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. 181
    tm on 7 Jan 2014 #

    I meant to say also that I like the mod/Girl Power analogy: clean living under difficult circumstances, consumerism as a series of astute choices (esp. clothes) rather than stultifying torpor, intoxicants are there to keep you dancing rather than take you on a strange trip.

  2. 182
    tm on 7 Jan 2014 #

    One of the best points Simon Reynolds does make in Retromania is that pop’s not just about the shock of the new but the palpable sense of excitement that still comes across from people who knew they were on the vanguard of something new: in this sense, Wannabe scores highly.

  3. 183
    pink champale on 7 Jan 2014 #

    Wow, quite a thread. Aside from the socio political gender politics malarky, the one thing that’s always bothered me about the spice girls is the bus they go off in at the end of the Wanabe vid. Why that awful looking green and cream thing and no the “”””iconic”””” red London bus? Every time it seems jarring. Er, that’s it.

  4. 184
    swanstep on 8 Jan 2014 #

    @pink champale, 183. Still, getting *some* double-decker bus iconography in place from the beginning was a stroke of genius. It allowed the Spices to keep a common touch even as their new limo-lifestyle kicked in. I was living in Chicago in 1998 and was there in Jan when they visited to record an appearance on Oprah (and later – or was it earlier? – they held a press conf. at Planet Hollywood – remember those?). Well! They managed to just about shut down the city touring all around the Loop/CBD in a (red this time) open-topped, double-decker bus. Thousands of people piled out into the (freezing!) streets to greet/see them. I hadn’t paid much attention to the SGs at the time, but the news (helicopter etc.) coverage of the event really made me aware that they were massive (even in Chicago – a big music town but not much of a pop town I’d thought). And the *bus* was the visual key to the whole pleasurable insanity. I’m pretty sure they pulled similar stunts all over the world, and not requiring a pure Routemaster bus (which wouldn’t be available in many places) was essential for that to work.

  5. 185
    Erithian on 8 Jan 2014 #

    The other thing that got me about the video – being pointlessly horrible to that homeless bloke out the front. What was all that about??

  6. 186
    Rory on 8 Jan 2014 #

    I must have been on another planet in November 1996, when this began its 11-week run as the Australian number one, because I’d never seen the video before yesterday. (Ah, that was it: I was on Planet Wedding, which is a fair excuse for losing all contact with popular culture for a bit.)

    A few things struck me on these first few viewings. One was the disrespect for the homeless guy at the beginning, as Erithian mentioned; I hope it was at least a twenty that Emma Bunton slipped him before nicking his cap. Another was just how hard it was to watch the video without retrofitting my contemporary impressions of the performers into it: specifically, how strange to watch Victoria Adams dancing around in her little black dress as if she wasn’t half of Posh & Becks, surrogate royal couple of the 2000s. It’s even more odd to think that the 12-13 years I’ve been used to her as part of the UK cultural landscape far outstrips the preceding five years of the Spice Girls. Because her faltering solo career hadn’t registered with me, and I’m not one who pays much attention to the fashion world, seeing her actually singing and dancing on that screen just seemed… incongruous. I know that’s just a quirk of when I personally was paying attention, but it does mean that my response to the SG phenomenon, here and presumably over their subsequent hits, is and will be entirely uninformed by being caught up in their pop culture moment, because I wasn’t. “Best-selling female group of all time” and “most successful British band since the Beatles” (says Wikipedia) are daunting accolades, and it will be fascinating to see how their number ones impress me over coming months – or fail to.

    That said, I did know they existed and did know “Wannabe”. The video may have been escapable, but the music wasn’t, drifting in from passing car radios and in-store speakers, and there were certainly enough stories and photos in the press. I didn’t mind the song, but the phenomenon struck me as the female flipside to the UK lad culture being touted at the time; from that point of view, the comparison with Oasis seems spot-on. When I moved to Britain in 2001, that strangely plastic look sported by young women on Friday nights, all straight peroxided hair and orange skin, looked like the Spice Girls’ legacy, and it was hard to map it onto my Gen-X conceptions of female empowerment. But there will be many more opportunities to explore this particular minefield, so for the time being I’ll observe the “Achtung!” signs and keep out. (Here’s a contemporary take that’s worth a look.)

