Who do they think they are, asks Jennie Bristow
The baby of the Surrey-based Safe Management outfit, the Spice Girls came out of nowhere late last year with their smash hit 'Wannabe'. Since then they have sold over 14 million singles and 10 million copies of their album, Spice, worldwide. The girls are now millionaires, and they are everywhere.
Yet to anybody aged over 10 who has ever seen or heard the Spice Girls, their massive appeal is far from obvious. Yes, they make some catchy songs, and no, they are not shy of showbiz, but what else do they have that others do not?
Let's face it, they are no opera singers, they are not exceptionally gorgeous, they are not particularly charming and they are certainly not fairy-tale icons of the Madonna ilk. In terms of musical talent and dance training, they are distinctly sub-Take That. As one of my bemused friends says, 'They are just like the kind of girls you might meet in Tesco'. Yet instead of stacking supermarket shelves with baked beans, the Spice Girls are filling them with cut-price copies of their album.
What the Spice Girls do have - indeed all they appear to have - is an image: a mysterious new concept called Girl Power. And without Girl Power, it seems unlikely that Emma, Victoria, Geri and the Mels would have got beyond the checkout.
Girl Power is an elusive concept. Everybody knows that the Spice Girls have it, yet there is some uncertainty as to exactly what it is. Emma Cochraine, associate editor of Smash Hits magazine and a personal fan, defines the image of the Spice Girls as 'knowing what you want and doing whatever it takes to get it'. When I asked wannabe Spice Girls Ellie, Jay and Tara, aged 6, 7 and 9 respectively, they came to a consensus that Girl Power was all about doing high kicks on stage.
Fair enough, but the Spice maidens are hardly the first professional wannabes prepared to spend their formative years 'doing whatever it takes' in countless auditions, or able to shake a leg on stage. There must be something more to Girl Power for it to have suddenly proved such a successful formula now. The Spice Girls' official book, entitled Girl Power!, defines it so broadly as to mean just about anything you want it to, from when 'you help a guy with his bag' to when 'you believe in yourself and control your own life' (p6).
If you can bear to read through to the middle of the Spice Girls' book, however, you do get a slightly more satisfying explanation of this elusive idea. Right in the centre of Girl Power!, we finally discover what Girl Power is really supposed to be all about, printed in bright pink ink:
'Feminism has become a dirty word. Girl Power is just a Nineties way of saying it. We can give feminism a kick up the arse. Women can be so powerful when they show solidarity.'
Scary stuff, and surely enough to have surreptitious male readers of Girl Power! quaking in their boots. But no explanation is complete without an illustration, and the illustration gives a slightly different spin on the message.
Immediately next to this feisty quote, there is a pull-out poster of the girls lying on a double bed, looking very cute and feigning sleep. They are cuddled up to each other like five-year olds (nothing sexual you understand), and stressing to the world that they are no threat to anybody. A particularly nice touch is that Emma (Baby Spice) is wearing cuter-than-cute pyjamas with little cartoon figures on them; only if you look closely can you see 'fuck off!', in little red lettering, running through the pictures. It is about as dangerous as children whispering rude words behind their parents' backs.
This brand of 'Girl Power' really is a kind of ad agency version of what nineties feminism has become: a safe form of self-expression that has more to do with changing your hairstyle than changing the world. It is a strange combination of superficial bolshiness and girlier-than-girliness, of shocking appearance and utter conservatism. Girl Power appeals to the young punters because it seems to be pushing the boundaries of respectability; but it is acceptable to mums and tabloid editors because it is no real threat to anybody.
One of the Spice Girls' latest hits - the double A-side of 'Mama' and 'Who do you think you are?' - sums up the fusion of girliness and stroppiness that characterises the group's image. On one side, the girls croon 'Mama I love you / Mama I care' more sweetly than any Shirley Temple clone, and released the single for Mothers' Day to make the point that 'your mum's probably the best friend you've got' (Girl Power!, p42). By the time you get to the other side, the girls have transformed themselves into bossy bitches from hell, screaming 'who do you think you are?' at anybody who might suffer from illusions about themselves, whether they be boyfriends or stars in the music industry. As Mel C says, 'we wrote it without thinking of ourselves and the irony of it' (Girl Power!, p44).
The Spice Girls can get away with suggestive lyrics and crude language, tattoos and pierced tongues, because everything they do is constrained and tempered by their basic girliness and goodness. When 'Scary Spice' comes on TV and shouts, 'Baby Spice' is there to neutralise the effect. When they release sexually explicit songs such as 'Two become one' ('I had a little love, now I'm back for more / Wanna make love to ya baby'), they make sure that they include a 'safe sex message' ('Be a little bit wiser baby, put it on, put it on') because 'we all think that's very important' (Girl Power!, p38). Despite having become an international phenomenon, they swear that they will 'never, ever move away from home' (Smash Hits, 12-25 March 1997). And so it goes on.
Safe Management has managed to tap straight into one of the main cultural currents of our times. In the safety-obsessed 1990s it can be cool to be rude and outrageous, provided you never go too far and offend the new etiquette. As far as lifestyle and language are concerned, sexy clothes and swearing is in: as long as the sex is safe and the swearing is not sexist, racist or homophobic. If you go too far, like Brian Harvey, singer with the 'lad band' East-17 - and try to suggest that young people should have sex, take drugs, or do anything but sing about being naughty - the moral guardians of the media world are down on you like a ton of bricks. But if you are girlie, non-threatening and prepared to do 'a lotta good deeds for charidee', singing about sex to
six-year olds is okay.
Girl Power is a 1990s feminism in which girls can be superficially as rude as they like, provided they do not go beyond the limits of acceptable behaviour. And to go beyond these limits, they do not have to do much at all.
The only time the Spice Girls have got any serious stick in their brief but loveable history (apart from the time Sporty Spice got called a 'Scouse Bastard' by 50 000 Man United fans) was when they 'came out' in support of the Conservative Party and against the European Union, and famously proclaimed Margaret Thatcher to be the first Spice Girl. Media-created market-friendly pop girlies are not supposed to have divisive opinions on such controversial matters as these, and there was much tut-tutting about them over-stepping the mark in search of sensationalist publicity. I thought it was the best thing they had ever done.
Now don't get me wrong, I hate Margaret Thatcher as much as anybody. But I also admire what she had: not 'Girl Power' in her head, but real power in the world. That really is something girls should really really want, and is certainly a lot more inspiring than wearing 'fuck' on your pyjamas. But when those who wet themselves over Geri getting her tits out on stage draw the line at her hinting that some real power might be a good thing, you can see that the Spice Girls' appeal will last only so long as they keep themselves unthreatening.
In their introduction to Girl Power!, the Spice Girls encourage their readers to remember that 'the future is female'. In a world where the girls next door are hailed as the voice of the nation, and boy bands try to look like harmless little girls (even to the point of Boyzone wearing dresses 'for a laugh'), they may well be right. Scary, baby.
Reproduced from LM issue 100, May 1997