By Amanda Wicks
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Spice Girls’ debut album, 1996’s ‘Spice.’ With a list of singles including “Wannabe,” “2 Become 1” and “Say You’ll Be There,” they brought an unabashed pop sound back to the charts.
Music writers, especially those well established in the industry, all seem to stamp their pre-teen and teenage years with a similar kind of cool. They were the fans tuned into good taste before everyone else at that age really understood what that meant. But I am not that story. I am the misfit, the one who tried on different styles–like all kinds of different styles, including a brief stint with musical theater–until I hit my college years and wove all those disparate threads into an eclectic appreciation that has served me to this day.
1995 was a heavy year for me, music-wise. As a sixth grader living in Toronto, I discovered Oasis, Alanis Morissette, Jewel and Joan Osborne’s mournfully hippy song, “One Of Us.” I loved them all, but by 1996 my family had relocated to Florida, I was entering my awkward teenage years replete with glasses, braces and a crippling lack of confidence, and I craved–albeit unknowingly–something bright. So I had a brief foray into the vibrant, if surface, world of pop led by none other than the Spice Girls.
To this day, no song transports me back to the mid-1990s more instantaneously than their 1996 debut single “Wannabe.” There’s something colorfully memorable about that short period in pop music spanning the decade’s final five years, as well as the women proclaiming “Girl Power.” It was before Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera created an overly sexualized girl pop revolution, and the message the Spice Girls delivered had an element of vocality girls my age needed to hear. They would not, indeed could not, be silenced.
I heard “Wannabe” for the first time in seventh grade and I was instantly hooked. Lost but but hooked. I didn’t know what to make of it. First, there was that punctuative, teasing laugh, followed by an authoritative and commanding “Yo!” and then a call and response that illustrated how to be a girl and still make demands of the world. Finally, the least sensical part of the verse: “I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha)/ I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah.”
What did it all mean? What does it all mean? I still don’t know. But it was catchy and vibrant, and the women singing it were bigger than life with their different personalities: Scary, Sporty, Baby, Ginger and Posh. Right around the time Backstreet Boys were hitting the market and making teenagers everywhere swoon with their soft harmonies and declarative intentions, the Spice Girls hit that same fan base with an assertive message about being a girl. Essentially, it all came down to power. And friendship. (In between boys, of course.) Together, the Spice Girls could do anything. They were, to borrow perhaps an odd analogy, a musical version of the Power Rangers. Each was a specific color on their own, but together they were a mighty morphin’ robot who could beat whatever freakish bad guy the writers dreamed up each week. (Yeah, I had a moment that with that too). Critics can look back and lament the constructed way they were put together or their calculated music, and I don’t disagree with those readings, but sometimes there are songs you experience growing up that will forever mark you, as silly as they may seem when you’re older.
Beyond “Wannabe,” Spice featured two other singles, including “Say You’ll Be There” and “2 Become 1.” I remember particularly digging those, as well as the funk heavy disco track “Who Do You Think You Are?” The rest aren’t entirely as memorable, certainly not within the sphere of “Wannabe.” Even relistening to the album recently to write this reflection, I’m not overly wowed by the other tracks. There’s nothing on the album that a pop star hasn’t done before the Spice Girls or hasn’t done better since them, but in that moment they were fabulous. Dare I say, they were spicy.
Looking back on the album now, I see problems in some of the messages the Spice Girls sent to their fans (focused much of the time on guys), even if it was underscored by “Girl Power!” Their marketing-driven identities, too, implied that girls could only ever be one thing at a time or at all. Somehow, to be both posh and scary would have created mayhem. But I admire their intention. I don’t think they meant any harm, and whatever malice I as a 30-something adult apply to Spice and the women’s images only stems from the fact that I analyze things a great deal more than I ever did at 12 years old.
Admitting that I like the Spice Girls (well, at least Spice-era Spice Girls) doesn’t earn me any kind of cultural cache in the music industry, but sometimes fandom isn’t about having the best taste or liking the most critically acclaimed bands. Sometimes fandom involves not throwing songs out that shaped us, no matter how embarrassing they may be later on in life. The Spice Girls said it best on that note: “Zigazag ah.”