20 Years of Spice Mania: How the Spice Girls Shaped Pop Culture (Viva) Forever
This time 20 years ago, the world was in the grips of serious Spice Fever.
The Spice Girls were in the midst of shaking up pop music by the spring of 1997; their debut album Spice was one of 1996’s biggest hits in the UK. Soon, “Say You’ll Be There” would go on to be a summer smash stateside. By the end of 1997, they’d release their second album Spiceworld and their debut movie, cementing their place in the pop music pantheon.
20 years on and reunion rumors seem both conflicting and slightly worrying: is it going to be just Geri, Emma and Mel B as Spice Girls: GEM? Is Mel C possibly going to jump back in for a show or two? Is Victoria’s rebrand as a fashion queen going to stop her from taking part?
Whatever transpires, we still have the concise and evergreen back-catalogue to enjoy. In fact, though initially written off as a manufactured pop act, the Spice Girls proved to be ahead of their time.
Here’s how they shaped pop, doing things we now take for granted from our pop faves today.
1. The Return of Bubblegum Pop
The ’90s were a time of grunge going mainstream, R&B acts like TLC and Toni Braxton flourishing, and Brit-pop indie giants like Blur and Oasis enjoying huge success worldwide. The arrival of the Spice Girls in the mid ’90s opened the door for a new generation of young music fans to show their fandom for the joys of bubblegum pop. From US mega-stars like Britney, *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys to UK acts like S Club 7, Five and Steps, the era of bubblegum pop the Spice Girls helped usher in would go on to birth many successful acts.
Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see product placement galore in a music video, or have your fave sell something with a “#spon” hashtag. Before the Spice Girls, it wasn’t uncommon for pop stars to flog products either — but Spice took it to a whole new mass-market level, from big name team-ups with Pepsi, Impulse, Chupa Chups and Polaroid to name a few to a slew of official merch (fancy a Spice magazine? Or some dolls? Or stationery?). The Spice Girls had a no-shame approach to monetizing their very image; one that would go on to be standard for the modern pop star, and indeed, for the modern celebrity.
3. The Power of Personality
Early on in the Spice Girls press tour, Top of the Pops hit on the nicknames “Baby,” “Sporty,” “Scary,” “Ginger” and “Posh” to describe the group. It worked, largely because the girls clearly had buckets of personality. The rise of reality TV in the early 2000s played off of a similar quality; people who could just “be themselves” well enough on screen. The Spice Girls understood something before the rest of celebrity culture did, and it paid off handsomely.
4. The Hits
The Spice Girls may have made for good ambassadors for just about any brand, but the reality is that, at their peak, they had hits; not just successful singles, but durable, well-crafted pop songs that took the personality of the group and distilled it into bratty, clever dance-pop: “Wannabe” was a terrific debut single that still holds up today, “Say You’ll Be There” shows the R&B influences on their debut reflected the musical mood of that decade, and “Spice Up Your Life” still sounds completely wild and chaotic to this day. The Spice Girls had forward-thinking but accessible tunes that showed pop music could be both fun and tongue=in-cheek with a strong sense of humor. And on ballads like “Viva Forever” and “2 Become 1,” the girls demonstrated that they could drop the brash stuff and do a stellar pop ballad.
5. Breaking America
For acts not from the US, “breaking America” is often seen as vital, if not hard to pull off. Even if you’ve conquered markets like Australia or Europe, America is the main goal of any big pop star. UK acts like One Direction and Little Mix have fared well in the US thanks to social media and a fanbase built on reality TV, but other UK acts like the Sugababes, Robbie Williams and Atomic Kitten didn’t fare as well. In 1997, the Spice Girls managed to sell albums and make America understand their particular brand of pop without having to dumb it down or change themselves to suit cultural taste, showcasing the universal power of their material and winning over big territories with ease.
6. Feminism as marketing tool
The ’90s saw the rise of Riot Grrrl, a feminist underground punk movement that saw women challenge the male-dominated rock music realm with music, live shows and DIY zines. On the other end of the spectrum a few years later, the Spice Girls would have their rallying cry of “Girl Power!” at hand in interviews and live shows. It was a fuzzy, largely apolitical call for girls to feel empowered that was both crudely capitalist (want to channel your Girl Power? Buy some Spice merch!) and also a way for their young fans to feel strong. It also indicated a shift in what mainstream pop stars might talk about years later, with Taylor Swift and Beyoncé discussing feminism in interviews and “empowerment” becoming the buzzword of every female pop star who does literally…anything, the Spice Girls showed how the zeitgeist could be reflected, created and ultimately monetized by the right pop group.
7. Influencing a Generation
Given that the Spice Girls left an undeniable mark on ’90s pop, it stands to reason that stars who grew up at that time would reference them now. Adele mentioned the Spice Girls in her Rolling Stone interview, sang them during Carpool Karaoke and broke out into some “Spice of Your Life” at her arena show. Charli XCX recently said she wanted to write music with them, and UK paper The Times used the quote “When I saw videos of the Spice Girls, I wanted to be them” as their headline on a piece about XCX in 2015. Before her rise to prominence as an indie-pop darling and a guest star on Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” MØ released a cover of “Say You’ll Be There” that became a staple of her live shows. “I felt like they were talking to my soul,” she told Billboard in 2014 of her love of the first Spice Girls album. The cover would go full circle when Mel C joined MØ on stage in London to duet on the tune in late 2016. “She was inspired by the Spice Girls as a kid — now she inspires me,” Mel C said in an Instagram post about the performance.
20 years on, it’s obvious that the power of the messy, joyful, often shameless Spice Girls craze still reverberates around pop culture.
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