July 20 2018
Historically speaking, spices have always been equated with power.
During the height of the spice trade between Europe and South East Asia, the value of nutmeg and peppercorns was said to be greater than that of gold.
Today, golden milk recipes abound thanks to the powerful health benefits of turmeric. Even saffron has maintained its noble standing thanks to the popularity of Ina Garten, who advocates its use in a number of her indulgent dinner recipes.
Yet, it was a five spice blend concocted in the spring of 1994 that would prove to be the most culturally potent.
Enter the Spice Girls: Geri “Ginger” Halliwell, Melanie “Sporty” Chisholm, Emma “Baby” Bunton, Melanie “Scary” Brown, and Victoria “Posh” Beckham (née Adams).
Between 1995 and 1998 the pop quintet would prove inescapable invading the retinas, eardrums, and wallets of every parent and pre-teen across the globe.
The recipe for their success, however, began when Bob and Chris Herbert, a father and son management team, placed an advert in a 1994 edition of The Stage seeking “ambitious” and “outgoing” 18 to 23-year-old girls with the “ability to sing [and] dance.”
Out of the 400 females who responded to the casting call only five were guaranteed a spot. Those who made the cut — Halliwell, Brown, Chisholm, Beckham, and Michelle Stephenson — were christened Touch, housed together in a Maidenhead abode, and given extensive dance and vocal lessons. Whether Stephenson became disillusioned with fame or was deemed a misfit is up for debate; nevertheless, she was bumped from the line-up rather quickly in favor of Bunton. Even their band name underwent a revamp, per the suggestion of Halliwell, to Spice.
“We were just five girls who weren’t all that great individually but together we were pretty great,” Beckham said during a 2015 sit down with Fern Mallis.
They’d handled the shuffling line-up and name change with ease but the group’s formative year would prove to be a frenzied one. Disputes with the Herberts began to materialize ranging from the girls’ image to their musical direction. Furthermore, there appeared to be a reluctance in contractually signing the group.
Vexed, the girls staged a coup in March 1995, stole their master recordings, signed with Simon Fuller’s 19 Management and inked a deal with Virgin Records shortly thereafter.
“If they’d had their way we’d all be dressed the same, and one of us would have been the lead singer,” Beckham remarked of the group’s tenure under Bob and Chris Herbert. “The Spice Girls were so huge precisely because we didn’t do any of that.”
It was evident, then, that the fivesome had a vision for their long-term success and were unwilling to relinquish creative control to a group of suits. They did oblige when label executives wished to rechristen them the Spice Girls and they played along when a clever Top of the Pops editor anointed them with their now infamous nicknames: Ginger, Sporty, Baby, Scary and Posh. But when the time came to select their debut single the Spice Girls wouldn’t budge.
“Wannabe,” the girls agreed, was the perfect record to launch their career. Label executives were less optimistic — they found the song’s structure “weird” and bizarre — and urged them to consider alternatives. The girls argued that “Wannabe” served as the perfect introduction to the ‘girl power’ ethos that was central to their formation, plus they co-wrote it. Virgin relented, remastered the song, and prepared for its imminent release.
Spice Girls, 1. Virgin, 0.
Subsequent materials show that executives pushed for “Love Thing,” a rather bland R&B song that has none of the braggadocios punch of “Wannabe.” Ironically, it features more than a few lyrical similarities to its competitor.
Take, for example, the second verse of “Love Thing” when Sporty sings, “Now don’t go wasting my time.” Compare that to Scary’s declaration in “Wannabe,” “Now don’t go wasting my precious time,” and it’s clear to see a mere word (“precious”) separates them.
The Spice Girls faced further opposition when a final cut of “Wannabe’s” accompanying music video was screened for their management. Opinions poured in calling the costumes cheap (they were), the lighting too dark, and the dance routines unrehearsed. Reshoots were ordered but the girls wouldn’t budge.
No matter. When “Wannabe” was released on July 8, 1996, in the United Kingdom the music video, which had begun appearing on television a few weeks before, was already a bona fide success.
In the weeks and months that followed, “Wannabe” would claim the number one spot in the United Kingdom and 34 other countries around the globe. It would cement the Spice Girls’ status as the new faces of popular music, aid third-wave feminist initiatives, and help sell lots and lots of stuff.
They held multi-million dollar sponsorship deals with Pepsi, Polaroid, and Cadbury. There were Spice Girls books, dolls, lollipops, fragrances, lunch boxes, potato chips, and a video game. Asda supermarkets even sold a SPICE pizza, one of which remained buried in the freezer of Victoria Beckham until she unearthed it in 2014. In all, the girls were said to be a half-billion dollar enterprise.
Clearly, the Spice Girls were connecting with consumers. Many scholars attribute the group’s early success to their humble origin story and blend of approachable feel-good feminism.
“The Spice Girls were not the best singers, not overly pretty or glamorous, but it was never about that. It was about projecting the idea that they were just like every other girl,” musicologist Jacqueline Warwick told the Windsor Star. “Their ordinariness was their most effective tool.”
Marisa Meltzer, author of Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, asserts that “their take on feminism was heavy on sisterhood and the inherent badass-ness of being a girl— and the Spices should be lauded for that.”
Other critics weren’t as enthusiastic.
“The Spice Girls are losing their credibility and spreading themselves too thinly,” Marketing Week’s Natalie Cheary commented in a 1997 interview. “They’ve gone for overkill and saturated the market.”
Tom Harrison of the Vancouver Province insisted that the Spice Girls merely existed to “exploit their audience’s economic viability.”
When a Vogue reporter asked for Ginger’s thoughts on a New York Times review labeling their music “kid pop” she clapped back.
“The best kind of honesty you get is from a child,” she said. “Kids know what they like and what they dislike. It’s not corrupted by the status quo, outside influence, or what’s cool and what’s not cool. So therefore, when they like you, that’s the purest kind of adulation you’re going to get.”
It wouldn’t be wrong to assume the appeal of the Spice Girls waned over-time. Glossy videos and couture clothing ultimately replaced the homespun style they had achieved with “Wannabe.” Even their music suffered, becoming bloated commercialized jingles for Pepsi (“Move Over”) and their own 1997 feature film (Spice World).
Their inherent ordinariness, it seemed, was evaporating with every endorsement deal.
By the time they emerged onstage from a swirling plume of smoke at the 1997 BRIT Awards to perform “Who Do You Think You Are?”, critics continued to ask the Spice Girls the very question they were singing.
Just who were these girls shouting “Girl Power!” from the top of their lungs? Was there more to their mantra than banal soundbites?
Beyond general statements of “positivity” and “friendship,” history shows that the Spice Girls varied in their definition of girl power.
“[Girl power] is just having the confidence to make your dream come true,” Ginger would state. It meant “having brains and glamour at the same time,” she’d later tell David Letterman.
“Girl power is about equality and having fun and trying to rule your life,” Scary told New York magazine. “It’s about spreading a positive vibe [and] kicking it for the girls,” she is is quoted saying in One Hour of Girl Power.
“Be who you are, do what you like and be friends with other girls,” Beckham said in 2015. “[That’s] real ‘girl power’.”
The message was brilliant, empowering, and wholly unoriginal.
“From the beginning ‘girl power’ was the Spice Girls slogan… But they didn’t own it or invent it. They simply hijacked it. Spun it, twisted it, sexed it up and sucked it for every penny it was worth,” Virginia Haussegger wrote in Australia’s Canberra Times.
So who exactly was responsible for girl power then? That distinction belongs to a diverse group of female musicians collectively known as riot grrrl.
The movement began across the pond in Olympia, Washington during the 1990’s punk scene when female bands were practically an anomaly. Up until then, a growing frustration had emerged among female artists regarding the music industry’s ever-present misogyny.
Seeking to change that, a wave of college-educated feminists decided to form a new punk sub-genre; one that would not only speak to the harsh realities of womanhood but also aim to inspire individuality and social change. It was a riotous underground sorority, and every girl was welcome.
“One of the ideas… was that if girls started bands, it would transform culture—and not just empower them as individuals, but change society,” members of Bikini Kill, who are often considered the brainchild of riot grrrl, stated.
In order to aid their motivations, riot grrrl groups produced a series of zines. It was on the cover of the second zine issued by Bikini Kill where ‘Girl Power’ was born. The term was chosen, in part, to capture that blissful state during preadolescence when self-image is far less important than one’s own wild ambition.
But just when the movement began to catch on, riot grrrl bands perplexingly pulled the plug… At least, when it came to the mainstream media.
Magazines had taken a keen interest in the girls and it was easy to see why. On any given night Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill, would appear onstage wearing little else but a bra and SLUT scrawled across her midriff. Editors at Rolling Stone and Time were practically salivating, these were pictures!
But the coverage wasn’t welcome. It appeared that the media was more concerned with the aesthetics of riot grrrl than they were with the overall motto. Because of this, riot grrrl groups enacted a media blackout in the fall of 1992. While it didn’t stop bands from producing new music and zines, the blackout effectively ended the movement’s cultural grip.
And just like riot grrrl, the Spice Girls’ popularity was also short-lived. In the midst of a 1998 tour supporting their sophomore record, Spiceworld, Halliwell abruptly left the group. Girl power’s successful run had come to end.
Whether the Spice Girls genuinely ripped off riot grrrl is debatable, but what can’t be denied was their ability to help popularize a message that hadn’t reached its full potential in the hands of their punk-rock predecessors.
In the wake of the Spice Girls’ self-imposed hiatus in 2000, a number of girl groups would try and salvage the magic but most would fizzle out in the same manner (e.g. Fifth Harmony). They would ultimately reunite in 2007 for a world tour and again during the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony, but the ventures were all too brief.
Typically, girl groups have been stereotyped as a manufactured assemblage of attractive females who are vocally and rhythmically adequate. In other words, the Spice Girls. But if the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the term is any indication, perhaps we’ve been searching for the next wave of girl power in all the wrong places.
Oxford defines a girl group as “a pop or rock group composed entirely or predominantly of female musicians.”
The description sets no specific member count nor does it list dancing among the required skillset. Most interestingly, it refers to those in the group as musicians, defined as “a person who plays a musical instrument.”
