It’s been two decades since the Spice Girls burst onto the pop scene and changed music (and girl power) forever, but their influence is still everywhere – on the radio, in magazines, in your Mum’s kitchen dance moves when she’s had a wine. But what was all the fuss about?
Whooooo do we think they are?
“WANTED: R.U. 18–23 with the ability to sing/dance? R.U. streetwise, outgoing, ambitious, and dedicated?”
When this ad was placed in The Stage magazine in 1994 to find a new UK girl band, the musical landscape was heavy on Britpop. Oasis would release their massive debut album Definitely Maybe that year and their eventual rivals Blur were already a household name. In the pop world, boybands like Take That and East 17 were dominating the charts. Things were a bit of a stagnant ladfest and in need of a fun injection. Back then, nobody could have predicted that five ordinary, unknown girls from small towns would soon become the biggest musical juggernaut of the 1990s.
But Emma Bunton, Melanie Brown, Geri Halliwell, Victoria Beckham and Melanie Chisholm together created a phenomenon like no other. When their debut single Wannabe dropped in 1996, nothing would ever be the same again.
The Spice style
In the second half of the 1990s, style was epitomised by the Spice Girls. Mel C, AKA Sporty Spice, wore Adidas tracksuit bottoms paired with crop tops as she performed her signature backflip, while pastel mini dresses and pigtails with platform Buffalo shoes were Emma Bunton’s wardrobe essentials. Posh Spice’s look was epitomised by sleek black dresses, leather and PVC, not forgetting of course her impossibly glossy bob, and Scary’s entire wardrobe could be summed up in two words: animal print.
#OnThisDay: Spice Girls backstage at the #BRITs after their iconic performance, 20 years ago, on February 24th, 1997!✌🏼️🎤🇬🇧 #spicegirls #spice #girlpower #backstage #BRITs #britawards #awards #iconic #20years #Sporty #Ginger #Posh #Baby #Scary #MelanieC #GeriHalliwell #VictoriaBeckham #EmmaBunton #MelB #London #90s
But perhaps the most iconic of all their looks was Ginger Spice Geri’s Union Jack dress that she wore at the 1997 Brit Awards and was later sold at a charity auction for over £35,000. Playgrounds all over the world saw a variety of well-practised Spice Girls impersonations. Their style was brash, colourful and individual, and they often chose their outfits themselves rather than letting a stylist take the reins – a DIY attitude that’s rarely permitted among super-groomed stars today.
And their image has stood the test of time. With the 1990s fashion resurgence in full swing, you’re only a crop top and a pair of Reebok Classics away from paying homage.
The Spice sound
Let’s get one thing straight. The Spice Girls’ back catalogue is wall-to-wall bangers, and that is an undisputed fact. Their singles covered all the bases,from the slow jam balladry of 2 Become 1 to anthems like Stop and Who Do You Think You Are? Lyrically, the overriding themes were about having fun with your friends and embracing independence, both pretty positive messages to send out to the world.
Their music videos were also cultural milestones, from the sci-fi deliciousness of Say You’ll Be There (shot in the Mojave Desert), to Wannabe, which is still the best example of a band just having the time of their lives on set.
Breaking the rules
Despite their ‘manufactured’ beginnings, the Spice Girls were never afraid to break rules or say exactly what was on their minds. Famously in 1997, they gleefully broke royal protocol to plant lipstick kisses on Prince Charles after a gala.
Their bolshy attitude was part of what made them so much fun, and in recent years some footage has resurfaced of them standing up to some pretty awful behaviour. In one of the videos, Mel B and Geri call out a Dutch TV presenter for bringing people out in blackface. The host brushes it off as ‘tradition’ but the girls ARE NOT HAVING IT.
— 20 Years of Spice (@SpiceGirlsFilm) March 9, 2017
And in another clip, they are seen taking down a sleazy photographer on the set of a photoshoot for Kodak, calling him a ‘chauvinistic pig’ in the face of his demands for them to dress more revealingly. I can only think wistfully about how good their Twitter accounts would have been back in the day.
Some people might disagree on whether the Spice Girls’ brand of feminism was a cynical marketing ploy to sell Pepsi, or just the result of having five young, ambitious, independent women in a band who wanted success. Mel B described ‘girl power’ as: “…spreading a positive vibe, kicking it for the girls… It’s not about picking up guys. We don’t need men to control our life. We control our lives anyway.”
Plus when you think about it, even if girl power seemed like commercialised idea, a lot of young fans were introduced to the concept of feminism through the Spice Girls – one peace sign hand gesture at a time. For little girls in the 90s, seeing a group of fun and confident women extolling the virtues of good friendships with other girls and just being yourself was pretty amazing.
The Spice effect today
The remarkable thing about the Spice Girls is how they completely changed the nature of pop music and celebrity in such a short time. Only slightly less than two years after they released Wannabe, Geri Halliwell’s departure (citing exhaustion) shook the music world, and the group carried on as a foursome before going on indefinite hiatus in 2000.
An eye-watering 85 million Spice Girls records have been sold globally. Spice is still the most successful album of all time by ANY girl group in musical history. And say what you want about Spice World: The Movie (for the record, it is SO FUN) but it made almost 70 million pounds at the box office.
Their musical and cultural influence is undeniable. Without the Spice Girls, we wouldn’t have had Girls Aloud, Sugababes or Little Mix. Artists like Charli XCX and pop genius Carly Rae Jepsen are obsessives, with Jepsen saying their music was a watershed moment for her: ‘My parents were into folk music like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. So when I got my hands on the Spice Girls, it was like I was completely reborn!’ I’m sure a lot of people around the world will agree with her.
The Spice Girls were great because they were five women who knew what they were doing. They were incredibly savvy, and didn’t care if you took them seriously or not. They weren’t perfect, but they were themselves, and we’ll always love them for that.
But I’ll let them have the final word: