The Power of Spice
|August 28, 2012||Posted by Jess under Celebrities, Ladytexts, Music, Tweendom|
Last week I went to a Spice World singalong out in Brooklyn with BFF Becky. It was a blast, and also reminded me of a post I’d had in mind since I first started this blog, but never got around to.
See, I didn’t have a lot of friends in middle school. I was going through the most awkward part of my awkward phase (age 0-28), I lived an hour and a half away from my school and the majority of my classmates, and I wasn’t allowed to take the subway by myself. But I did have five very good friends, and they were these awesome ladies:
Spice was the first CD I ever bought (well, alongside the Singin’ in the Rain soundtrack; that combination should give you a pretty good idea of my musical tastes). I used to lie on the floor of my room listening to it over and over again while painting seashells (don’t ask) or writing terrible poetry. Every boy I had a crush on fell for my best friend; I was Mean Girls’ed out of my social circle; I had braces and glasses and some crappy stuff happening at home. But the Spice Girls were there, bubbling over with fun, promising me that friendship never ended.
Even then I was aware that there was a debate about the Spice Girls: about their music, about their sexuality, about their particular brand of feminism. But I thought then – and I still think now – that they were awesome in ways I couldn’t articulate at 12. Here’s a few:
1. They were individuals. The Spice Girls are the only girl group I’ve ever seen that was marketed like a boy band: you know, the Cute One, the Bad Boy, the One Who Always Wears a Hat. (Trust me. That guy is in every boy band.)
Traditionally, girl groups place much greater emphasis on Rockettes-like uniformity, or feature one lead singer and her identical backup singers, from the Andrews Sisters1 to the Shirelles to Destiny’s Child. Even when girl groups don’t dress alike all the time, there’s no real effort to sell you on their individual “personalities.” Except with the Spice Girls, which took the idea of the Cute One, the Bad Girl, and the One Who Always Wears a Tracksuit, and ran with it.
Look, obviously these personalities are prepackaged and oversimplified. I don’t believe that Mel C (Sporty, for all you Spice novices) really backflipped everywhere, any more than I believe that AJ McLean of the Backstreet Boys wore those hats because he liked them and not because he was desperately trying to cover up a prematurely receding hairline.2 There is more to any one woman than being a baby or a redhead or posh (though Victoria seems to have made a lifelong commitment to that last one). But firstly, every celebrity/artist/public figure presents a prepackaged and oversimplified persona to the masses, even if that persona is “I have no persona, this is the real me.” Les Femmes Spice were just more upfront about it.
Secondly, and more to the point, the important thing here is not how “honest” the girls’ Spice names were, but that they were deliberately presented as five individuals who were making music together, and not a matched set of Pretty Singing Things. “Scary Spice” is not a three-dimensional portrayal of a person3, but it’s better than “the one on Beyonce’s left.” And by differentiating themselves so clearly, the Spice Girls gave the young girls watching them a chance to find one to identify with, to make a declarative statement about what kind of girl they were or wanted to be.
(I was a Ginger. Obviously.)
2. They were friends. Did they know each other before they formed the band? Nah. Were they really friends? Who the hell cares?
Only the Spice Girls will ever know for sure how they feel about each other.4 But that’s irrelevant. The point here is not whether they were genuinely friends, but that their constant message to their (predominantly young and female) audience was how important friendship is, especially between women. Too often women are portrayed as being in competition with one another, usually over men. While the Spice Girls were sampling Irving Berlin (“God help the mister/ Yeah, God help the mister/ That comes between me and my sister”), Brandy and Monica were fighting over some jerk in “The Boy Is Mine.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: I loved “The Boy Is Mine.” And I love Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me” and any number of other plaintive laments about a boy passing the singer over in favor of some other, prettier girl. But in terms of messages young girls need to hear, I’ll pass on “She wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts” in favor of “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.” Yes, even though the latter kind of doesn’t make any sense.
