The Spice Girls and Girl Power defined Britpop better than Oasis or Blur

The Spice Girls on stage at the Brit Awards ceremony in London. Pic: Fiona Hanson/PA Photos

Far from being a manufactured product, Girl Power defined Britpop better than a battling Blur and Oasis, says Caomhan Keane

 

When presented with the choice between Oasis or Blur, in the mid-90s, I chose the more colourful path paved by Girl Power, the good time had by all — whether you wanted it or not.

On your TV, radio, on your deodorant can, you couldn’t fart in the 90s without covering the stench up with your Spice Girl air-freshener, and I was front and centre with my snout out for a sniff.

This day 20 years ago, the Spice Girls charted the first of nine number one singles. But, despite becoming a global phenomena, with record sales in excess of 100m — and in spite of being cited as an influence by artists both sides of the Atlantic — my admission of fandom is still greeted by a guffaw measuring 7.5 on the rectum scale, as the musically snide inject their heads up their own asses.

Some treat my insatiable taste for the group as if its dirt I’ve trampled onto the good carpet of their sensibilities, due to their ‘manufactured’ roots, their good (but not great) vocals or their supposedly questionable feminism.

But hankering on about all this rather misses the point. They were great fun, made great pop and were a breath of fresh air that flipped the blinds up on the basement-flat squalor that Britpop had become.

After all, Liam Gallagher ain’t no Luciano Pavarotti

The Spice Girls were manufactured only in so much as they met through the classifieds. A year after playing monster to their original management’s Dr Frankenstein, it became apparent they weren’t willing to fit the mould before them.

So they did a bunk, stealing the master recordings of their work and hightailing it to Sheffield for a recording session with Take That hit-maker Elliot Kennedy.

They sweet-talked their way into getting him to stay the pace with them until they could pay him, living out of their car and snagging a management deal with Simon Fuller, by bursting into his offices and performing ‘Wannabe’ on a boom box in his board room.

As beginnings go, they grafted as hard as anyone of the guitar bands who mock their so-called mass production, while their antics — ambushing presenters who refused to play their debut single ‘Wannabe’ (cause ‘girlbands aren’t in’) or lobbing the gob on Prince Charles, were far more original and anarchic than the coke-snorting and fist-flinging machismo of the Gallaghers or the mockney antics of Damon and co.

They crossed class divides and tooted their noses to convention in scenarios where women, particularly working-class women, were supposed to show deference.

So their message of female empowerment may not have been Germaine Greer approved. Whose is? It was a feminism that spoke directly to teenagers in a way The Female Eunuch never could.

The albums content emerged from the girl’s own banter, a feminist outlook gleamed from life experience, not academic decree. When Mel C sings “If you want my future, forget my past”, she spoke of how men are trained to see a woman as damaged goods based on past experience. (They less than politely suggested that boy’s cop on or get left behind).

‘Say You’ll Be There’ espoused the importance of friendship over love in a sexual companion, a ‘nerts to that’ approach to the type of Hallmark halitosis men sprouted to get women into bed, while ‘2 Become 1’ siphoned a safe sex message into a ballad in a world where Aids had just stopped being a death sentence.

All over Spice are songs that drip with sexual autonomy. Songs like ‘Naked’ — where past encounters help the protagonist see through the snake-oil slither of a possible paramour; ‘Last Time Lover’ where they delight in nicking some lad’s cherry, and ‘If U Can’t Dance’ about kicking him to the curb when his moves fail to match his mode, all changed the hymn sheet young women were supposed to sing off.

Even the Pepsi single ‘Step to Me’, couldn’t be more relevant in an age where women are still treated like chattel on the internet.

Spice was a Petri dish from which many of today’s most vocal feminists bloomed.

Not that I cared a fig about feminism at the time. For me, these songs were a triumph of self- expression. They didn’t dress or speak in one way or behave in the manner expected of them.

For a gay starting life in an all boy’s school trapped in a closet with rusting hinges, this was the 10ccs of punk I needed to let the haters be damned.

They didn’t care when some greasy haired Muppet witlessly mocked them and neither would I.

True, they released more advertisements than they did singles. Yes, their mantra Girl Power became a marketing ploy. But they were a true pop democracy, with no woman’s vocals being elevated above the rest a la Beyonce, JT or — god forbid, Ronan Keating. They co-wrote every song, on every album, (a fact that sends eyes rolling to the back of more cynical heads quicker than contaminated yolks). But unlike their ‘cooler’ girl band rivals, All Saints, they were never sued for credit by their collaborators, nor did they release any dodgy covers while claiming to be ‘a real band’.

Giving good copy in a world where wishing your rival had Aids was condoned, they didn’t give a toss what people thought, a spirit sadly lost in a pop culture whose spark has been micromanaged out of it.


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