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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. 121
    wichitalineman on 5 Jan 2014 #

    Re 117: From memory, The Face interview doesn’t peg them all as Tories. Maybe Geri and Victoria, with a couple of ‘don’t knows’ and one socialist? As I said, that’s from memory, but I only re-read it a year or so ago. That they didn’t have a Spice Girls party line is quite refreshing, at least.

    Re 119: Good idea. Step away.

  2. 122
    glue_factory on 5 Jan 2014 #

    Re: 122, you remember correctly

    http://spicegirlsgeneration.tripod.com/intandtrans/theface2.html

    “An anarchist, a labour, two conservative and one who couldn’t give a fuck”

  3. 123
    AMZ1981 on 5 Jan 2014 #

    If memory serves it was Geri Halliwell who was the most pro Tory, pro Thatcher, anti Europe (in 1996) and she subsequently appeared in a Labour Party political broadcast – probably for the 2001 election although I might be wrong.

    This is a music thread not a political one so I don’t insist upon what follows – Geri’s `defection` might indicate that it was William Hague’s approach as leader that cost the Tories the youth vote for a generation.

  4. 124
    enitharmon on 5 Jan 2014 #

    In 1996 very few people were admitting to being Conservatives. I remember making hay with the revelation that Bristol Young Conservatives (me being Chair of Bristol West Labour Party that year by the way) was reduced to just one member.

  5. 125
    23 Daves on 5 Jan 2014 #

    #123 – After hearing the news of Thatcher’s death, Geri trotted out the “original Spice Girl” line again on Twitter, mentioned something about admiring her, then promptly deleted her comment (and apologised) after getting a wave of abuse.

    I do find it surprising she supported Labour at any point, really, though that may be more indicative of Labour’s drift rightwards than anything else.

  6. 126
    Izzy on 5 Jan 2014 #

    What was the apology supposed to be for, exactly?

  7. 127
    iconoclast on 5 Jan 2014 #

    I have to get this out somewhere, and this looks like the best place to do it. So, with a deep breath and no little nervousness…

    Few would argue that the increase in the representation of women in the music charts is anything but a Very Good Thing. It’s just unfortunate that it had to happen during the era following the death of the third and final great upsurge of creativity in British popular music, an era in which a once vital artform became dumbed-down, blanded-out, and neutered into a Blairite focus-group-driven marketing exercise in artist-branded loyalty and aural comfort food. Along with the rise of the Internet, reality TV, and a sea-change in the way music was “consumed”, it led to a simultaneous rerun of the pre-Beatles Sixties and the era of St*ck-A*tk*n-and-W*t*rm*n, during which artistic considerations were gradually sidelined, ignored, and eventually forgotten. In slightly modified form this state of affairs is still with us and, depressingly, it shows no sign of ever going away. It’s a sad irony that, unremarkable as it is a song, Wannabe” is still better than the vast majority of what it would go on to inspire.

    Right, I’ll go away and lie down for a bit, until you’ve all stopped laughing hysterically and picked yourselves off the floor.

  8. 128
    Mark M on 5 Jan 2014 #

    Re: 121/122: just for the sake of historical tidiness, that was a different feature from the one I mentioned earlier – the clarification of their political positions was in an interview with Chris Heath, which was the cover story of the March 1997 issue of The Face. (The Spices are in bikinis on the cover and in the pics with the interview – I think that was an uncharacterically poor editorial decision by the team then running the mag).

  9. 129
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Jan 2014 #

    #127 – I’m afraid I didn’t maintain a straight face past “final” – which of the verses in Exordium and Terminus are you speaking to us from?

  10. 130
    AMZ1981 on 5 Jan 2014 #

    #125 I suppose you can admire Thatcher’s stubborness, determination and the fact that she made it in a man’s world without subscribing to her politics. I also believe Geri Halliwell’s main reason for leaning towards the conservatives was on anti EU grounds.

    I’d argue that more than any other solo Spice Geri Halliwell courted the gay market; in 2001 it wouldn’t do to be associated with a party which was taking quite a homophobic line (and to be fair, I think we can reasonably assume that whatever her other opinions Geri is a social liberal).

  11. 131
    23 Daves on 5 Jan 2014 #

    #126 – Only she could answer that! Her follow-up tweet said something along the lines of “Sorry if I offended you”.