3. They were sex-positive. I definitely remember a lot of hand-wringing about the minidresses and the hot pants and the saucy lyrics, but you know what? I must’ve sung the lyrics to “Last Time Lover” (“First bite whet my appetite/ Second helping’s always better”) and “Naked” (“Undress you with her eyes/ Uncover the truth from the lies”), and it didn’t make me a raging nymphomaniac. (Actually, I barely understood what they were talking about.) The message I took away was not “hey let me go get teenage pregnant right now,” but that the Spice Girls liked sex, they were in control of when and how they had it, and that they only had it with mature fellas who treated them right (“I want a man, not a boy who thinks he can”). Sex in the Spiceiverse is something playful and uncomplicated and always, always secondary to true friendship. And if you really bug them then they’ll say goodbye!
Oh, and “2 Become 1” is to this day the only Top 40 song I’ve ever heard that encourages safe sex: “Be a little bit wiser, baby/ Put it on, put it on.” That is all kinds of awesome.
4. Girl Power isn’t problematic when you actually are a girl. Another protest I remember hearing a lot as a kid was “why isn’t it Woman Power?” Well, primarily because a) it’s not as catchy – it sounds like how many woman it takes to haul a car – and b), because, yeah, “woman” carries a weight of authority that can be offputting, and “girl” is much more appealing and coy. But I think it’s important to remember two things. One, it ties into the name “Spice Girls” – it’s all about the branding, folks! – who, incidentally, were all between 18 and 22 when the band formed, which is still very, very young.5 I’m 28 now and I still don’t think of myself as an adult, so I can imagine how much more comfortable I’d have been with the label “girl” fresh out of college.
But perhaps more importantly, the Spice Girls’ core demographic wound up being girls from ages, what? Six to 16? Let me tell you who the phrase “Woman Power” doesn’t appeal to. Certainly it wouldn’t have resonated with middle school me! By labeling the movement “Girl Power,” the Spice Girls actually reached their audience. And though, yes, post-feminist, media-friendly, Wonderbra-based activism does have its share of problems, I’d rather have the Spice Girls use it to reach their very young, very impressionable audience than not. Because the core message behind Girl Power – that it’s important to believe in yourself and support other women – is crucial no matter how flawed the delivery. Furthermore, the Spice Girls, especially Geri, weren’t afraid to use the actual word “feminism,” which is sadly remarkable. I can’t picture a female pop star or group today, especially with so young a fanbase, marketing themselves as outspoken feminists without a lot of backlash.
And the music reflected that. The first time I stopped and listened to the lyrics to “Do It” as an adult I was flabbergasted:
Keep your mouth shut, keep your legs shut
Go back in your place
Blameless, shameless damsel in disgrace
Who cares what they say
Because the rules are for breaking
Not bad for post-feminism, huh?
5. They had some damn good music.
I’m sorry, but “Wannabe” is a perfect song, and if you can’t see that we have nothing further to discuss.
Look, the Spice Girls were far from perfect, in numerous ways. But they presented themselves with a brilliant and cheerful mix of individualism, friendship, and feminism that meant a tremendous amount to me – and, as the reunion tour in 2007 and last week’s singalong showed me, to a lot of women my age.6 And for that, I can only thank them.
- Yes, I just referenced the Andrews Sisters in a post about the Spice Girls. WHO WANTS TO TOUCH ME? ↩
- Pulling double duty, AJ was also the Bad Boy. Don’t put him in your little boxes, man! ↩
- Also, considering they didn’t choose those names but were given them by a journalist, kiiiiind of super racist. The name, not the Mel B. herself. ↩
- For what it’s worth, my guess would be that they liked each other well enough to work together, and then were forced into a very intimate friendship based on proximity, but also probably wanted to kill each other a lot of the time, and are now kind of tired of being lumped together. ↩
- Also, “Spice Women” is a terrible name for a band. But then, so is the Backstreet Men or the Beach Men. ↩
- And dudes! There were definitely some fabulous dudes in the singalong’s costume contest. ↩