Ruth Cunningham looks back on the decades long legacy of the Spice Girls and how Girl Power paved the way for 2018’s female pop revolution.
In the beginning, there was the Spice Girls. The most successful girl group of all time, they influenced pop culture in a way that hadn’t been seen since The Beatles era of Beatlemania. Within two years, they had amassed five BRIT awards, three MTV Europe Music awards, 80 million records sold and 9 number one singles in the UK alone.
It’s not every band that had their very own marketing slogan either. It truly is a testament to the abiding and enduring appeal of the ‘girl power’ movement propagated by the Spice Girls, that every time there is a hint of a rumour about a reunion – the folks of the internet just about lose their sanity with excitement.
Indeed, our 24-hour news cycles seem to move in time with Spice Girls reunion rumours; just when we think the reunion has been categorically shot down by Baby, Sporty, Scary, Posh or Ginger, another rumour surfaces.
The fascination with the Spice Girls is understandable. Nostalgia aside, the Spice Girls – arguably the most famous girl group since The Supremes in 1960’s – proved to young women and girls that there was a space for them in a music-scene which had been occupied for the last decade principally by young, all male Brit-pop or Grunge bands. The Spice Girls provided a license for young people, and especially young girls, to stray from the status quo and get into some glittery bubble-gum pop music.
In the 1990’s, self-describing as a feminist does not hold the cultural cachet as it does today, rather it was something saved for underground musicians, like the Riot Grrrl movement in the early ‘90s, or maybe Alanis Morissette. Then, like a knight in shining armour, in rode the Spice Girls. Swapping the traditional heroes’ attire of a suit of armour, they came clad in leopard-print lycra bodysuits, platform boots and pigtails, a black Gucci dress, an Adidas tracksuit and a mini-dress printed with the Union Jack.
Thus, the Spice Girls’ arrived on to the music scene and opened an accessible entry-level door to a new form of feminism, all dressed up in glitter and sequins. Their feminist message, rebranded as “Girl Power” mobilised women and girls to think critically about their experiences as women and to engage with all that that entails.
A differentiating factor of the Spice Girls was their total refusal to ‘behave’ as was expected of them. From flirting with Nelson Mandela to kissing Prince Charles, the girls were rebellious – unabashed, unapologetic and undeterrable. This rebellious behaviour became part of the brand too, and there had never been a group of girls marketing themselves specifically to female audience in such an upfront way before.
Not to be overlooked was the marketing of themselves as archetypes by their nicknames; there was a sporty, a baby, scary, ginger and posh, with vastly different personalities to match. This piece of marketing genius only made them more relatable – it was easy to feel included and accepted whether you were sporty or ginger – or somewhere in the middle.
‘Girl Power’ in and of itself was largely apolitical, frothy and entirely capitalist [the band were heavily criticised for endorsing everything – from toothpaste to chocolate bars] but also provided a way for young fans to feel empowered, although the word empowered probably wasn’t in their vocabulary at the time. It was also a precursor to what mainstream pop stars would talk about years later – to the point where it is now expected for female pop stars and musicians to be openly feminist. Taylor Swift and Beyonce have firmly clung to the identifier, with others reflecting their feminism in their choice of bands, backing dancers and entourage.
Fast-forward to 2018 and it wouldn’t even be an exaggeration to say that women are dominating pop music this year. The closest we’ve come to this level of saturation [although it’s probably not even a 50/50 split with male musicians] was between 2009 and 2012 with artists like enigmatic La Roux and Kate Nash, getting plenty of airplay.
Now though, the offerings are so varied and so high quality. A whistle-stop tour of women that are killing it right now might go as follows: most streamed artist of 2017 Dua Lipa, Grammy Award nominee Cardi B, the undisputed Queen of everything, Beyoncé, sultry songstress and make-up mogul Rihanna, gender-bending pop genius Janelle Monae, the insanely talented Ariana Grande and BBC Sound Winner of 2018, 21-year-old Norweigan singer Sigrid.
Is it a coincidence that a large share of the most influential female pop stars – Taylor Swift, Adele, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Little Mix, Sigrid – are of an age to have been Spice Girls’ fans as little girls? Unlikely.
Ripples of the cultural tsunami caused by the Spice Girls in the mid ‘90s can still be felt in music today. Adele told James Corden in an episode of Carpool Karaoke, “It was a real important period of my life … ’Girl Power’ and just five ordinary girls who did so well and got out.” Their impact is everywhere – it’s there in Ariana Grande’s nostalgic space buns and peace signs, it’s there in Rihanna’s unapologetic-ness, it’s there in Dua Lipa’s independence and self-reliance, there in Taylor Swift’s self-marketing and there again in the feeling of pride in female identity they all proffer.
Ultimately, the lesson the Spice Girls taught young women, some of whom are now in the same position of ubiquity and fame that the Girls were in 20 years ago, was how the zeitgeist could be reflected, reclaimed and ultimately monetised by the right pop musician. And why there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – that will always be the well-deserved legacy of the Spice Girls.