What The Spice Girls Reunion and '90s Girl Power Means Today
The rumours are true. Dig out your platform shoes, drape yourself in the Union Jack and say you’ll be there, because the Spice Girls are once again reuniting. The fierce five who defined pop music for a generation of young girls and remain icons of radical bubblegum chic are getting back together. Following a massive sell-out tour in 2007 and a one-off appearance at the 2013 London Olympics closing ceremony, the women posted a picture together and revealed they had been talking about ‘opportunities and ideas’ for future projects. Nothing is set in stone, but in this age of feverish cravings for nostalgia and reboot after reboot, a return to Spiceworld felt inevitable. Few predicted that all five would agree to such a plan - Victoria Beckham is a celebrated designer now, she doesn’t need the reunion cash or clout - but it seems that the allure was too strong to deny.
As a full-on ’90s girl who owned all the Spice Girls albums, dragged her dad to see the movie, and cried when they broke up, I had unusually positive feelings at this news. Yes, it felt drawn out and unnecessary, as nostalgia is so often frivolous, but this was my nostalgia, dammit. It was also a revival of a particular strain of girlhood that fuelled my childhood and beyond. The warm memories I had of girl power, idealised friendship, and take-no-prisoners joy have a sudden sense of urgency in 2018. Women are at the forefront, they’re vibrant and angry and want more. Now more than ever, our need for representation has spilled into the political ecosystem, and the feminine has never been more ferocious or more at risk. Perhaps that’s why we want the Spice Girls back. They were just pointed enough to inspire. Never has branding so influenced my generation of girlhood.
The band were a manufactured act, put together by music impresario Simon Fuller and launched into the stratosphere with alarming efficiency in 1996. It’s easy to forget just how inescapable and how all-encompassing Spiceworld became in such a short amount of time. Less than 18 months after their debut single, ‘Wannabe’, they had a movie in cinemas, and that grossed $100m. With three albums to their name, one ill-advised movie and a mere 12 singles, the Spice Girls weren’t just leading the zeitgeist: They were the zeitgeist. They were Beatlemania for the ’90s; the soundtrack to Cool Britannia; the all-singing, all-dancing charm machine that sold the UK to the world in the age of Damien Hirst, Tony Blair, and Britpop. By 2000, it was all over, but what a time it was.
Nowadays, pop is a far more respectable genre. The manufactured factory bands are getting their dues in the age of Sia, Lorde, and the glorious Carly Rae Jepsen. While the music stays young, the fans are wiser and there’s a greater appreciation for bands like the Spice Girls on a purely musical level. They undeniably had tunes, and the best of them stood the test of time.
The concept of ‘girl power’ is one that pre-dates the Spice Girls, finding its roots in the feminist zine of the same name published by Bikini Kill in 1991. Kathleen Hanna’s brand of girl power was one with a much clearer agenda and anger behind it than the candy-floss commodification it would receive by the time Team Spice co-opted it. Bikini Kill made a reputation for themselves on the punk scene by centering the experience of watching their shows on the enjoyment of women: They invited women to the front of the crowds, they wrote explicitly feminist lyrics, and they shouted back at misrepresentation in the media. Girl Power at its roots is abrasive and confrontational, but as with most pioneering activist and artistic movements, it didn’t take long for it to become a mere slogan.
By the time the Spice Girls were shouting “Girl Power”, it became simultaneously easier to consume and pricklier to think about. Geri Halliwell cited Margaret Thatcher as an icon of Girl Power, while academics noted the confusing link between the band’s pro-women message and their sexualised songs and personas. When you were a kid, did you know what ‘2 Become 1’ was actually about? I didn’t. Referring to grown women as ‘girls’ is another issue that remains contentious, with some considering it to be highly infantilising.
That phrase can seem so radical and empowering when you’re 6 years old and wouldn’t know what feminism was if it handed out leaflets about equal pay in your garden. Hell yeah, girls should have power! Even at that age, there was an implicit understanding among my peers that boys came first. They had all the best bands at the time, even if they were all aimed at us. The Spice Girls spoke loudly and often enough about our awesomeness that it became second nature to spout their catchphrase. We never thought of it as branding, a concept as foreign as feminism to six year olds. Therein lies one of the biggest issues with the Girl Power of Spiceworld: There is no revolution to be found in a marketing gimmick, regardless of how earnestly it is spouted. Once you are part of the system, dismantling it from the inside becomes a tricky task when you have albums to sell.
That’s not to say there’s no real power in it. Girls are constantly under-estimated, and their strength denied. There’s clout to be found in reclaiming ‘girl’ as a term beyond a childish descriptor or a sneer of condescension. The Spice Girls weren’t just cool women: They were unabashedly girly ones too. They wore big shoes, short skirts, hair in bunches, and weren’t afraid of a bit of glitter. They made pop music, that most maligned of genres, and they made it for kids to sing in the playground. It was calculated but it worked, and I can’t really be all that mad at it in many respects. Being pandered to has its benefits. The Spice Girls did make me feel a bit stronger when I needed to.
We’re far less naïve about this kind of feminism as capitalist branding exercise these days. When a celebrity say they’re feminist, we want to see the receipts, and we hold those self-proclaimed leaders to lofty standards. What older, wiser and seen-in-all Spice Girls can offer in 2018 and beyond is anyone’s guess. The chances are they’ll just sing the hits again and not try another relaunch with a new single nobody has any emotional attachment to. A return to the ‘good old days’ can revive us, but we need stronger fuel to move forward. Girl power could use that radical edge once more.
(Image from Getty Images).