    The song itself suffers to my ears now in comparison with what came later from other groups, one or two brief generations down the pop line, and the contributions of each group member are mixed, but Mel B serves as a great backbone to both the song and the video (surely she wasn’t dubbed “scary” on the basis of either? Scary Spice, meet Timid Journos). The “so here’s the story/slam your body down” section sells me on the whole thing, really. I was swithering yesterday between 5 and 6, but today I think I’ll stretch to 7.

  7. 188
    Ed on 9 Jan 2014 #

    Tom @159: I’m sorry, I was being a bit disingenuous.i knew you didn’t really mean all progressive pop was seen in the same way as Crimson and Tull.

    I do think you’re making a bit of a mistake, though, in drawing such a bright line between value judgements before and after punk. Prog Rock also prized novelty: how else did it get to be called “progressive”? The groups were always trying new things: “let’s make a song last for a whole side”; “let’s record a concerto for group and orchestra”; “lets’s do an album using only household appliances”; “let’s do it on ice!” There were some pretty radical changes in sound and approach in the careers of King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Genesis between 1968 and 1975.

    The model was the Beatles, of course, who set a standard for speed of artistic evolution that is unlikely ever to be surpassed. But it also came from jazz, which was very big on novelty for a while – as in the “New Thing”. And it also came from modern classical music – which changed so fast it lost most of its audience – and from the arts in the West more generally, which have been using originality as a yardstick of value since at least the 19th Century. And not just the high arts, either. Houdini and Barnum both promised feats never before seen by human eyes.

    In the light of all that, I think you can certainly make the case that future shock-ism is not just a narrative that happened to dominate between the late 70s and late 90s, but actually appeals to something more fundamental in our culture, and perhaps even in human nature.

    (One difference pre and post punk was that there was no longer such pressure on fans to be faithful to individual careers. The innovation came from within the existing universe of performers: “what will Dylan do next?” After punk, fans were happier to ask: “what will music do next?”)

  8. 190

    The relevant history of the term “progressive” — other historians can jump in here and school me– seems to be this:

    i: “progressive jazz”: a fashion in post-war jazz in which (mostly white) college-trained composers (actually primarily stan kenton and dave brubeck) combined trends in up-to-date european composition with orchestral or small-group jazz — historian-composer gunther schuller would later dub this “third stream”, which was in effect a kind of limited precursor of fusion, and covered the likes of the modern jazz quartet (who weren’t white college kids)
    ii: several years gap
    iii: certain late 60s UK beat groups — savoy brown stay in my mind for some reason– being dubbed “progressive blues”, probably by critics with a memory (and even a working knowledge) of (i); the suggestion perhaps being that the blues, for all its virtues, was (like pre-war jazz?) a limited and even an unsophisticated form; how could bringing to it a knowledge of advanced jazz, classical and other musics not expand its address and improve its musicality? this (arguable not to say dodgy) notion of expansion was what constituted the “progress” (i talked a little abt the implied political utopianism here: of course “progressive” is also a term of art in political discussion, especially in the US)
    iv: as the blues became less obviously the shared root for everyone , the preferred term “progressive blues” became “progressive rock” — king crimson had blues-ish vocals and distorted guitar, and elp had keith emerson’s boogie-woogie piano now and then, but yes and genesis for example really had neither
    v: as the realisation of the 60s utopia seemed to retreat, the term as a critical cliche became (simultaneously) a little derisive and/or defensively affectionate: prog, a four-letter counter-and-cousin to punk…

    I think it’s absolutely right to argue that post-punk — which is also counter-and-cousin to punk — had a close affinity with prog (though i believe, and plan to argue at length elsewhere at some point, that the very different attitude to the blues is a telling distinction, with complex consequences)

    (in a sense, punk was to post-punk what the blues was to prog, the “limited and even unsophisticated form”, but it’s more complicated than that: prog and post-punk are neither of them simple sonic continua, for one thing; “limited and even unsophisticated” is actually not that smart a way of thinking about blues, as 60s musicians i think realised perhaps better than many 70s critics)

  9. 191
    enitharmon on 9 Jan 2014 #

    Mark @190

    In the late 60s “Progressive music” was what John Peel played on Sunday afternoons and contrasted with the commercial pop that Radio 1 played the rest of the time. Didn’t matter if it was Jethro Tull (Mick Abrahams period), Fairport Convention, Captain Beefheart or the Flying Burrito Brothers.

  10. 192

    I’d forgotten that! Can you remember what year that show began broadcast? Pretty sure he began with a night slot, to continue “The Perfumed Garden”, which was his pirate radio show’s name (a name that haha affirms the thesis beyond that link). My guess is that the music was already being called this, rather than that he came up with that term — he was never particularly interested in jazz, and I don’t think Brubeck or Kenton would have appealed to him much. (My further guess would be that it came via Melody Maker — where prog, blues and jazz were all discussed side-by-side — but this may be completely wrong.)

    (And googling I find that Johnny Winters’ first LP — 1969 — was called The Progressive Blues Experiment, so it had independent traction in the US.)

  11. 193
    thefatgit on 9 Jan 2014 #

    #189 Defeated by Paywall, but I’m gussing the synopsis, if the mention of Thomas Kuhn is anything to go by, would it be that significant changes in music, as in science are “paradigm shifts” rather than any predictable linear narrative?

    I would need to read the full article, but with my (very limited) layman’s knowledge of philosophy, I’m close, right?

    Do I get a gold star?

  12. 194
    enitharmon on 9 Jan 2014 #

    Mark @192: Peel may well have had a night slot but I don’t think I listened to that. I know that his Sunday afternoon show (was it Top Gear or did that come later?) was in place by September 1968 because I clearly remember having it on while I was doing my history homework which involved reading up on the agricultural revolution and in one of those bizarre moments that stick in the memory I read the name of the inventor of the seed drill in the same instant that Peel announced the band that featured Mick Abrahams and Ian Anderson. I’d never hear of either of them at that point.

  13. 195
    admin on 9 Jan 2014 #

    ha ha, if you google “The_Structure_of_Musical_Revolutions” and click the first link (which is that page) it seems to get past the “subscribers only”

  14. 196
    lonepilgrim on 9 Jan 2014 #

    this dubious looking chart popped up on my Tumblr dashboard a couple of days ago professing to ‘visualise’ 100 years of ROCK

  15. 197
    pink champale on 9 Jan 2014 #

    #194 Would be interesting to trace the arc of yuks at the inventor of the seed drill. from amused schoolkids and blank teachers, to amused teachers and blank schoolkids. And soon, if not already, blank everyone. (even assuming the invention of the seed drill is still an important part of the curriculum.

  16. 198
    Jimmy the Swede on 9 Jan 2014 #

    I have nothing at all to contribute to the matter of the Spice Girls other than to relate a wee story about how I once had the great question of the day put to me by a female child of about ten years who was being escorted through the Customs Red Channel as an unaccompanied minor by a member of airport staff. I was, by calculation, in my mid thirties whereas the escorting “nanny” was probably the age I am now. “Who is your favourite Spice Girl?” Poppet asked. “Clodagh Rodgers Spice,” I replied, thus leaving the Cherub, in the words of The Bard, “to a bootless inquision”. Nanny snarled and snorted at me for my insidious “there’s no Santa” counter punch against an innocent, whilst I smugly bathed in my own wit. In a matter of seconds, though, I profoundly regretted being such an ass. This was a little kiddy being friendly and I was a stupid oaf in a uniform. I immediatley atoned by getting to know the names of all the Spice Girls so that when I was asked the question again I would have an acceptable answer: “Victoria.”

    By Jupiter’s cock, my judgement certainly hadn’t improved!

  17. 199
    The Edge of the Woods on 10 Jan 2014 #

    […] Tom Ewing on the Spice Girls: […]

  18. 200

    […] Tom Ewing on the Spice Girls: […]

  19. 201
    Patrick Mexico on 12 Jan 2014 #

    Sorry, I’ll be absolutely fucking boring and give this a six! It wouldn’t strike a chord with people like me in 1996 or now, and coincides with some very uncomfortable times in my life – especially starting at secondary school (Bowland High, Grindleton, back in Lancashire), with all the repeated tsunamis of confusion and dislocation for an 11-year-old going on 51 with Asperger’s. Due to that and doting parents, I lived a sheltered life and didn’t even know what most swear words meant back then, and in the “facts of life” talks I was one of the kids who needed to run out of the class to be sick. Which obviously didn’t get me off on the right foot making friends. In a short while, though, things would change radically.

