I was in Middle School when that singular, enigmatic laugh started coming across the air waves. “Wannabe” was the first pop song I was really aware of knowing. “Spice” was the first album I ever owned. I saved up my babysitting money, got a ride to the mall, and walked my ass into the music store to buy it.
It sounded like freedom. It sounded like power.
It made my little teen heart So. Fucking. Happy.
I was too young to be aware of the music critics saying that they were a “manufactured” group or the social critics claiming that that they were ruining feminism. I was too young to realize the impact these five women would have on me or to imagine that a decade-ish later I would use them as my primary example in a graduate school term paper.
All I knew is that their songs made my 13-year old self want to dance like no one was watching. I knew their music made me feel happy, that it made me feel powerful, even though I couldn’t articulate why. I knew that screaming “Girl Power” made me feel good, like I was taking control of something I didn’t even know I’d been missing. Before the Spice Girls, no one had ever told me that it was fucking cool to be a girl.
For teenage me, the Spice Girls captured an ideal of what I imagined young adulthood would be like. Free of responsibility or rules, no parents to tell you want to do, roving around the world with your best mates singing and dancing every day. That was pretty much my dream for the future, and the Spice Girls made me believe that it just might be possible. You didn’t need to find other talent in your middle of nowhere town if you could just get that key audition. You didn’t need to have flawless voice technique if you could make up for it in stage presence. They made an entire generation of girls believe, if we just had a big enough personality, we too could be a Spice Girl.
In my opinion, this was the key to their success – they were accessible to everyone. They weren’t fucking clones like the other bands of the day. They weren’t 6-feet tall, skinny, and flawless. They were normal looking girls, at least one of whom we could all identify with. (I was Ginger. Obviously)
And when you think about it, that is an extraordinary message to send to young girls. You don’t have to look exactly like someone else. You don’t have to look exactly like your friends. You can just be you and that is awesome enough. They also refused to appoint any kind of a lead singer, but instead acted as a group, splitting up the solo lines of each song between the band members. The Spice Girls valued individuality and sent the message that the group was stronger for its differences; that in a group of friends the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Besides declaring Sisters before Misters, which they did on the regular, their lyrics contain some pretty boldly feminist statements. The Girls are always in control of the situation. They advocate for protected sex (“be a little bit wiser baby, put it on”), reserve the right to break up with you (“I decided we should be friends”), and are utterly unashamed of their sexuality (“I wanna make you holler.”)
Of course, we can’t have women doing or saying anything without being torn down and for the Spice Girls that came on two major fronts. One was their dismissal by male music critics as “inauthentic” and “trivial” – I’ll get back to this in a minute – and the other was from some of the third wave feminists who were frustrated to see a traditionally attractive, femme presenting and non-threatening girl band applauded for their feminism, where others they considered more substantial were marginalized. (Sound familiar?)
And yes, they did have a very valid point. And yes, it is still something we struggle with today. And as an educated adult feminist I’m like, yeah… we should work on that.
The thing is, when I was 13 I had never heard of Bikini Kill or Riot Grrrls or any of the punk rock feminist artists of the 90’s. But I did know the Spice Girls. I’d never read bell hooks, or heard of gender theory; I didn’t understand intersectional feminism. But I did understand the Spice Girls saying “Don’t let men control your life, because you are in control of your life.” They started the beginning of questions that I would continue to ask for years to come. They planted the seeds that years later transformed me into the loud, proud, Feminist Killjoy I am today. So, let’s give credit where credit is due, yeah?
The other issue to address is that the patriarchy belittles anything that girls like. We’ve seen this over and over. Once girls start to like a thing, be that a book or movie or music group, it instantly transforms that thing into something mockable and stupid. But, you know, grown men painting their chests and faces to stand out in the cold and watch other grown men in spandex tackle each other to the ground over a ball… that’s serious. And important. And masculine.
Because we live in a world where maleness and male likes are the default, anything women and girls like is classified as a lesser sub category. Objectively, Bob Dylan didn’t have a good singing voice, “Nevermind” is kind of shallow and over produced, and Kanye West has never done anything original in his entire career. But dudes like it, so don’t you dare voice those opinions or you’re subject to some self-righteous mansplaining.
Seriously, y’all, patriarchy is the fucking worst.
So even if only to spite the haters, I will always love the Spice Girls. I illegally streamed the London Olympic Closing Ceremonies solely and only because they were performing. Rumor recently went up of a reunion tour and I will give them all of my money if that happens. I will dress up as Ginger for Halloween until I can no longer walk in platform boots. And when someone tries to mock me by asking “what I want, what I really really want” I’ll tell them – I want you to stop telling me what the fuck to like or not like.
Because even now, their music reminds me to not take myself so goddamn seriously. To stop and have some fun. To be good to my girl friends. And more than anything else, to always be me. Because being me is enough. Bitches.