Reconsidering the Spice Girls: How manufactured girl power became real

Reconsidering the Spice Girls: How manufactured girl power became real

In a scene from the 1997 film “Spice World,” the Spice Girls are rehearsing for the movie’s climactic performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Dressed in their signature looks, they sway their way through one of their hits, “Say You’ll Be There,” playfully poking one another and bopping along as they perform the R&B-infused track.

“That was absolutely perfect,” the music director declares when they finish, “without being actually any good.” The Girls kind of agree, and kind of don’t care.

It is a fleeting, self-deprecating punchline in the movie but one that encapsulates how the pop group has been perceived ever since it zig-a-zig-ah-ed its way onto the music scene in the mid-1990s. To a mostly young and female audience drawn to their messaging of self-empowerment, individuality and friendship, the Spice Girls were absolutely perfect. But to critics and commentators who wrote them off as “duds,” “manufactured” phonies and “shrill” bimbos, they were not actually any good.

Twenty-five years after the release of the film, as some of the band’s most fervent fans have themselves grown up to be pop titans, the role of the Spice Girls in music history is still being rewritten.

To be sure, criticism of the Spice Girls – most notably, that they were a superficial, manufactured, disposable pop confection – was not unique to them. Many pop acts, including the Beatles, the Monkees and ABBA, initially encountered the same derision. But from the beginning of their ascent to superstardom, the fact that the five Girls – Victoria Adams (now Beckham), aka Posh Spice; Melanie Brown, aka Scary Spice; Emma Bunton, aka Baby Spice; Melanie Chisholm, aka Sporty Spice; and Geri Halliwell (now Horner), aka Ginger Spice – were outspoken young women seemed to bring an added layer of skepticism.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the conundrum of the Spice Girls more starkly than the reception to “Spice World,” their madcap mockumentary, which earned more than $70 million worldwide but received memorably withering reviews.

Desson Howe in The Washington Post said it was “about as awful and shamelessly pandering as a fanzine movie could dare to be.” In the Orlando Sentinel, critic Jay Boyar described the movie as akin to “being kicked to death by a pack of wild Barbies.” Roger Ebert compared it very unfavorably to the film that inspired it, “A Hard Day’s Night,” writing, “The huge difference, of course, is that the Beatles were talented while, let’s face it, the Spice Girls could be duplicated by any five women under the age of 30 standing in line at Dunkin’ Donuts.”

What has become clear in the decades since the film’s release is that these five particular women could not, in fact, be duplicated. While all-female groups – from the Supremes to Destiny’s Child – have long been a celebrated part of pop music, Posh, Scary, Baby, Sporty and Ginger offered a specific combination of self-expression and brazen ambition that inspired a generation of artists. Contemporary performers such as Sam Smith, Little Mix and Haim have all been effusive in their praise for the Spice Girls.

“I remember hearing ‘Wannabe’ on the radio and immediately falling in love with it,” singer Rita Ora, who performed the Girls’ hit “Wannabe” in a 2018 appearance on “Lip Sync Battle,” said in a recent email. “To see women uplifting women who were doing it just as good as the guys, if not better, was incredibly inspiring as a young girl.”

“They probably inspired me to pick up a hairbrush when I was, like, 5 and sing into it,” British pop star Charli XCX, who remixed “Wannabe” for her 2019 single “Spicy,” has said of the group.

Fifteen-time Grammy-winning artist Adele is also an avowed Spice Girls superfan. When the group announced its 2019 reunion tour, she shared a photo on Instagram of herself as a young girl, the wall behind her plastered with Spice Girls posters and photos.

On an episode of “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” as part of the segment “Carpool Karaoke,” Adele enthusiastically declared her love for the band. “It was genuine,” she insisted of her admiration, to an incredulous Corden. “It was a huge moment in my life when they came out – it was ‘girl power’ and these five ordinary girls who just did so well.”

At their peak, the Spice Girls were a global sensation, and they remain, to this day, the most successful girl group of all time: Their first single, “Wannabe,” released in 1996, was a No. 1 hit in 37 countries, and their debut album, “Spice,” is still one of the bestselling albums by any female group. And even the Girls themselves are still coming to terms with just how much their brief stint at the apex of pop music affected a generation of fans and other artists.

“At the time, in the ’90s, we were probably too busy, too young and too exhausted to fully realize what was happening,” Chisholm said in a recent interview with The New York Times. But, she added, “it’s really quite overwhelming, but brilliant, to process that we really did make a difference, in so many people’s lives. It was such a joyful thing to be able to do.”

