It has been 20 years since the release of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”, their debut number one single in both the UK and US charts and one of the bestselling singles of all time. Its catchy chorus, ingrained in the mind of every child of the Nineties, “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want”, and its promotion of all female friendships (“you gotta get with my friends” and “friendship never ends”) triggered a social phenomenon that had never been seen before in British pop music. “Girl power” – audacity, self-assertiveness and autonomy – is what the Spice Girls stood for.
Their lyrics are expressions of female empowerment. In “2 become 1”, a song essentially promoting safe sex, the girls sing “I’m back for more” and “I wanna make love to you” – open declarations of their sexual desires. The chorus of their energetic “Spice Up Your Life” –“Shake it to the right/ If ya know that you feel fine” – intertwines sexual freedom with self-confidence. The Spice Girls were one of the first pop bands to recognise the importance of friendship between women. While relationships with men are relatively transient (in “Say You’ll Be There”, they sing “I’ll have to show you the door”, and in “Wannabe”, they warn “if you really bug me then I’ll say goodbye”), female friendship “never ends”.
Contrast this with the pop music of the 1960s. The incredible vocal power of the Sixties girl groups make it possible to overlook their songs as expressions of female empowerment. Yet these girls sing of little other than relationships with men, heartbreak, and a dependence on romance. The Supremes’ “Baby Love” laments “All you do is treat me bad/ Break my heart and leave me sad” and their “Where Did Our Love Go” pleads with a lover: “Please don’t leave me all by myself”. In The Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You”, the women sing “I can’t live without you”.
The Spice Girls’ and The Supremes’ music embodies change in the social landscape over a three-decade period. As the sexual climate transformed between the 1960s and the 1990s, this shift is mirrored in the movement from The Ronettes’ “I can’t live without you” to the Spice Girls’ “I’ll have to show you the door”.
But where have all the girl groups gone? Female empowerment overwhelms pop music today, and yet is seen mostly in the solo singers of our age. Beyoncé is the obvious example here. Her “Irreplaceable”, “Run the World” and “Single Ladies” are quintessential illustrations of her strong and independent female identity. Her backdrop of “FEMINIST” at the VMAs in 2014 , and her politicised visual album Lemonade released this year serve to reinforce the image of Beyoncé as the queen of modern-day “girl power”.
But Beyoncé started off in a group. In Destiny’s Child, their music was as much a promotion of female independence as her own is now. Just look at the lyrics of their songs “Independent Women” and “Survivor”. And yet the band broke up and Beyoncé went solo. Destiny’s Child made the break in 2006 and the Spice Girls split up after Geri Halliwell walked out on the band in 1998.
So are female singers now more empowered when they take on the industry individually? Given that we’re surrounded by female solo artists (Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Niki Minaj, Adele, Rihanna and Katy Perry to name a few) and there are far fewer girl bands taking the limelight in 2016, it seems so. In terms of popular British girl bands, Little Mix are about the only ones who come to mind, and All Saints dropped a new single back in February this year. Other than that, it seems there are not many girl bands that promote “girl power” around anymore.
Maybe there will only ever be space for the Spice Girls. A video released last Friday featuring the faces of Mel B, Emma Bunton and Geri Halliwell included a special announcement, and rumours are spiralling of a reunion to take place next year. The Global Goals, a movement set up by the United Nations, launched a remix of the Spice Girls “Wannabe” as part of their sustainable development project. The video includes signs that read “end violence against girls”, “quality education for all girls”, “end child marriage” and “equal pay for equal work”. So there may be no one new taking their place on the girl band scene of British pop music, but that doesn’t matter. 20 years later, and we’re still learning from the Spice Girls.