Jan 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Wannabe”

Popular220 comments • 14,986 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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  1. 151
    Tom on 6 Jan 2014 #

    & as a descriptor for R&B it tended to privilege the producers over the singers, which had obvious problems – this is all stuff we’ll discuss in a lot of detail in the 00s of course…

  2. 152
    MikeMCSG on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #146 To answer each point calmly. There’s a promise made at school that if you stay on there’ll be a premium for that later in life – as someone of more or less the same age you must have been told that too- I don’t see it as right wing perhaps just very naïve to expect a delivery on that. Now obviously from Wayne Rooney to Alex Higgins and there are especially talented people who have to be rewarded outside of that framework ; I’ve yet to be convinced that the Spice Girls clear the bar.
    In your temporary retirement piece on TPL you referred to not receiving any writing commissions as a result so I guess you’re not immune from making “right wing ” connections between work and reward ?
    If I’m wrong about any of their school leaving ages I hold my hand up and apologise for the misassumption.
    There’s plenty of examples from others upthread about obnoxious behaviour though I concede it’s mainly Geri and that perhaps she’s over-coloured my perception of the others. I don’t know any of them ; the original comment on Mel came from a black 40 year old female from the same area of Manchester so I presume she knew what she was talking about (NB she also had some interesting tales about The Jacksons’ stay at The Britannia in 77 where she worked as a room-maid but they’re definitely not repeatable here).
    Chimneys and mines and Mail. No.

  3. 153
    punctum on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Para 1: Didn’t apply to me. I was earmarked for university from about age four (child prodigy innit) on the understanding that as long as I passed the appropriate exams I would get in. But what I also learned is that to get into university and STAY there you need to have the patter and not just the grades – you need to demonstrate that you’re going to be able to function in a societal framework completely different from rote-learning school rather than find out you’ve made a horrible mistake and drop out halfway through year one at the taxpayer’s expense (and that’s not Mail editorial time, since there’s nothing socialist about wasting public money). Equally though there are people from Branson to Sugar for whom school clearly didn’t work and they had the patter to make themselves successful in other ways – perhaps they did better because they wanted it more.

    School is essentially not about education, it’s about getting children ready for the five-day working week, hence the emphasis on punctuality and unquestioning obedience of authority. Some people just aren’t going to be able to do that. Since most of the Spice Girls went to STAGE school (after or concomitant with secondary education), however, it was always clear that they had a fairly exact idea about what they wanted to do in life. What’s wrong with that?

    “I’ve yet to be convinced that the Spice Girls clear the bar” – it’s not up to you, nobody’s waiting for your judgment.

    Pare 2: “Right wing” connections? What are you talking about? A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay? That’s the basis of socialism, petal (that and all the stuff about owning the means of production etc.). All I’m saying is that on TPL I’m doing a hell of a lot of work with no material return, and yes it would be nice to be paid for writing it since the money would come in handy, I’m not going to bullshit about that. It would also be nice if a publisher could take a chance on turning it into a book but nowadays you have to jump through several hoops just to get an agent, never mind a publisher. Then again, you’re effectively asking the world: “I would like the chance to prove I’m a great writer, but risk somebody else’s money doing it” which absolves the writer from responsibility – a very dodgy field in which to get marooned.

    Para 3: These “examples” are personal opinions based largely on anecdotal evidence – and I’m not going to knock anecdotal evidence in and of itself; it’s all most people have to go on – but if you’re going to use a loaded word like “obnoxious” then you need to provide quantifiable evidence (“I presume” isn’t going to cut it) to back the description up, since otherwise you sound like you’re sneering at “uppity working-class girls” (and this persists when applied to women in the media in general; witness the kerfuffle over PJ Harvey’s editing of the Today show last week. Do you think there would have been a hundredth of the “controversy” raised if the same guests had been on but the editor had been Billy Bragg?).

  4. 154
    MikeMCSG on 6 Jan 2014 #

    I’m sorry you didn’t like university- maybe you picked the wrong one ? Hard to imagine you struggling for any sort of “patter”.
    If the Spice Girls went to stage school maybe what I found objectionable wasn’t real anyway.
    Course it’s just my opinion. Same goes for you or anyone else here.
    You wouldn’t find many Tories disputing the “fair day’s pay” concept – it’s not a uniquely socialist idea. I’m certainly not criticising you for wanting a return – good luck to us both on that.
    Can’t comment on the PJ Harvey thing – completely unaware of it. I don’t sneer at Cheryl Cole, Jo O’ Meara or Sandie Shaw; it must come down to not liking the music.

  5. 155
    Ed on 6 Jan 2014 #

    As Tom says, plenty of time for all this later. But… I do want to defend the “progressive” narrative a bit. The implication is that it’s applying the value system of King Crimson and Jethro Tull to Kanye West and Miley Cyrus. But the shock of the new is a vital part of pop; probably the most vital part.