‘R.U. streetwise, outgoing, ambitious and dedicated’

Of the many criticisms leveled at the Spice Girls, perhaps the most potent was that they were not “real” musicians. This critique has often been used to belittle pop groups. Even the Beatles weren’t spared: When the band first crossed over to the United States in 1964, they were described as “a press agent’s dream combo,” “appallingly unmusical” and “a gigantic put-on.”

But this line of criticism carried particular weight in the 1990s in Britain, where male, guitar-forward Britpop bands such as Oasis and Blur, who preached a gospel of authenticity, dominated the music scene.

So let’s get something out of the way: Yes, the Spice Girls were manufactured. In 1994, Bob and Chris Herbert, a father-and-son music-management team based in Surrey, England, came up with the idea of creating a female version of Take That, the successful British boy band. The Herberts’ notion of injecting more femininity into the prevailing “lad culture” of ’90s Britain was “the one unarguable stroke of genius in their vision,” music critic David Sinclair wrote in his book “Wannabe: How the Spice Girls Reinvented Pop Fame.”

The Herberts placed an ad in a newspaper: “R.U. 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance R.U. streetwise, outgoing, ambitious and dedicated.” After weeks of auditions, they selected five girls – Brown, Chisholm, Beckham, Horner and Michelle Stephenson (who was replaced a few months later by Bunton) – and moved them into a house in the English town of Maidenhead, paying for their voice coaching, dance lessons, songwriting sessions, media training and demo recording sessions.

However, as the Girls worked together, Sinclair said, they concocted an ambitious vision for their band that clashed with the Herberts’ approach. The Herberts wanted them to stick to the usual lead-singer-with-backup model, while the Girls distributed lines equally among themselves so that no single leader emerged. The Herberts imagined five girls with a uniform look; the Girls wanted to remain distinct.

“We didn’t dress similarly in everyday life, and when we tried to do that in a performance, it just didn’t work,” Chisholm said. “Quite early on, quite naturally, we wanted to be individuals, and the management weren’t really feeling that.”

Like the Monkees before them – another manufactured band that seized control of its own destiny – the Girls decided they wanted out. So the five of them crammed into Horner’s Fiat Uno and drove off with their master recordings.

That bold decision “was a measure of how determined they were,” Sinclair said. It was as if the Herberts had “invented Frankenstein’s monster,” he said. “They were completely floored by what their creation then did to them.”

“It was all a bit of an adventure,” Chisholm said. “At that point, we didn’t really have much to lose, so we just went for it. And then the band became a very organic thing. We felt quite unstoppable.”

The Girls were already generating enough buzz in the industry – thanks, in part, to a showcase they had done – that they were in a position to audition new managers. They decided on Simon Fuller, who at that time was managing Scottish icon Annie Lennox. In March 1995, they met him at his office and started belting out “Wannabe.”

“It was quite unusual,” Fuller recalled recently, “to have these five young girls come bounding in the office with confidence and say, ‘You have to manage us, and we’re not leaving until you agree.’ It was just very contagious, that energy.”

From the Girls’ perspective, “it just clicked,” Chisholm said. “When we met him, it felt very much like he got it.”

Instead of turning the Girls into clones of one another, as the Herberts had intended, Fuller told them to focus on who they genuinely were and just dial it up. “If you like pink and fluffy and your mum is your best friend, then be pink 24/7, have fluffy on you all the time. If you’re the rowdy northern girl who has no airs and graces, sexy and dominant and noisy, then be that,” Fuller said. This idea, Fuller revealed in a 2014 BBC documentary, was inspired by Lennox, who, upon meeting the Girls, encouraged them to “ham up” their personalities.

The approach fit the Spice Girls perfectly.

The band’s “girl power” message, Chisholm said, also gave the group a focus: “At first, we wanted to make music and have fun and travel the world and do all those fun things. But the messaging gave us more motivation. We were expressing ourselves, as young women, in the mid-’90s. It was giving fuel to this fire.”

“Wannabe” was released in Britain on July 8, 1996, and by the end of that year, it hit No. 1 in more than 20 countries. “Spice,” released in November 1996, also went to No. 1 and was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize, awarded to the best British or Irish album of the year.

“It was like, you know, the preparation, the waiting, the frustration,” Chisholm said. “And then ‘Wannabe’ is released and bam – just two years of mayhem.”

