The recent release of the ‘comeback’ single from a trio of the Spice Girls raises questions about the relevance of the cultural politics which the group successful embraced during their most successful years in the late 1990s. The latest song, which is a leak not an official release, captures a familiar brand of identity politics with commentators referring to it as a “Girl Power anthem“. I wrote the essay below in 2006, exploring the idea of the Spice Girls as a popular culture phenomenon and their cultural politics.
Popular music plays an important social and cultural role; “it provides…role models, [and] expresses social attitudes” (Bodkin 2000, 41). As a case study to argue the intrinsic relationship between popular music and cultural politics, this essay will focus on the Spice Girls and their first album Spice. While the Spice Girls were largely dismissed as artificial, (Leach 2001, 148) closer analysis of their message of ‘Girl Power’ and their accompanying image reveal a group that is culturally political.
Cultural politics is a broad sweeping term that can be used in relation to many conflicts in society. It is a concept which recognises society is made up of different viewpoints and refers to the ways in which co-existence is maintained (Opie 2006). In other words, a system of negotiation between different belief systems must be found for this co-existence to operate. Furthermore, within this system, a dominant – or hegemonic – group usually emergences and this position can be challenged. Sue Abel notes: “hegemony is always a process in struggle, it is never stable. It involves negotiation” (2006). Popular Music provides a medium for this negotiation to take place. Simon Firth agrees. He suggests we use pop songs to create for ourselves a particular sort of self-determination, a particular place in society (1987, 140).
The Spice Girls is one of many examples of bands that could be considered subordinate and therefore compete for equality. The primary and most palpable reason for this consideration is that the group consists of only females. Typically in rock and pop music a woman’s participation is limited to supporting a male performer in the role of a backup singer or groupie, or featuring in their videos and other merchandise (Schilt 2003, 5; Cohen 2001, 232). The Spice Girls, by definition, oppose these widely held stereotypes. In addition, the group is packaged in such a way that they do more than just represent achievement in a male dominated environment; they are constructed to be role models for adulation and to provide “legitimisation for various modes of rites of passage into the world of femininity” (Lemish 2003, 17). It is in this way that the Spice Girls are noticeably political.
The place that the Spice Girls have in history is very significant in relation to the message that they conveyed. They formed in late 1994, but did not break into the spotlight until their debut single, ‘Wannabe,’ in July 1996 (Spice Girls 1997). They followed on from the Riot Grrrl movement, personified by Alanis Morisette, which had its roots in punk. This movement was characterised by a portraying a sense of womanhood that challenged sexism (Schilt 2003, 7). But unlike the Riot Grrrl’s before them, the Spice Girls “were an undeniably commercial product” (Leach 2001, 148). However, to conclude at this point is to understate the significance of the Spice Girls: “they weren’t just another pop group, they were an ideological package” (The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, 209).
The Spice Girls’ ideology is best summarised by their use of the phrase: “Girl Power.” In the Spice Girls book, that was published in 1997 just before the release of their second album, the opening pages claim ‘Girl Power’ to be:
… when…You help a guy with his bag
You and your mates reply to wolf whistles by shouting ‘get your arse out!’
You wear high heels and think on your feet
You know you can do it and nothing’s going to stop you
You don’t wait around for him to call
You stick with your mates and they stick with you
You’re loud and proud even when you’ve broken out in spots
You believe in yourself and control your own life (Spice Girls 1997, 7).
From these statements, ‘Girl Power’ appears to be an expression that connotes independence and self-respect. It is a show of strength and perseverance in the face of stereotypes that expect women to be weak and subordinate. The similarities to feminism are actually articulated in the book: “Feminism has become a dirty word. ‘Girl Power’ is just a nineties way of saying it!” (Spice Girls 1997, 49).
One of the doctrines of ‘Girl Power’ speaks of standing by your friends, an idea that is inherent in the construction of the Spice Girls. The notion of sisterhood is strong in all Spice Girls related texts including their movie, which shows their togetherness through group activity and avoidance of the ‘bitchy’ and jealous female cliché. The book further emphasises the friendship between the five; Melanie C says “We really care about each other and want the best out of each other, so we all look after each other” (Spice Girls 1997, 48). By extension, this sisterhood that the Spice Girls promote is inclusive of the audience that participates in their music. Dafna Lemish says, on this feature of the Spice Girls, “Their music style, forms of performance and body display, as well as celebration of girl talk and female friendship and networking, create a special space for a rebellious female voice” (2003, 19). Therefore ‘Girl Power’ can be taken to be a political message addressing gender inequality.
Related to this is the Spice Girls’ treatment of men, which follows from the feelings of independence articulated by artists like Tina Turner and Madonna. While Madonna was a ‘Material Girl’ and Tina Turner asked ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ the Spice Girls set out new criteria for men to take note of related to the new independent self-respecting woman that the group were promoting. The political aspect to this challenge is evident in the liner notes to their first album. They return the male gaze: “what you looking at boy?” compare themselves with peace activists: “freedom fighters” and make political statements: “spice revolution.”
The Spice Girls’ address of men in their lyrics summarise their attitudes. They set out rules that subvert the stereotypical roles in modern relationships. ‘Say You’ll Be There’ demystifies the nagging demanding woman by having the female say, “there’s no need to say you love me,” instead “all I want from you is the promise that you’ll be there.” And to reinforce the idea of the independent woman they sing, “if you can’t work this equation then I guess I’ll have to show you the door.” Similarly, various other moments in other tracks demand respect and claim a sexual power. In ‘Something Kinda Funny’ the group sings “play my game or get left behind,” in ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ they say “giving is good as long as you are getting” and in ‘2 Become 1’ the woman becomes the dominant and the initiator: “I need some love like I never needed love before (wanna make love to ya baby).”
Moreover, the Spice Girls, through how they address sexuality and men, subvert the ‘slut-virgin’ binary. ‘Wannabe,’ the group’s debut single that went to number one and stayed there for seven weeks, articulates many of the group’s attitudes towards sex that subsequent tracks elaborate on. In the song Melanie C sings: “If you want my future, forget my past.” Such an expression contests the stigma attached to losing one’s virginity. While it is socially acceptable for any male to have a sexual history, negative discourse surrounds the non-virgin female. ‘Wannabe’ claims that it is acceptable that girls can have sexual histories too. Similarly ‘Love Thing’ rejects the idea of love, but approves of desire and sex. This song bridges the gap between the ‘slut-virgin’ binary. These statements are consistent with the group’s articulation of ‘Girl Power’ as an expression of feminism.
However, while the idea of sisterhood is established and a challenge to men’s supremacy, the image of femininity within this collective is a celebration of difference. Here is where the political aspect of gender is evident with the Spice Girls’ progressive portrayal of femininity. In popular music “[t]he construction or performance of gender … is influenced by and also influences specific social and cultural contexts” (Cohen 2001, 232). The Spice Girls were constructed as being five different types of the same facet of society. They assumed five unique personalities and adopted pet names: baby, scary, sporty, ginger and posh spice. In doing this they create a definition of womanhood that is diverse and varied. One can be physically active and outgoing like Sporty Spice, wild and loud like Scary Spice or elegant and sophisticated like Posh Spice.
Outlined above is a number of ways in which the Spice Girls can be seen to be a political. However, while critics have accepted their attempts to make feminist statements, they also argued that the promises they make are empty; “there is no encouragement for girls to use music as a form of expressing anger towards a world that marginalises them” (Douglas 1997, H34). Questions are raised like ‘what are they being asked to do when the Spice Girls encourage them to “Do It”?’ However while these criticisms point out these contradictory struggles with ease, (Leach 2001; Lemish 1998; Dibben 1999) they fail to account for the overall image and appeal of the Spice Girls which makes any issue regarding any specific contradiction inconsequential.
The political significance of the Spice Girls is in line with Simon Firth’s analysis of popular music as a means of creating communities. He argues that the experience of popular music is an experience of identity (Firth, 1996, 121). The Spice Girls construct a feminine space and legitimise various modes of femininity, and in doing so create a community with their audience in which their principles are upheld. The space in which they created is a challenge to hegemony. Therefore there is a political element to their message, one which attempts to reconstruct culture through a 90s form of feminism.
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Leach, Elizabeth Eva. “Vicars of ‘Wannabe’: Authenticity and the Spice Girls,” in Popular Music, 20.2. 2001. 143-167.
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Schilt, Kirsten. “‘A little too ironic’: the appropriation and packaging of Riot Grrrl politics by mainstream female musicians,” in Popular Music and Society. 26.1. 2003. 5-16.
Spice Girls. Girl Power! Secanucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, 1997.
Spice World (Bob Spiers, UK, 1997)