what exactly do the spice girls stand for in 2019?
We crash their reunion tour to find out.
Photography Andrew Timms
It’s the first night of the Spice World 2019 reunion tour and the grown-up kids of the 90s are out in force. Nobody is here in Dublin's Croke Park for soaring vocal gymnastics, nor for novelty; the Posh-less quartet have released no new material to supplement the tour setlist, and their questionable post-music career stints in reality TV and BBC comedies have somewhat downgraded their once A-list status. No, the main motivation for attendance tonight is memory itself. For the audience (skewing millennial and female), this is a pilgrimage to our own pasts as much as a reunion show. But if the first thing that hits you in the face is stinging nostalgia courtesy of Aqua's Barbie Girl booming out from the speakers, the second is cynical marketing; more on that later.
The global impact of the Spice Girls in the late 90s cannot be overstated. It has been documented extensively through their many still unbroken records, through books, articles and visual media. They were, without question, the greatest girl group in history, envoys of feminism-lite and the second British invasion (where Britpop took over America for the second time since the Beatles), and chart domineers the likes of which we may never see again. I was born in 1994, the year the band formed, and as such I have literally never lived in a world without them. I felt their influence acutely as a young gay boy subconsciously seeking cultural touchstones for my queerness. The first VHS I ever (co-)owned was Spice Girls: One Hour of Girl Power. I vividly remember the night my dad poked his head around the door of the shared room where me and my sister had just been put to bed – he waved the rectangular white box with a triumphant grin and we squealed. Though they had already disbanded (why, Geri, why?) by the time I was old enough to stan, I cultivated a retrospective obsession. Their memory primed my prepubescent gay brain for a lifetime of love affairs with women in pop.
As I said earlier, that memory is the main motivation for my being here tonight. It is said that when we face uncertain futures, we should look to the past for answers; this is why Spice World 2019 feels so utterly symbolic. Have the grown-up kids of the 90s ever faced such precariousness, as we stare into climate and political breakdown? I’m not the only one looking back for insights. Writer Lauren Bravo even called her recent book What Would the Spice Girls Do? and discussed how the band were a beacon of hope for us as young people; working class but blisteringly successful, outspoken about feminism, racism and homophobia.
But they were also, inexplicably, Tories (and presumably some still are, given Geri’s recent sympathies for Theresa May) and “shameless capitalist sellouts”. I won’t bother to list their far too numerous sponsorship and merchandising deals, but suffice to say that they became the most merchandised group in music history, to the extent that the phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page. Their legacy has become more confused by their recent backpedalling (girl power is now downgraded to the neutral ‘people power’) and the cynical marketing (told you I’d circle back) of tonight’s show undercuts the blind optimism they try to push.
“When you're feelin' sad and low / We will take you where you gotta go / Smilin', dancin', everything is free / All you need is positivity,” come the opening lines of the show, to raucous millennial screams. Unfortunately the Girls are intent on selling more than positivity.
It quickly becomes clear that everything from the merch to the staging is pandering to the aesthetics of queerness, from the ubiquitous rainbows to the Houses of dancers that jokingly compete on their behalf on stage. The House of Geri, the House of Emma… the concept heavily borrows from ball culture, a strange flex given that this thoughtless borrowing and re-contextualising is something the black queer community have repeatedly condemned.
The heavy focus on queer optics blindsides me because it’s not something I expect, and it’s hard to know how to feel about it. The Spice Girls repeatedly draw a political conversation on themselves with moves like this, but their political garbling is so convoluted it’s hard not to be disappointed by their proverbial manifesto. Geri’s support for Theresa May – a Tory who in her time as PM has deported LGBT people to their potential deaths – makes this incoherent waffle even less sympathetic. It is weird that they would try to make this aspect of their politics more explicit when other aspects (like girl power) have been watered down even further. What’s the motivation? Um... money.
Though a childhood me might have felt his heart rise in his chest to see rainbows plastered over his favourite popstars’ merchandise, my adult self knows that we cannot unthinkingly cheer every time some hyper-capitalist popstar attempts to use queerness to bolster their brand. The presence of rainbows and inclusive sentimentality is one side of a coin, and the other is cynical piggybacking on the aesthetics of gayness. It’s not a favour to us so much as a sensible marketing strategy in a world where capitalism has now co-opted queerness as a Unique Selling Point. This is less like a daring political move and more like a leveraging of undeserved outsider credibility, like an opportunist attempt to write themselves into a history they don’t belong to, at a time when such a move is no longer risky. Nobody’s riding out for anyone here, and we’d be foolish to misremember the Spice Girls for any such wishful self-sacrifice.
The confusing feelings I have about the explicit queer references in the show set the tone for the whole night. It would have been far better to leave politics out of the equation, given that the whole night is premised on escapism into the past. The original Spice Girls’ politics were emblematic of Blairite Britain and its naive 90s neoliberalism, and in that context, they were able to brandish Britishness as a loose apolitical statement of patriotism. Their Spice World film was modelled on the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and James Bond, and so the Union Jack was waved around as a kind of symbol of Cool Britannia rather than anything more sinister – it probably even benefited from some lingering punk association. But in a post-Brexit world, on the eve of a European election where Nigel Farage came to power on a nationalist platform that will literally cost lives, it is impossible to try to vacuum away the flag’s present connotations.
Yet, this is exactly what they do try to do. Their watery ‘girl power!’ catchphrase perfectly captured their former ability to render the political apolitical, to somehow scour the meanings from things until they were enjoyably aseptic. In 2019, this cleansing power fails them. Geri, who seems to view herself as some sort of Tory nationalist queen of the gays (I can’t roll my eyes hard enough) can’t resist sporting her trademark Union Jack gown and a crown, which is a frankly baffling choice for an Irish crowd in today’s climate. She seems oblivious to the symbolism. “All you need is positivity” could have won the night, but the Girls just couldn’t leave it at that.
Ultimately, Spice World 2019 feels like a wistful daydream of the past, but one you keep jerking horribly awake from. It serves as a reminder that shutting out reality is harder and harder in these times. Political readings of the show feel futile when all the co-mingling beliefs result in such discordant nonsense. Perhaps the most political thing that can be said is that these are four strong women who have survived (particularly Mel B, who has publicly suffered through an abusive relationship and been an incredible advocate against abuse ever since), and their survival mirrors our own. We are still here, and maybe we still have a chance to turn things around, from the climate to populism to the fact that we may never own property. If anything hopeful comes from the Spice spectacle, maybe it is the reminder that we can endure more than we think, and come back to fight another day.