    As somebody (Wichita?) said upthread, one of the ways you could tell Wannabe was great was that when you first heard it, you thought “what the hell is that?”

    Of course, delivering the shock of the new to today’s kids and to a 40-something music geek may be rather different endeavours….

  6. 156
    punctum on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #154: Hang on a minute, where did I say I didn’t like university? I had a brilliant time there, so brilliant I went to two of them. Hence my concern; if you’re misreading me here, it raises the question of whether what you think you’ve seen and heard the Spice Girls do, you’ve seen and heard well.

  7. 157
    MikeMCSG on 6 Jan 2014 #

    “drop out halfway through year one ” ? How does that square with “a brilliant time “. You’re right – I am confused.

  8. 158
    punctum on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Please note the rhetorical use of the second person plural in that particular passage. I knew many people at university who did end up in that situation. I myself did not. Nowhere do I refer to “I” or “me” or “my” in that context. Hopefully that is now clear.

    Please make sure that you read what I actually do write, as opposed to what you THINK I’ve written.

  9. 159
    Tom on 6 Jan 2014 #

    I think I’ve muddied the waters a bit – or perhaps my explanations weren’t too clear to begin with!

    I foolishly used the word “progressive” to mean the post-punk value system I grew up with – where the story of pop was essentially one of consecutive discoveries/revolutions/innovations. But of course progressive is a loaded word cos of prog, and makes people think of Crimson and Tull, who aren’t what I was talking about. If anything they’re part of the earlier narrative – which punk threw into question: one about increasing sophistication, proficiency and maturity. (NOT everyone believed in this narrative or would have held up prog rock as a great example of it, of course.)

    What I was calling the progressive narrative – is nicely defined by “the shock of the new is a vital part of pop, probably the most vital part”. So maybe it should be the shock-of-the-new narrative! This is absolutely the pop value system you and I and most of the people on Popular grew up with. And the question I’m asking is – how specific to a particular era is that value system? How useful is it in describing pop now? If it isn’t so useful, what takes its place?

    “Wannabe” has the shock of the new, to an extent, but remember it also has the shock of the familiar to a lot of its fans – here are people like me having the kind of fun I want to have and saying stuff that matters to me. And this kind of double standard – the way judgements of newness might override the representational content of music – becomes more and more acute, it’s there in discussions of R&B, hip-hop, grime, teenpop, etc etc.

  10. 160
    punctum on 6 Jan 2014 #

    The stories of King Crimson and the Spice Girls are actually more closely interlinked than people tend to think. I will be getting back to that in greater detail on TPL.

  11. 161
    MikeMCSG on 6 Jan 2014 #

    # 158 OK thanks for the clarification.

    # 159 I think I agree with that. Perhaps the potency of “shock of the new ” declined with the contraction of the weekly music press to one title and the Radio One blitzkrieg. When “new” music went straight onto Trevor Dann’s playlist rather than it taking 4 or 5 singles to move from John Peel to Simon Bates it couldn’t be “shocking ” any more.

  12. 162
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 6 Jan 2014 #

    cf their still-unreleased collaborative single “Spice THRAK” *high fives entire audience*

  13. 163
    thefatgit on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Deep in the mix of “Wannabe”, I hear the deployment of a Wah pedal.

  14. 164
    Jon (@octojon) on 6 Jan 2014 #

    This is a good write-up. ‘Wannabe’ is peerless pop-as-manifesto. RT @tomewing my Popular entry on “Wannabe” http://t.co/DcGqYW6EuG

  15. 165
    Alan on 6 Jan 2014 #

    the 6th member, Tarkus Spice

  16. 166
    Steve Williams on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Love the reference to No Way No Way by Tom back at comment one. I was at university at the time and we were obsessed with how hopeless Vanilla were, and when the follow-up turned up I had to record their appearance on Fully Booked for my flatmates because we couldn’t wait to hear it, though True To Us turned out to be disappointingly proficient.

    A couple of dull observations. I think this is one of the only number ones (the only?) of 1996 not to enter at number one which is odd when you consider how they seem to epitomise the concept of first week sales being all and bands being dropped if they don’t go straight in at number one. Also, note the sleeve just says “Spice” and I recall in their early appearances they were billed under that with the “Girls” being appended at the last minute.

    I’m afraid that I fell for the Spice Girls hook, line and sinker, I used to collect the stickers and everything, which was partly me being a wacky student trying to be funny but also because I found them genuinely entertaining. I think what really helped them was that they would go on the telly and be properly funny, they would faithfully go on the Saturday morning shows and join in with all the features which was very endearing.

    The VHS they released to go with the first album illustrates that, too, there are loads of bits where they just talk rubbish or say stupid things and tell crap jokes, however stage-managed it all was it certainly seemed very spontaneous.

  17. 167
    Tom on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #166 My feeling is that kind of knockabout spontaneity is one of the things that’s most difficult to stage-manage – groups either have it or they don’t and it’s generally painfully obvious when they don’t.