‘People were firing on all cylinders’

Although the primary fan base for the Spice Girls was young and female, others were not immune to their charms. In 1997, while in South Africa to perform at a charity concert, the band met Prince Charles and South African President Nelson Mandela. Posing for photos outside the presidential residence in Pretoria, Mandela told reporters, “You know, these are my heroines.” (Horner quickly chimed in to affirm that the feeling was mutual.)

The group’s extravagant self-expression, coupled with a straightforward message of empowerment, resonated with girls, who saw themselves reflected in the band members’ various personas, spawning a generation of fans who identified as a Sporty or Scary or Posh.

“That’s kind of the beauty of the Spice Girls,” Ora said. “Each of them had their own voice and something different to offer.” (Those nicknames, by the way, were not coined by the group but imposed on them by a journalist at the British magazine Top of the Pops. The Girls, true to form, embraced the names.)

The group’s theatrics and self-aware sense of kitsch also sparked an enthusiastic following among members of the LGBTQ community, which initially took the band by surprise, Chisholm said. “In our heads, it was like, right, we’ve got to do this for the girls! And then we very quickly realized that a huge part of this community was behind us as well,” she recalled. “I think it’s because people can feel lonely if they’re in an environment where they can’t fully be themselves, and the Spice Girls gave them something to belong to.” The band has since become a popular source of inspiration for drag acts, and several of the Girls have appeared as guest judges on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

There was, however, one demographic that resisted them: the music media. “I think they were victims of their own success in the sense that, the more eyes are on you, the more critical people are going to be,” said Joe Stone, an editor at The Guardian who has written about the band.

Traditional tastemakers often sniffed at the Girls’ music; one relatively charitable review characterized it as emblematic of “pop’s heart of lightness, a happy place filled not with music of good taste but with music that tastes good – at least to a substantial portion of the planet.” Others dismissed the Spice Girls themselves as Fuller’s pawns, earning him the nickname “Svengali Spice.”

Much of the press, particularly the tabloids, picked apart not just the group’s work but their appearance and what they seemed to represent. “People were firing on all cylinders: They couldn’t sing, they couldn’t write music, they weren’t pretty enough, their feminism was hollow,” Stone said.

When Beckham appeared on a British talk show eight weeks after she had given birth, host Chris Evans weighed her to see if she was back to her pre-baby weight. He subjected Horner to the same treatment when she appeared on his show; both women have since spoken about struggling with body image and eating disorders.

“There is a real culture here in the U.K. that they really like to drag people down. We celebrate success to a point, and then it’s time to attack – kind of, ‘Don’t get above your station,’ ” Chisholm said. “But we always felt that the numbers don’t lie. We were breaking records.”

Another frequent target of criticism was the group’s message of “girl power,” which was promoted not just in their music but also through their many marketing deals with brands such as Pepsi and Chupa Chups lollipops. Activists raised concerns that the band was exploiting feminism for commercial ends. Many commentators were “very conscious of how feminism and pro-women sentiment was manipulated and weaponized, particularly by the media,” said Andi Zeisler, who co-founded the feminist pop culture magazine Bitch in 1996.

Against a backdrop of the punk riot grrrl movement and the women-centric Lilith Fair – both of which used music as a platform to advocate specifically feminist political and social changes – “the Spice Girls perhaps felt like a step back,” Zeisler said.

But the notion that the Girls’ message was, by virtue of being broadcast commercially, inherently hollow now seems shortsighted. “I think it’s possible to say, on the one hand, the Spice Girls and girl power were this very contrived marketing technique. And that’s true,” Zeisler said. “But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t very real for the Girls themselves, or for the audience. I grew up with feminism as an irredeemably dirty word. No one wanted to be associated with it. So just the optics of having a group of women talking about feminism in a different language, making it accessible – that’s really important.”

‘That sounds like a hoot’

The idea of a Spice Girls movie was first floated by Fuller and the band during their early publicity trips to the United States. The movie would be “a parody of ourselves,” Horner said in a news conference at the Cannes Film Festival. “We are basically taking the mickey out of ourselves.”

The Girls shot the movie in the summer of 1997 while also writing and recording their sophomore album, “Spiceworld.” Such was the allure of the band at the time that many renowned actors and musicians readily agreed to take part: The movie’s list of cameos reads like a who’s who of British pop culture, including Roger Moore, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Elton John and Elvis Costello (as well as Meat Loaf, an American).