If these characteristics are the new ‘girl group barometer’ then The Donnas, HAIM, The Aces, and First Aid Kit are all exemplary modern representations. So too is sister-act Aly & AJ, who have resurfaced after a ten-year musical hiatus to resounding success.
To study the trajectory of their career reads like a Spice Girls/riot grrrl mash up.
Signed by Disney-owned Hollywood Records at the ages of 15 and 13, Alyson and Amanda Joy Michalka were put on the fast track to global domination early on.
After a string of cover songs and various appearances on the Disney Channel established their appeal, Aly & AJ’s debut album, Into the Rush, was released on August 16, 2005. Backed by original songwriting and the sisters’ ability to play guitar and piano, Into the Rush became an instant hit selling over 800,000 copies.
Their cultural breakthrough came roughly two years later with the release of “Potential Breakup Song,” the electro-pop lead single off their sophomore LP, Insomniatic. Aly and AJ claim the song was “a big fluke” written in under an hour — a fact the Spice Girls would also boast about “Wannabe” — but its Platinum certification says differently.
Overnight Aly & AJ, the band, became Aly & AJ, the brand.
They had their own line of dolls, clothing, and cosmetics. A book series, Aly & AJ Rock ‘n’ Roll Mysteries, hit shelves alongside a Nintendo video game and Guitar Herocontrollers. Post Consumer Brands even plastered their faces on millions of Honeycomb Cereal boxes. Sound familiar?
But success under the watchful eyes of Mickey Mouse came with limitations.
“Being signed to a major label at that young of an age was obviously a gift because we had the opportunity to breakthrough in ways that we couldn’t do as independent artists. But I also feel like there a was limiting aspect to it in the sense of creativity.” AJ revealed to iHeart media.
In a separate interview Aly would suggest that sexism and ageism only added to the stifling environment.
“Being a woman made it really difficult for us because we would constantly bring songs into the label and there was a couple of people that specifically always questioned whether we wrote the song [or] should we change this lyric,” she said before adding, “If I was 25 and a dude this conversation would not be happening.”
By early 2010 they would depart Hollywood Records and rebrand themselves as 78violet, but the resulting music and name change felt inauthentic.
Now Aly, 29, and AJ, 26, have returned from a ten-year absence more socially woke and eager to add some riot grrrl sensibilities to the current pop landscape.
“There is great female pop music out right now but I think the thing that the pop world lacks is female songwriters who are playing instruments onstage. It’s very much a guy band type of thing,” Aly said during a Build Series appearance. “So for us, we saw there was a space we could fill with our music as female artists.”
For starters, they are now independent artists who, as AJ enthused to Paper, “have never been more in control.” And it shows.
Take, for instance, the cover of their comeback single “Take Me,” which features a close-up of AJ’s bum barely hidden behind a sheer peach shirt. It’s assertive but girly, like riot grrrl imagery for the Instagram age.
“At the end of the day, who wants a 50-year-old suit telling them what’s going to look great on their cover?” Aly told OUT. “The freedom we have today is really exciting.”
Even the song’s lyrics — “Show me something, before I show something to you,” and “Make a move and make it now” — are deliciously coy.
Despite little airplay from radio outlets “Take Me” became a viral sensation unseating Justin Bieber to claim the top spot on Spotify’s Viral 50 USA chart.
And then there is Aly & AJ’s on-going activism, a key component of girl power that many critics accuse the Spice Girls of never fulfilling. Since their Disney days, Aly and AJ have supported a number of various causes including the Amber Watch Foundation, Race to Erase MS, Samsung’s Hope for Education, HeadCount and Project Heal. In 2017 they helped lead a songwriting workshop at the first annual Teen Vogue Summit, and for the past two years have been active participants in the Women’s Marches in Los Angeles and Vancouver.
The marches coincided during the recording of their new Ten Years EP and, according to the duo, inspired much of the production.
“We were working on women’s march posters in the studio,” AJ recalled to Elite Daily. “We were singing our hearts because we were like, 'We’re marching for women. We’re singing for women. We’re writing for women.’”
Clearly, the new material is clicking. As of last month, Ten Years has been streamed over 10 million times via Spotify and nearly every stop on their 20 city Promises Tourwas sold out. The sisters even released a new song, “Good Love,” to coincide with Pride Month.
“A large amount of our gay fans have actually come up to us and said, ‘Your music helped me come out,’” AJ explained to Gay Times. “That to me is the coolest thing to hear. It’s amazing that our music has helped fans realize exactly who they are and what they want in life.”
The statement seems to echo something Ginger Spice said during an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1998.
“The Spice Girls philosophy when we first started out was whether we met big fat record company bosses, the postman, the president, whether you are black, white, gay, or straight — we treat everybody the same.”
Perhaps these are the reasons why Aly & AJ seem poised to wear the “Girl Power” crown. They are keen on embracing the ideologies set forth by riot grrrl and spreading it to their diverse built-in audience that’s eager to listen.
Call them what you want, what you really really want — girl groups, duos, bands, nostalgia acts — but these rock ’n roll women have proven time and again that labels belong exclusively on the merchandise sold at their shows, never the stage.