  12. 132
    tm on 5 Jan 2014 #

    I don’t buy this Jaggeresque ‘social liberal, fiscal conservative’ BS: “I just want everyone to be nice and tolerant and decent and be free to do what they want and have nice lives” “Are you prepared to make any sort of sacrifice to support any sort of movement to the utopia you describe” “Fuck no, hands off my stack, commie”

  13. 133
    Patrick Mexico on 5 Jan 2014 #

    Loaded by Primal Scream just had a colossal improvement!

  14. 134
    Tom on 5 Jan 2014 #

    #132 – I think Geri would probably have said she was LEADING the Movement!

    Re Pop Star Politics in general and Geri’s all-things-to-all-people interviews: this is sort of what I meant upthread about Philip Gould and focus-group politics. The surface of politics is a froth of statements phrased in such a way that most people would agree with them – ideas about freedom, hard work, independence, fairness, tolerance, prosperity, social justice, all of which sound jolly good in a common-sense sort of way. The actual business of politics, obviously, involves enormous amounts of compromises, trade-offs, paying favours, trimming against events, etc. etc. But generally parties will have rhetorical themes they go on the offensive on and others they end up on the defensive over.

    But in a focus group people will happily think any or all of those ideas are good at once, and the job of the moderator is partly to get underneath that to work out which way they will actually jump. But at this point the Tories were so moribund and discredited that Gould (and other Blairites) realised you didn’t have to go underneath – you could bundle up ALL of the common-sense good things and grab them all at once under the magic “new” rubric. (And they may well have believed they could deliver on that politically, too)

    So it isn’t exactly surprising that Halliwell had gone over to Labour by 2001 since the entire project of New Labour was to create a party which believed in everything – tho of course “rightward drift” was how that actually shook out in terms of many policy decisions.

    Actually along these lines I wonder if Posh played a part in the 1997 landslide – an awful lot of Tory strategists must have read that Spectator interview and been immensely cheered at her playback of the “Labour can’t be trusted on the economy” line. “Look!” they must have thought, “The young people aren’t fooled!”

  15. 135
    tm on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Re: Geri, yeah I’d bet she would! UN Goodwill Ambassador, self-described peer of Mandella, those kids books with Posh Princess Vatoria as the villain. A monstrous and entirely unjustified ego on the rampage: Alan Partridge in a Union Jack minidress. Still way more sympathetic than she should be. Maybe that’s just because I fancied her for many a year…

    Unfair of me really to peg Jagger with that sort of wooly minded flip-flopping. The Stones are fairly straight up libertarians: do what you gotta do to get through but don’t come looking to us for advice if the trip turns sour.

  16. 136
    Tom on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #127/129 – Andrew is being a bit unfair IMO – I basically agree with iconoclast that this is a big shift (or rather, this is a good marker of a big shift): I spent a lot of the Three Lions entry saying “we’re at the end of something” after all. If you even wanted to talk about generational shifts I wouldn’t disagree. There really are big changes going on.

    I don’t agree with him that these changes are terrible and that “artistic considerations” were “forgotten”.

    What I do think is that a particular narrative started to fail at around this point, and it has taken quite a long time for people to notice it had failed. It was a bit similar to the way the narrative around rock changed in the wake of punk. As Bob has pointed out in his book, if you look at the way some people narrativised ‘rock history’ just before punk it’s very much a story of increasing complexity, artistry, proficiency and respectability: an artform growing up. And within those terms of reference punk was a disaster and ruined everything – that story suddenly had a rather sad ending. Plenty of people still resent and don’t accept what happened with punk and after.

    But then a different story came in to replace it, and the story was one of increasing freedom, experimentation, discovery, and novelty. Different parts of the first history looked more important in the second story, others looked a lot less important.

    I think what iconoclast is describing is the idea that this second story also ends up having a sad ending – the one described in eg. Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, which is the source of a lot of this line of thinking. The story of pop as a story of constant forward motion ends with pop not seeming to move forward any more.

    People can and have disagreed strongly with this ending on the story’s own terms, arguing that forward motion hasn’t stopped (just as plenty of people who liked the first story didn’t agree punk had ended it). But when I thought about the Retromania idea I didn’t entirely disagree but I did wonder, is this a story about pop failing or about a set of ideas about pop failing? In the wake of punk there was a reframing of notions about what pop did well or was good at doing. What might a similar reframing of pop’s “third act” look like? What are the terms on which it might see itself? What did the ‘progressive’ story of pop miss?