Richard Grant, who played the band’s manager in “Spice World,” explained his decision to join the cast. “My then 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, was and remains a massive Spice Girls fan and begged me to take the role, so it was a slam-dunk decision,” he said.

Alan Cumming, whose character spends the film trying to make a behind-the-scenes documentary about the band, was similarly won over. “My agent called and, first of all, he asked me, did I know the Spice Girls? I was like, ‘Well, I am alive,’ ” he said. “I was really keen – I thought, that sounds like a hoot.”

But when “Spice World” came out, it followed the same path as the Spice Girls’ music – commercial success on the one hand and critical derision on the other.

“Half of the critics, especially the higher-brow ones, they’d already made up their minds before they watched the movie,” said Naoko Mori, who played the group’s friend Nicola.

For years, Chisholm said, she couldn’t bring herself to watch the film. But when her now 13-year-old daughter asked to watch it for her 5th birthday, they put it on and she was delighted. “I just adored it – I mean, it was hilarious,” she said. “We do take the piss out of ourselves and each other all the time.”

The movie ended up being one of the band’s final acts as a fivesome. By the time it premiered December 15, 1997, the Girls and Fuller had already parted ways. A few months later, Horner also abruptly left the band.

The rest of the Girls continued to perform as a foursome, including on a 1998 world tour, and released a third album, “Forever,” in 2000. They’ve appeared together in different configurations for various reunion performances, including two tours, over the past two decades. But the particular magic of their ascent had dissipated.

The Spice Girls generation comes of age

In 2012, the organizers of the London Olympics crafted the opening and closing ceremonies to celebrate the best of British culture. There were odes to James Bond, the queen and Mary Poppins, but perhaps no act drew more cheers, and tears, from the crowds than the members of the Spice Girls – all five of them – reunited atop a fleet of tricked-out black cabs as the stadium sang along raucously to their greatest hits.

Nearly three decades after their peak, critics have started to reconsider the ways in which the Spice Girls reshaped the pop-music landscape, in Britain and beyond.

In 2019, Pitchfork revisited “Spice” for a series on significant albums the publication had overlooked. Although the outlet still rated the record a 6.8 out of 10, it wrote that “the album was a meticulously crafted pop product, front-loaded with surefire radio hits,” concluding: “‘Spice’ remains an audacious achievement.”

As for “Spice World,” the movie is now championed by some as a cult classic, with its campy, self-aware humor entertaining those viewers who can get their hands on a DVD. (The movie is not currently available for streaming.)

“I think it’s really funny, and I’m really glad I did it,” Cumming said. “When people ask me for my favorite of all the movies I’ve made, I always answer ‘Spice World.’ ”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing the Spice Girls achieved, however, was their empowerment of a generation of fans. These listeners first encountered them as children and responded positively to the band and what they represented – five women who remained true to what they wanted and how they were going to get it and had a lot of fun together along the way.

In an industry teeming with stories of artists – particularly young female ones – being manipulated or taken advantage of, the Spice Girls can now be remembered as a rare example of an all-female band that took a strong hand in charting its own success. “A lot of times, it’s the management that holds all the cards, makes all the money, decides what happens, and the artist that goes away shortchanged if not totally screwed over,” Sinclair said. The Spice Girls, he noted, “actually kept a grip on everything, from Day 1.”

Chisholm and the band have embraced their status as role models, both for women and for the LGBTQ community. “It’s so humbling to have the opportunity to give people strength to just be who they are. That should be everybody’s human right,” Chisholm said. “Maybe we’re misfits, maybe we’re oddballs – we’re all different. But we come together, and our unity is our strength.”

When, in 2019, the Spice Girls (minus Beckham) reunited for a tour, Adele – the fangirl whose childhood wall was once plastered with Spice Girls posters – visited them on the day of their final performance, at Wembley Stadium.

“We went into the bar to see our friends and family after the show,” Chisholm recalled. “Adele had gotten everybody ready, and they all started singing ‘Wannabe’ when we walked in. She was leading the chorus!”

It was a powerful, full-circle moment for the band, she said.

“There’s so much talent out there, and if the Spice Girls had any part in inspiring and empowering these brilliant artists, then that is only a good thing,” said Chisholm, who is now a solo artist, with a self-titled album out now and a memoir coming later this year.

For Ora, the band’s girl-power message has always been “about standing up and advocating for the women around you, because, at the end of the day, we have to look out for each other,” she said. “Who better to teach us that lesson than the Spice Girls?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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