    For the record, though my opinions on girls were extraordinarily platonic back then, Emma was my favourite back then, closely followed by Geri, the other three pretty “meh”, though I guess the rule of thumb says Mel C was obviously the one most of would choose for a night out with.. and this was a pretty sharp statement of intent as a pop group as a part of a crew and a group of friends. Their music and all-conquering impact where NOBODY COULD SPEND TWO SECONDS OF A CONVERSATION WITHOUT BRINGING THEM UP TENUOUSLY would soon become rancid though. And Ginger’s ham-fisted political bandwagon-jumping.. I ask you.

    I think I’ll probably be invalidated of an opinion on this chart run anyway, back then I remember watching a highlights show of a Sky Premier League match (a 0-0 draw between Sunderland and West Ham!) soundtracked by Kula Shaker – Hey Dude. I thought “Wow, this song’s brilliant, they really mean it, man – they’re going to be the next Led Zeppelin. I bet they’re going to stick around for a long, long time. The lead singer seems really sincere, gotta love a rough-and-tumble Mancunian.”

  20. 202
    Billy Hicks on 12 Jan 2014 #


    See also September 2012, which I’m already looking forward to discussing.

  21. 203
    DanH on 14 Jan 2014 #

    In early 1997, when this made #1, I was blissfully unaware of the song. Oh I knew of the Spice Girls craze, and I knew there was a “Wannabe,” but at that point I was an innocent 6th grader…living, drinking, eating Beatles, and completely out of the popular-music mix. By the middle of that year, I entered junior high, where it was much harder to escape popular music. *BUNNY ALERT* was on the radio by then, so I heard that before ever hearing “Wannabe.” It was a song I vowed to hate long before hearing, so my hate is nowhere as big as for “Macarena,”* or the bunnied Oklahoma brothers soon to follow. I do remember my brother hating it because it reminded him too much of a song he really liked (“Connection” by Elastica. Hmmmm…) However, as a chapter in U.K. pop music, it has its place, and I respect all its defense on the board. Maybe I ‘had to be there’…

    * Good work at keeping that dance craze at bay, U.K.! I can’t tell you how much I hated that craze. And how it popped up in music classes, P.E. classes, etc. I basically either snuck out of the room or hid against a wall instead.

  22. 204
    Tom on 14 Jan 2014 #

    Origin stories, via graemem on Tumblr http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jan/14/spice-girls-annie-lennox-simon-fuller

    Not sure how much of this I buy into.

  23. 205
    lonepilgrim on 14 Jan 2014 #

    it woz Annie wot dun it.

    edited to say SNAP!

  24. 206

    […] via SPICE GIRLS – “Wannabe” | FreakyTrigger. […]

  25. 207
    David Sim on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Oh Christ. You’ve achieved the impossible. You’ve got me liking the Spice Girls. I avoided them back then, probably because of the hype or maybe out of some kind of internalised homophobia. But while reading this and your Say I’ll Be There reviews, I listened to the tracks. Damn, they’re GOOD.

  26. 208
    Kendo on 31 May 2014 #

    Tacky, simpering, arse pile of poop. (The piano is quite nice, though. Deserves a better song/artist.)

  27. 209
    Ed on 23 Aug 2014 #

    I have just been watching the excellent Kathleen Hanna doc, ‘The Punk Singer’, and there is some great archive footage from about 1991 of someone putting together a Bikini Kill fanzine. The cover line: “Girl Power”.

    It’s also good to see this fantastic Kathy Acker interview with the SGs (http://creaturesofcomfort.tumblr.com/post/18437270949/kathy-acker-interviews-the-spice-girls-for-vogue-in) mentioned by Tom @97. It was Acker who inspired Hanna to start a band.

  28. 210
    Ed on 24 Aug 2014 #

    I watched the clip from ‘The Punk Singer’ again, and it’s Hanna herself making the fanzine, so I guess she has as good a claim as anybody to be the godmother of Girl Power.

    What’s not clear, though, is whether any of the SGs or anyone in their team was aware of and consciously emulating Bikini Kill. Clearly what we need is a Greil Marcus type to trace the connections between militant punk in the Pacific North-West in the early 1990s and chart domination in Britain about five years later.

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