    (The answers might not be pleasant or interesting ones, of course!)

    (BTW I don’t think “poptimism” or w/ever is the answer, exactly.)

    (And the even more interesting question is – if this nebulous third framing started in the mid-90s, when/how does it fail and what replaces it?)

  17. 137
    swanstep on 6 Jan 2014 #

    @tom,136. I’ve only read a precis/reviews of Retromania but does it really date collapse of a sense of forward motion in pop music to 1996/1997 (as opposed to characterizing, roughly where we are now)? I mean, 1997 is OK Computer/Come To Daddy/Homogenic which seemed pretty progressive and, moreover, if anything, the cultural vibe I get from all that stuff *isn’t* internal to music rather it’s relating much more broadly to the temper of its time. 1997 was the height of economic growth in the west – anyone who wants a job can get one etc. – perhaps immediately before we head into true bubble territory. It’s peace and prosperity as far as the western eye can see; exuberant, buoyant times. And in perfect counterpoint to all this suddenly lots of ominous, inward music emerges and finds an audience (very like all yer modernist prophets of doom emerging in 1922 just as the 1920’s start to roar and the new technologies of cars, phones and radio really take hold).

  18. 138
    Ed on 6 Jan 2014 #

    I wouldn’t disagree with a lot of this, but isn’t it a bit odd to date the death of originality in British pop to a record that sounded like nothing that had gone before it, made by a group that were talking about ideas never before discussed in an equivalent pop context?

    I also have a lot more sympathy with Iconoclast’s point @127 given the qualifier about the death of creativity in *British* pop. American pop was at this point just entering what I think of as its true Golden Age, which you might also call the Last Hurrah of progressive pop: the avant-R&B explosion of the turn of the millennium, when you had Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Pharrell Wiliams and many others creating the best music of their careers.

    (There was also Destiny’s Child, who will of course be troubling Popular later, but not for their second, and best, album, The Writing’s on the Wall, recorded in 1998-99. I would love to know whether the Spice Girls were one of the models they had in mind when they wrote it. Going back to the thoughts about the SGs being like punk, and the impossibility of their demands, in Bills Bils Bills and Bug-a-Boo Destiny’s Child talked about what emotional and financial independence might mean in the most practical ways. So I guess you could say they were the Clash to the SGs’ Pistols.)

  19. 139
    Andrew Farrell on 6 Jan 2014 #

    I think I’m being quite fair, in that I’m restricting my mockery to the idea that this is the end of the third *and final* golden age.

  20. 140
    tm on 6 Jan 2014 #

    An aside: can we have the Spice Girls on the avatar. Or ‘Waysis. Or Prodigy. Ta.

  21. 141
    Tom on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Spicers on their way – the flurry of activity over New Years meant the writing got ahead of the layout!

  22. 142
    Mark M on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Re 136 etc: A friend of mine (who I can guarantee has never read a word Simon Reynolds has written) was saying the other day that he had realised with some shock that Madonna’s Holiday was 30 years old, and then with a further shock that we were as far from 1983 as ’83 was from the pre-rock’n’roll era. His argument (with due reference to Back To The Future) followed that if you played Holiday to an average radio listener from 1953, they would find it impossibly alien, but you could play today’s top 10 to a pop fan from 1983 and it would broadly make sense to them.

  23. 143
    swanstep on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Rewinding to Rosie’s challenge that any alleged feminism of the SGs is decidedly small beer… I wonder whether Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To have Fun’ is a useful precedent for ‘Wannabe’. On the one hand, it’s hard to point to anything especially novel, let alone high-brow lyrically about GJWTHF, on the other other hand, particularly in the context of Lauper’s performance in the vid., it did feel like a really forceful, vibrant statement of basic female agency and solidarity/friendship. Lauper wasn’t The Raincoats or Lydia Lunch or…but none of those figures were ever going to influence the playground as it were, so it still made sense to appreciate and credit Lauper’s small beer feminist pop (and later Madonna’s). Isn’t that how it works with the SGs? They’re not Kathleen Hanna or L7 or Liz Phair or.. and in fact their particular entry point – their battleground in pop – is much younger and broader even than people like Alanis Morissette, who was selling by the truckload in 1996, or the all-gal touring music festival, Lilith Fair that was big business at the time, at east in North America). This is Kat’s point at #88. And thinking about the props that Lauper got for her anthem (seemingly rightly – we await Lena’s verdict on it some time in 2015?!), I tend to think that the point’s good and entirely general: when it comes to chart-toppers we use a different set of standards for assessing political moment.

