If you were a kid in the '90s, you can likely remember that brief, shining period when The Spice Girls reigned supreme. They were everywhere -- on the television, the radio, and in magazines -- not just in their native UK but across the globe. Their core message was "Girl Power," delivered with ridiculously catchy songs and lots of charisma. To little girls and boys across the globe, including myself, they were queens.
On Aug 6., Geri Halliwell celebrated her 43rd birthday, and while over the last decade she's been an actress, a writer, and a performer, she will now always be best known as the member of one of if not the biggest girl groups in history. During the five years of their whirlwind ride to world domination between 1994 and 1998, the Spice Girls sold 80 million records worldwide, became the first British band since 1975 to have two albums in the U.S. Top 10 at the same time, and made approximately $800 million through major endorsements with brands like Pepsi, Chupa Chups, Polaroid and Playstation. Their infectious first single, 'Wannabe,' is the highest selling single by a girl group of all time.
And yet, in spite of their success and popularity, The Spice Girls were never really taken that seriously. During their peak fame, most music and pop culture critics declared that they were a talentless novelty -- in 1997, Slate described them as representative of the demise of music, the "Jurassic Parkification of pop." But even the Spice Girls didn't even take themselves seriously, as evident in their "A Hard Day's Night"-inspired movie "Spice World."
Today, there's been a resurgence of love for the group thanks to the nostalgia of their once young fans, most of whom are now in their late-20s and 30s, strengthened by their 2007 reunion tour and surprise performance at the 2012 London Olympics.
The collective attitude towards the Spice Girls hasn't been as bad as, say, the backlash against "Sex and the City" -- a show that (largely thanks to the awful movies) is primarily viewed as vapid, despite being pretty subversive for its time. But the Spice Girls still deserve far more credit than they're given. The concept of "Girl Power" may seem hokey, a Disney-fied oversimplification of the feminist movement, but with it the Spice Girls were equally subversive, making music that focused on female friendship, solidarity, and self-expression that was accessible and catchy.
A November 2011 Rookie article, "In Defense of The Spice Girls," points to songs like "2 Become 1," which unapologetically expressed female sexuality (and preached safe sex!), as an example of how empowering the band was for young women. But the essay also says that the Spice Girls were "sold to us as a group of friends," even though they were actually "a carefully selected group of strangers chosen after hundreds of auditions."
Well, contrary to popular belief, The Spice Girls were not a manufactured band; the creation of men in suits who told them how to think, look and act.
Yes, the girls did audition to be part of a group, originally called Touch, which entertainment managers Chris and Bob Herbert envisioned as a sexy pop ensemble in slinky dresses.
But when Halliwell, Mel B, Mel C, Emma Bunton and Victoria Beckham (née Adams) realized that the Herberts wanted to totally control their images, they protested. And when in 1994 they realized the Herberts were trying to sign them into a shady management contract, they left. Living in a three-bedroom flat in Sheffield at the time, they stole the master recordings of songs they had been working on and shopped their demos around to different management companies for six months until they finally signed with Simon Fuller in March 1995. Fuller would be the manager who eventually got them the record deal that led to their superstardom.
The pop caricatures each of the Spice Girls embodied were their own ideas and creations. Geri Halliwell's "vamp" persona was largely influenced by Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie (note the red and blonde hair, sequin platforms). Yes, Top of The Pops magazine would later give them their iconic nicknames of Ginger, Scary, Baby, Sporty and Posh, but the visual direction and sound of the Spice Girls was always firmly in control of the women who made up the group.
The Spice Girls' first chat show appearance on 1997's "The Girlie Show"
What was so brilliant about the Spice Girls formula was that it not only promoted female empowerment and friendship, but also the concept that women could exist in all forms and still thrive. What female pop group today would have a member like Sporty Spice, who was allowed to make the choice to express her femininity in a different way than her bandmates?
The idea was that the way you looked was not more important than your personality. Go back and watch old Spice Girls interviews. All of the girls with their very different personas were allowed to shine, never competing with each other or giving canned answers.
There will always be criticisms to be made about The Spice Girls, many of them valid. But ultimately, the band's push for "Girl Power" phenomenon was the first, small, step towards a pop culture landscape where feminism is discussed openly and frequently, where Beyonce can show up at the VMAs and perform in front of a "FEMINIST" banner. The Spice Girls were just a pop group, yes, but they were also a group of five incredibly ambitious, savvy young women who not only found success but made a huge cultural impact. If that's not girl power, then what is?