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26 October 2022

The Spiceworld generation

Twenty-five years ago, the Spice Girls told Gen X to “move over” – and whispered feminist slogans to nascent millennials.

By Kate Mossman

There was a lot of anticipation for the Spice Girls’ second album in 1997: they established a premium-rate phone line for fans that you dialled up to hear 20-second snippets of the new songs at terrible quality. There was a track on the album called “Move Over”, originally used as a Pepsi ad, which you could win as a first-release CD single by collecting ring pulls. The Pepsi slogan at the time, if your mind goes back that far, was “The choice of the next generation” and the song went: “Move over…/’Cause it’s over…/Generation next.” Move over, Generation X. The Spice Girls were speaking to millennials: the average age of a fan in 1997 was eight. Could it be said that they breathed life into the millennial generation? If so, what kind of life was it?

Much has been said of the band’s “girl power” mantra and what it really meant, clinging as it did to the udders of real feminist movements such as Riot grrrl, and accommodating that most confusing and non-feminist of concepts, the ladette. Girl power was shorthand, a battle cry for tweens. But perhaps, as plastic and contradictory and nonsense as it was, it became a template for something deeper and more sincere, something almost pre-memory, in the minds of young women: the idea that they could get their way and do what they wanted, and wear trainers with everything – unless they were Posh Spice, but that was OK, because heels were cool too.

Maybe the Spice Girls, in their different identities, were sketches, prototypes for the real identity-posturing of years to come, unknown to them at the time. The weirdest line in their hit “2 Become 1” is “Set your spirit free/It’s the only way to be”: live your truth, they said, and that certainly echoes down the years. Then again, there is a danger in taking too seriously a band that were anything but.

What does 1997 bring to mind? Political euphoria, optimism, wilful ignorance of climate change, flagrant sexism, and unwieldy public emotion of the hysterical kind that would soon find its way on to reality TV. Since then the record industry has perhaps changed most of all. Spice World was a film, of course: their A Hard Day’s Night, following the girls as they work up to a big gig at the Royal Albert Hall while a very Nineties media-nasty called Kevin McMaxford tries to smear their reputation in the tabloids. Like all the best pop films, it required no acting. It was a branding exercise (Spiceworld’s CD case came with a merchandise order form) and the music on the album was secondary.

When I saw the girls play at Wembley Stadium in 2019, the songs sounded shiny and polished, and it was suddenly clear how much Motown there was in the writing, which wasn’t really noted at the time because people didn’t talk about the mechanics of songs. Spiceworld is full of musical theatre, pastiche and throwback. Everything the band did musically already sounded dated, but somehow that didn’t matter because they themselves were fresh. And it’s great, on reflection, that they always took turns in singing a line each – so important if you’re dressing up as them with friends and recreating the numbers.

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Let’s give it another spin. The opening track is “Spice Up Your Life”, a meaning-fluid anthem written to rival “Wannabe”; “Too Much” is the kind of shimmy-shimmy Sixties ballad that was big in the Nineties. It evokes images of bowls of marshmallows and pretzels for me. By track four, “Saturday Night Divas”, they’re on thin ice; but track five, “Never Give Up On the Good Times”, tries to recreate the magic of “Who Do You Think You Are”, and that seems fair (I appreciate the flute solo). “Do It” (again, it’s got a bit of vim) has a cheeky “Say You’ll Be There” intro, more evidence that album one is the template for album two. And then we have “Viva Forever”. It’s incredible. Where are we? What has happened? It is the emotional core of the album by a mile, and its full string section is deserved. All in all, the album saves itself, though it’s not even 40 minutes long. Well done, girls.

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Geri Halliwell left the Spice Girls halfway through this album’s world tour. As a child, she met George Michael when he worked on the box office of a cinema in Watford. Part of the reason she quit the group was because she wanted to follow the Wham! model – two albums and a Wembley show, then out in a wild blaze of glory. I think she thought pop should pop like a bubble. But George’s plan was based on musicianship, which Geri never really had (clearly she thought herself the George Michael of the group). Her subsequent solo album sounds like a Spice Girls record with a hole where the others should be. And their follow-up without her, all smooth American R&B, was a travesty of the Spice ethos in sound and image: they’re all wearing black on the cover!

[See also: On Midnights, Taylor Swift sounds more herself than ever]

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder