antipathy to the spicies can be class based. And that’s better than being gender based.

    I’m going for a coffee. I may be some time.

  30. 120
    @johanlif on 4 Jan 2014 #

    Det här (på bloggen som recenserar alla nr 1-singlar i UK) var bra skrivet om Spice Girls. Tyckte jag. http://t.co/g2oKEnZ5Wt

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