Twenty years on: ‘what I really really want’
The Spice Girls started a music and pop feminism revolution in 1996 when their first single ‘Wannabe’ exploded onto the charts. But has ‘girl power’ really been good for women?
In 1996, Britain’s popular music scene was a man’s world. Moody male Britpop was battling it out in the charts with former members of Take That. During the first six months of the year, female vocalists were crowned Number 1 for just six weeks.
That is, until 20 years ago today. On July 8th 1996, the Spice Girls released their first single: Wannabe. The track started with the sound of laughter. And then, in a burst of exuberant energy, ‘Scary Spice’ belted out the line that started a pop revolution: ‘Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want…’
It was a hit across the globe. It was the UK’s Number 1 for seven weeks, and it sold 7m copies around the world. In 2014, scientists officially declared it the catchiest song of the last 60 years.
Its message — that friends are more important than lovers — also made it an anthem for the Spice philosophy: girl power. It was ‘girl power’ that they declared while making jaunty peace signs; ‘girl power’ that their fans chanted at concerts; ‘girl power’ that helped them sell everything from Pepsi to Chuppa Chups. And it paved the way for the girl power pop that followed: Britney, Girls Aloud and Little Mix all owe some of their success to the Spice Girls.
And yet they did not invent the phrase ‘girl power’. That was another girl band, Bikini Kill, with a far more radical message. The rock group formed in 1990, and quickly inspired an angry feminist punk movement: riot grrrl.
Bikini Kill and their fellow riot grrrls were not singing about how ‘friendship never ends’. They were singing about oppression and abuse, while telling girls to ‘stand up for your rights’.
In comparison, the fluffy, Spiceworld version of girl power does not seem quite so revolutionary. And for serious feminists of the 90s, Posh and the gang were not the start of something; they were the end.
When the author Caitlin Moran looks back on the Spice Girls, she laments that this was the moment when the world started thinking that ‘the fight had been won’ for women’s rights. This was a mistake, say some. Women still faced violence and inequality at that time, just as they do now. Shouting the words ‘girl power’ does not make the world a better place — it might even make it worse.
But the Spice Girls were not singing for grown up women, say their defenders. They were singing for young girls — and those girls were lucky to have role models who talked more about friendship and having fun than finding a man or looking good. They were loud, they were confident, and their five distinct ‘characters’ meant that everyone felt included somehow. They deserve to be celebrated as much now as they were 20 years ago.
- Is ‘girl power’ good for feminism?
- Did the Spice Girls send a better message to young girls of the 90s than today’s female pop stars?
- Choose another 90s band, film or TV show that is still relevant today. Write a short paragraph explaining why it matters.
- In groups, write your own pop song for young people growing up in 2016. If you’re feeling brave, take it in turns to perform!
Some People Say...
“Pop stars are bad role models.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why are we still talking about the Spice Girls when their music was so terrible?
- The quality of their music is hotly disputed, but their cultural influence is undeniable. Their faces were used to sell dozens of products, not unlike One Direction today. Posh Spice’s high-profile marriage to David Beckham was a blueprint for celebrity couples like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Also, they just announced a huge reunion concert in 2017 — so we could be about to see a lot more of them.
- Does it matter how feminist they were?
- All culture has an influence on our lives, and it is always interesting to consider how our world might be shaped by certain elements of it. For example, girl power anthems can improve women’s confidence; but images of unrealistic beauty can hurt their self-esteem.
- A subgenre of mostly male, alternative British rock bands from the mid-1990s. The ‘Big Four’ were Oasis, Blur, Suede and Pulp.
- Take That
- The enormously popular boyband had broken up in February earlier that year — and fans were so heartbroken that a helpline was set up to counsel them through their grief. Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow were both launching solo careers as the Spice Girls emerged.
- Six weeks
- Five of these weeks were given to the same song, Killing Me Softly by the Fugees. The sixth week was Gina G’s Ooh Aah... Just a Little Bit.
- Scary Spice
- Melanie Brown. The five girls all had nicknames to suit their style — the others were Posh, Baby, Sporty and Ginger.
- Catchiest song
- Dr John Ashley Burgoyne set up an online game that quizzed 12,000 people on how quickly they could recognise a track. Wannabe was the winner, with an average of just 2.3 seconds.
- Riot grrrl
- Although Bikini Kill is no longer around, the movement lives on. One of its most famous followers is the Russian band Pussy Riot, who were imprisoned for protesting against Vladimir Putin’s rule.