    If one isn’t in the right mood it can seem wishful or even preposterous to detect political micro-tremors in the designed-to-sell-millions-to-kids, but, at least when one’s feeling generous, as we riffle through the #1s and think through associated history in their light, what might otherwise seem like small differences can feel legitimately huge.

  24. 144
    anto on 6 Jan 2014 #

    I knew girls at school who were in the Spice Girls fan club, but I also knew girls who were well aware of P.J Harvey. Also a mention to two groups with outspoken female singers – Garbage and Skunk Anansie – both very, very popular at this time with both boys and girls. Can we not fall into the trap of assuming ‘the kids’ are or were all of one mindset.

    Re Retromania – One of the reasons the book is not quite as persuasive as it should be is that it goes down a bit of a cul-de-sac in its mid-section working out ‘where it all went wrong’. Also Simon Reynolds seems unwilling to delineate between rock music that is genuinely retro(gressive) and sounds that are contemporary but still informed by the past – which are inevitable and not undesirable. For instance The Jam are marked out as culprits for their Carnaby Street affectations which seems unfair to me because Paul Weller is one artist who could never be accussed of not knowing when to move on.

  25. 145
    Kat but logged out innit on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #144: I was into Alanis! And Skunk Anansie! I had their albums, played them all the time and still had no idea who either would have voted for in a general election :) To me, the world of pop music (or indeed post-grunge) seemed completely separate from what was on Newsround (i.e. actually worth my attention). I could be wrong – Jayne Middlemiss might well have asked Skin about politics on The O-Zone – but as per #143 it’s the broad reach of the Spicers that was their key difference.

  26. 146
    punctum on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #115: You’re just digging a deeper and deeper hole for yourself, pal. “too much money for people who left school at 16”? That’s probably the most classist piece of right-wing tosh I’ve ever read here. Who the hell are you to say what people should do and how much they should earn if they leave school at 16 (which in the case of at least some of the Spice Girls wasn’t actually the case)? “obnoxious people” – you know them, do you? You’ve met them and have first-hand evidence of how they behave? You’d prefer sending them back up the chimney or down the mines? Perhaps the Mail Online comments section would be more up your street.

    Would anybody be saying any of this about East 17?

  27. 147
    Tom on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #137/138 – yeah, there isn’t a break point between narrative frames (as handily provided by punk) – I don’t know exactly when Simon R suggests that innovation declined into stasis (because erm I didn’t finish the book either), as Swanstep says he’s diagnosing current culture tho. The SGs begin fresh but end up leaning very heavily on pastiches of older styles at times, but that’s a conversation for later #1s.

    I said “started to fail” tho – different areas of ‘innovation’/progression started to fall away at different times – so marking it to this point is as much about British indie and rock and the Oasis effect as it is about the Spice Girls.

    And it’s about a way of looking at and valuing pop more than about what ‘actually’ happened – don’t want to say too much at this stage but Destiny’s Child (and Beyonce in general) are a very interesting case – their kind of R&B fits into the ‘progressive’ narrative frame, as Ed says, but is that the best way to think about it?

    Basically we’ve reached a point in 2013 where the story of pop as a story of pioneers and inventors has almost nothing to tell us about why the most successful/interesting current artists (like or dislike them) – Kanye, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Drake, Daft Punk, Miley et al – might be good or important. So the question for me is – is that a failure of pop or a failure of the story? (It might be both).

  28. 148
    Mark M on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Re 147 etc: The r&b as more adventurous narrative goes back at least to 1986, when it seemed patently clear to me at least that what Jam & Lewis were doing on Janet Jackson’s Control was vastly more sonically daring than anything being done by (to pick some ‘alternative’ guitar flavours then available) The Shop Assistants (who I loved), The Dream Syndicate, The Cult or The Replacements.

  29. 149
    punctum on 6 Jan 2014 #

    That’s a variable and not really comparable set of guitar groups. Also, what does “more sonically daring” mean? You’re as well saying Art of Noise were more “adventurous” in 1983 than the Smiths.

  30. 150
    Tom on 6 Jan 2014 #

    (BTW as is probably obvious I’m on the side of “the story failed” rather than “pop failed” – “sonically daring” as the go-to yardstick for pop quality became inadequate to describe the situation on the ground.)

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