  18. 168
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 6 Jan 2014 #

    I was rewatching that very documentary on Sat Eve and what’s on-screen is certainly spontaneous and uncoaxed — and yes, very often very charming and funny. The editing room is where managerial decisions get made — what gets left out and such. They were pretty clearly pals who still hugely enjoyed each other’s company and the ride they were collectively on; even the drearier aspects (which they endure by making fun of).

  19. 169
    enitharmon on 6 Jan 2014 #

    [Rises nervously to feet, faces audience, shuffles nervously, looks at shoes, looks up, mumbles]

    My name is Rosalind and I like Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Kevin Ayres, (early) Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, Neil Young, The Doors, (early) Fleetwood Mac and the Velvet Underground (this list is not exhaustive). Oh, and Green Day and Muse thanks to my daughter.

    But then I also like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Edith Piaf, Dusty Springfield, Alison Moyet, Annie Lennox, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Suzanne Vega, Garbage, Skunk Anansie, Feist and Nellie McKay (again not an exhaustive list).

    And I still can’t find it in me to like the spicers.

    So where do I stand?

  20. 170
    AMZ1981 on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #166 It was one of five (I think) that didn’t enter at the top – the others were Return Of The Mack, Ooh Ah Just A Little Bit, Ready Or Not, and Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

  21. 171
    James BC on 6 Jan 2014 #

    There was also Killing Me Softly and Three Lions climbing back to the top as they swapped places, so arguably seven non-new entries.

    Surprisingly many to me, since my memory of that time is a new hit crashing in almost every single week.

  22. 172
    thefatgit on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #170, A piece of carrot falls unchewed from Bunny’s mouth.

  23. 173
    Cumbrian on 6 Jan 2014 #

    I’ve often wondered about the spoiler bunny. Is it related to the Rabbit of Caerbannog and known to Tim the Enchanter? Or is it more like Jive Bunny?

    Actually, it is clear which is the more terrifying prospect and it’s not the Python one.

  24. 174
    enitharmon on 6 Jan 2014 #

    @173 I’ve always though of it as more General Woundwort.

  25. 175
    flahr on 6 Jan 2014 #

    #142 “A friend of mine (who I can guarantee has never read a word Simon Reynolds has written)”

    would that I were so lucky ;_;

    (I actually left Retromania agreeing less with its central conceit than when I started – I felt pop music was looking back and being nostalgic more than I would perhaps value, but then I read sentences like “These out-of-time hippies were the most intriguing group of people at Brasenose College” and it was COME BACK UNORIGINALITY ALL IS FORGIVEN)

  26. 176
    punctum on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Yes, well, Brasenose, they let Jeffrey Archer in (for a year), shows you what standards they had…

    #169: it’s the Patty Waters vs Paris Hilton acid test!

  27. 177
    Tommy Mack on 6 Jan 2014 #

    I thought Simon Reynolds lost the plot in Retromania when he started bigging up Hauntology which, even in his enthusiastic description, sounds like some of the most ponderous consomme-thin musical gruel imaginable.

  28. 178
    Tommy Mack on 6 Jan 2014 #

    Re: the Spice Girls’ alleged obnoxiousness, aged 15, I would have definitely agreed: my reaction to this was ‘oh great, more idiot girls chattering, don’t I get enough of that at school?’ (I was a twat).

    Geri is definitely the obnoxious one. But in a weirdly charismatic way, like, as has been said upthread, the manic zeal of Kevin Rowland or Adam Ant. She is also a bit like Alan Partridge with her inflated ego, petty parochiality and absence of much talent beyond self-promotion. I genuinely don’t know what to make of her. I like her way more than I feel I should.

    SG as Sex Pistols: Geri is Johnny Rotten, Posh is Sid, Mel B is Steve Jones, Mel C is Matlock and Emma is Paul Cook.

  29. 179
    swanstep on 6 Jan 2014 #

    In case anyone’s interested, I just put µ-Ziq’s Throbbing Gristle-ish riposte to ‘Wannabe’ up on youtube. It was track 10 on µ-Ziq’s (comically prog-ishly titled?) Lunatic Harness (1997) album, which did not trouble the playground. Go three minutes in for the ‘punch-line’ if you can’t stomach the build-up.

  30. 180
    fivelongdays on 7 Jan 2014 #

    So, what did 14-year-old me think of the Spice Girls? Well, like many other boys of my generation, there was the fact that there was a girl group who – and get this – we could play the ‘which one’s your favourite?’* game with, as the girls had with TT et al.

    They were also an unstoppable juggernaut of pop, and to deny them would be churlish (even though 14-year-old me was slightly disappointed they kept Kula Shaker off number one**).


    *Victoria just edged out Emma at the time for me, although Geri was v popular, although her having Got Them Out may have had something to do with it.

    **Although it should have been Govinda, really.

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