When I taped over the only copy of my bat mitzvah video to record a Spice Girls lip sync with my best friends, I was fully aware of the disastrous consequences that would inevitably ensue.
What can I say? There was no blank tape, and “Wannabe” was queued up and ready to go. I channeled by inner badass Scary Spice and made a choice.
I knew the day would come when my mother would pop in that bat mitzvah video and find that halfway through my wobbly Torah portion, she’d see — cut! — five imposter Spice Girls singing into hairbrushes. That I’d be in big trouble was a given. But the Spice Girls understood that defying your mother was part of being a woman. That’s why there was track number six, “Mama,” on their debut album, which was all about maternal redemption: Mama I love you/Mama I care/You’re my friend.
“Spicemania” — the term that came to describe the worldwide frenzy over what is still the number-one-best-selling-girl-group — is no exaggeration. For girls coming of age in the late ’90s, Victoria, Mel C, Mel B, Emma, and Geri were leaders of a “girl power” revolution we clung to, no matter how manufactured it was. And despite the fact that the British-born bunch was actually a strong representation of Gen Xers (with birth years ranging 1972-1976), the audience they catered to was distinctly Gen Y.
For those of us who spent 1996-1998 flaunting peace signs and decorating notebooks with “girl power” written in bubble letters, we’re now well aware that the Spice Girls were a product of some very successful and manipulative marketing. But that doesn’t undo the authenticity of our relationships with those girls, the music, and the culture they brought with them.
The Spice Girls’ message was clear: Ladies, here is your permission to kick butt. Plus, you can be smart and pretty while doing it. This came at a time when girlhood wasn’t particularly colorful. When the group’s first album, Spice, reached the U.S. in 1997, Reviving Ophelia, the book about the psychological examination of the dark world of adolescent girls, was in its third year on the New York Times best-seller list. Female teens were a troubled bunch, producing a growing collection of terrifying statistics about depression, eating disorders, confidence, and sex —and a lot of it had to do with male objectification.
When it came to girl power, the band was unabashedly apologetic about their no-boys-allowed attitude. Interviewers (especially the male ones) who questioned the singers about men were often met with a loud chorus of dissent, and the girls had a knack for putting inquiring minds in their place. During one American radio interview during which the deejay asked about “picking up guys,” Scary Spice started a smackdown, shouting:
This side of girl power — sticking with your girlfriends and standing up to boys — was something we needed; for many of us, this would be our first introduction to feminism. And while this school of feminism might have had a shiny, packaged veneer and come with some ethos we may now find questionable, it was clear about female empowerment and positivity.
Of course, those who loved the Spice Girls weren’t necessarily immune to the darkness of ’90s teenagedom. But for many of us, the pop group gave us a reprieve from it all and provided a space for identity experimentation.
Just as we were getting boobs, the Spice Girls gave us a range of female identities to try on. Sporty Spice was a ripped, stylish athlete; Baby was a pig-tailed angel who capitalized on cuteness; Scary was a wild animal; Posh was a collected adult with high-fashion sense; and Ginger was the loud-mouthed sexy one.
Some of my friends immediately adopted and stuck with a single Spice Girl personality. As for me, my favorites changed frequently. I loved Scary’s style and her ferocious confidence. And while I thought I was really a Ginger at heart, I took comfort in embodying Baby’s safe immaturity on days I felt guilty and scared of my growing sexual identity. That these characters are stereotypes is of course obvious now, but back then they gave us a fun selection of fashion styles and attitudes to start with.
In conversations with Gen X, it’s been hard to get all these points across because they’re able to see what I can’t deny to be the truth: that the Spice Girls are not actually good. Spice Girls fans don’t throw on “Spice Up Your Life” in a flight of ironic fancy the way people do with Journey or Depeche Mode. We will never again be caught dead wearing platform sneakers or latex minidresses.
If Gen X considered the Spice Girls to be just another musical phenomenon destined for obsolescence in a couple of years, they were right about that. The quintet produced only three albums. The first two came in consecutive years — Spice in 1996, Spiceworld in 1997 — and tore up the charts. But by the release of their unintentionally ironically named third album, Forever, in 2000, their following had waned considerably; the record performed poorly, and Geri Halliwell had already departed the band two years prior.
So, in the end, Spicemania might have been fleeting, but its effects stayed with us. And if Gen Xers can’t get that, then there’s only one thing to say: Who do you think you are?
Excerpted from the book X vs. Y: A Culture War, a Love Story by Eve and Leonora Epstein.
(Images via Sony Music; YouTube; PolyGram Entertainment)