At the Spice Girls reunion tour, their hits sound like classics

It is always the case that the further you get from songs you thought were bubblegum, the more classy they feel.

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There is a wild feel at Wembley Stadium before the last Spice Girls show: a man lies drunk under a turnstile, biting the ankle of a security guard. Although there are far more women than men in the audience, I count many “Spice Boys”, which I don’t remember being a thing in the Nineties – some are in blue cowboy hats.

In total, 700,000 people have turned out to see the four remaining members sing their hits, according to Geri Horner (née Halliwell), who talks like a Blue Peter presenter and sips from a giant, very British, comedy-size teacup on stage. Victoria Beckham confirmed in the spring that she wouldn’t be joining Geri, Emma Bunton and the Mels C and B – this fact alone gives the show its chief frisson, recalling the Nineties, when people left bands because they’d got too big for their boots, and everyone got genuinely worked up about it.

Earlier in the run, she was referenced in one small lyrical switcheroo during “Wannabe” (“Easy V – where is she?”) – though if  that line occurred tonight, it passed me by. Instead, the theme of betrayal is explored by Ginger when she apologises on stage to Scary, Sporty and Baby for “being a brat” and quitting the band in 1998. There is much hugging, and some tears from Baby (“I’ve got an ugly cry, haven’t I?”). Then there’s a bonding cover version of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” – though you still find yourself watching the Spice Girls thinking, I wonder who hates who, something that never enters your head with male bands.

Seeing them on stage in their mid forties is like watching the Sex and the City movie when you’d sat through six series of the show on TV: they are four striking, rather beautiful cartoons, older and heavily stylised – everything you knew but different. Geri’s Union Jack dress stretches to the floor now; in a short film she pays tribute to Queen Elizabeth I, who was “the ultimate in girl power: her dad cut her mum’s head off”. Baby is in fluffy pink epaulettes; Mel C in turquoise Lycra and B in an animal-print catsuit open to the navel. Geri says they have come dressed as “a Queen, a princess, a superhero – and a leopard”, which feels a bit clunky but not as clunky as when Baby tells 60,000 people that B (who caused a ruckus recently by claiming she had once slept with Geri) is “very, very single, so if you’d like a date with Melanie…” A few seconds later, though, the girls are doing the conga and everything seems to be OK.

Most of the Spice Girls’s songs were written by the team of Biff Stannard, Julian Gallagher and Ash Howes, who also worked with East 17 and Five, and did a few hits for Kylie. It is always the case that the further you get from songs you thought were bubblegum, the more classy they sound. And so, “Viva Forever” sounds like Abba tonight, and “Stop” is pure Motown. There’s a bit of neo-soul here and there. And the Spice Girls’ taste for Latino breaks and lyrics sounds particularly Nineties – though Madonna is still doing it for the umpteenth time on her new album, and it’s never going to be far from the Top 40 (a BBC producer asked me the other day whether Latino pop is cultural appropriation).

There were a few too many “interludes” in the 22-song set – huge drumming displays, brassy breaks, two male ballet dancers in large, Swan Lake-style trousers: an excuse for costume changes and voice resting. But generally, I appreciated the fact that while the music was as slick and as big as could be, the singing wasn’t – the Spice Girls’ voices were always weak (with the exception of Mel C) and rather interchangeable: they could have pumped them up with live guide vocalists, like you see at so many shows, but they didn’t fall back on that for much of the night. It made the singing feel quite real – a bit like the many chattering interludes, where they talked over each other and you couldn’t make out a word they were saying. Perhaps, on reflection, that’s why Posh’s absence really wasn’t too much of a hole – she spoke and sang so little anyway.

The evening’s most unreconstructed moment was when the whole team shouted: “We know how we got this far/Strength and courage and a Wonderbra” over a military beat (it’s from a scene in the Spice World film where they go to an army camp). In 2007, Geri told the Guardian, “For me, feminism is bra-burning lesbianism”: the band have not tried to update their definition of girl power for the fourth wave, and in a series of talking-head clips on the subject it appears, conceptually, to extend little beyond the notion of female friendship. Which at least reflects the apolitical times from which they sprang.

Stepping forward in unison, and holding hands in a circle like four giant Disney figurines, they are making a decent show of friendship at least.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news