Never mind the bum notes

Though it's easy to sneer at the Spice Girls, Jude Rogers found that their down-to-earth charm is st

The Spice Girls
O2 Arena, London SE10

Has any pop group's comeback been analysed as much as that of the Spice Girls? Plumb the newspapers since their reunion tour began in Vancouver on 2 December, and Mel B, Mel C, Geri Halliwell, Emma Bunton and the ubiquitous Victoria Beckham have been labelled the lot: they are washed-up old crones, backbiting bitches, merciless money-grubbers, Top 40 turkeys - their comeback ballad "Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)" only reached number 11 - and a short-frocked, sloganeering riot squad who destroyed feminism for ever. Unpacking girl power in the Observer, the critic Kitty Empire protested, "Has there ever been a redder herring?" Before seeing the show, I'd have agreed. Afterwards, despite a less-than-consummate performance from the Girls, I wasn't so sure.

At the O2 Arena, in front of a excited, squealing mass of deelyboppers, cameraphones and glowsticks, the evening began inauspiciously. After an opening video montage that paraded several half-cooked ideas in front of the audience (children dressed like the Spice Girls, schoolyard rhymes, computerised line drawings of the group) the Girls emerged on stage, decked out in Roberto Cavalli outfits the colour of on-the-turn salmon.

Yet as the show progressed, despite the uninspired stage sets, the loose choreography and bum notes aplenty - many colliding regularly around the world's most famous footballer's wife - you were reminded of what was good about the Spice Girls. While other mid-Nineties pop girls were like processed meat, plastic-wrapped and sealed, the Spice Girls came across as individuals with a real, tangible sense of humour.

The better parts of the new stage performance place them in the same line of British camp as music hall, end-of-the-pier entertainment and Carry On films. Smiles broaden on hearing Mel B roar "Come on!" in her throaty burr; the five join their male dancers in a conga line; we get lyrics like "Your trumpet's blowing far too long" (from "Who Do You Think You Are?"). Only Geri's camp credentials are dented - once a fiery-haired, curvy powerhouse, she now performs with all the pizzazz of an automaton. But elsewhere the show blazes with friendlier touches that show how the girls-next-door-making-good concept achieved such popularity.

The worst moments come when they stray from these roots. During a solo spot, Mel B feigned fellatio on a male audience member she had tied to a ladder, and it was as embarrassing an experience as walking in on your parents in bed. A between-song lesbian-chic "striptease" in a line of pink booths and some unnecessary pole-dancing antics for "2 Become 1" are similarly painful. What makes these charades depressing is that the band's old success had nothing to do with the pornography-inspired raunch culture that infects pop music today.

"Mama", a slushy paean to mother-daughter love, closes the main set. Then, in front of the original video showing the Girls' mothers with photographs of their daughters, the band bring out their own children - the Beckham boys, who were wearing T-shirts that screamed "POSH", plus Mel B's two daughters and Emma's three-month-old son. In a sense, it is objectionable and exploitative, but it's also a stroke of genius. Because, miles away from music criticism, there lies a world in which women define themselves by their bonds and their responsibilities.

As "Wannabe" - the song about female friendship that will always be their defining pop moment - closed the show, two things loomed large in my mind: the peculiar sensation of hearing thousands of women scream at an all-female band, and another broadsheet comment, this one from a 46-year-old working-class mother after the Girls' first gig. She had taken her daughter along, wanting her to realise that life is "all about going out and getting what you want . . . and showing that girls don't just have to sit at home and do the washing-up". It's a simple wish, but one all too easily disregarded by the critics.

O2 dates continue until 22 January. For further info and booking details log on to:

Pick of the week

Evan Parker
7 January, Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11
Spice up your life for real with this virtuoso free-jazz saxophonist.

James Blunt
9 January, Carling Academy, Glasgow
Musical saint or sinner? You decide.

Pet Shop Boys with the BBC Concert Orchestra
11 January, Barbican, London EC2
The synthpop duo's soundtrack to Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot