When, through the nighttime murk of the Amazon River, an electric eel locates a feeder fish, what happens next is instantaneous: A jolt of electricity surges through the fish’s nerves. Its muscles contract simultaneously, and it is transformed into a living, floating statue.
This is roughly the same reaction that women born between Labor Day 1985 and New Year’s Eve 1991, approximately, exhibit when exposed to the opening seconds of the Spice Girls’ debut single “Wannabe.” Pharmacists, statisticians, probation workers, bank tellers, event planners, bartenders, psychologists, paralegals, market research analysts, junior members of Congress, phlebotomists, journalists — in the void between the salutatory “Yooo!” and the song’s first plonked-out musical note, all of these become temporarily incapacitated, frozen between heartbeats with lightning in their blood. If there is a silver lining to this tremendous national security risk, it is that the vulnerability is, in fact, global. The effect spans borders, races, income levels, sexual orientations, political parties, religions and all other aspects of adult identity, demarcating a distinct microgeneration.
Members of the Spice Girls generation are the only people in history to have both grown up with the internet and retained childhood memories that predated it. Born primarily in the mid-to-late 1980s, they are human bridges between two eras, whose anachronistic birth years, with their faraway century, will cause their heirs’ eyes to widen at their obituaries. Their ancestral parallels are the earliest drifters of the Lost Generation, born in the mid-to-late 1880s — people to whom Glenn Miller seemed unbearably young.
Tens of thousands of representatives of this cohort gushed through the back streets of residential Dublin one evening this past May, surrounding the terraced houses like a flash flood. From behind the superficial safety of one home’s gate, two young men gawked at the deluge, their expressions trapped between scoff and awe. The air was thick with tipsy laughter, ebullient plan-making and those breezy apologies particular to young women wherein the apology — often mistaken by other demographics for an expression of guilt — is in fact an announcement that the speaker is about to say or do whatever she wants, regardless of the laws of God or man.
“Gonna place that just there, sorry!” sang a woman, placing a glass beer bottle on the ground, where it was quickly trampled. There wasn’t time for trash cans. It was opening night of the Spice World tour (not to be confused with the 1998 “Spiceworld” tour, nor indeed, a “world tour”) and the 74,000 attendees were in a rush.
Girl Power Brokers
If it surprises the reader to learn there is evidence to suggest that the No. 3 best-selling album by a girl group, ever, was released by the Spice Girls in 1997, it will confound the reader to learn that, as near as can be measured, the No. 1 best-selling album by a girl group, ever, was also quite possibly released by the Spice Girls in 1997, nine months earlier. (In the U.S., at least — the international release occurred a few months before that. The reconciling of various countries’ convoluted sales certification criteria is one of many torturous undertakings that makes tracking past global album sales a lofty if not impossible goal.)
Yet the most extraordinary thing about the Spice Girls is not the lightning flash of their success but its peculiar longevity. A side-by-side comparison of international tour dates of the South Korean boy band phenom BTS to “Spice World” tour stops in the same period this year reveals that BTS out-grossed the Spice Girls by less than 1%, earning $78.9 million to their $78.2 million. This despite the fact that “Spice World” is the Spice Girls’ second reunion tour since 2008, and did not include the participation of the individual who is currently its most high-profile member (Victoria Beckham), and confined its stops to the British archipelago. BTS, for comparison, is by any reasonable standard the most popular musical group in the world. It is a testament to the Spice Girls’ good strategy and good fortune that their key demographic was young enough to receive an allowance when they launched — and that this relaunch is likely to find that same demographic midcareer with a modest disposable income.
The Spice Girls’ heyday was a simpler time, in terms of record industry economics — Geri Horner (then Geri Halliwell) announced her departure from the group almost a year to the day before Napster went online. But out of the gate, the Spice Girls’ arsenal included a weapon even more powerful than warehouses full of gleaming compact discs. It carried them to the top of the charts; it is stuck like glue in the subconscious of millions. It was a branding coup known as “Girl Power.”
“We’re all about putting forward positive ideas for girls and letting them see that they don’t have to conform to what people expect of them,” Emma Bunton (Baby) declared in a 1996 interview with the Glasgow Evening Times, shortly before the Spice Girls’ U.S. debut. Another thing the group was “all about,” per Bunton: “understanding that period in life.”
While this ethos — that girls are good and deserve positive ideas — was not complex, “girl power” boiled it down to an almost petroglyphic essence, enabling it to fit neatly on pencil cases, notebooks and T-shirts. It quickly became an affirmation — something the Spice Girls and their very young fans could yell to celebrate the Spice Girls and their very young fans.
Teen idols have enthralled young people since the days of Rudy Vallée, and modern pop stars like Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez have reaped the benefits of their legal guardians’ foresight as the Nickelodeon and Disney audiences they cultivated as child stars have aged along with them. But the Spice Girls were adult performers producing adult music that both appealed and was marketed primarily to children; music for millennials back when they were still called “Generation Y.” Their biggest hits included explicit and oblique references to “lovers” and sexual congress, they sang the praises of pushup bras, and by the end of their first tour, half the group was pregnant. But the Spice Girls were never meant to pass as kids; their skill was in depicting a young girl’s idea of adulthood.
The aura of Spice Girl success was sleepover antics turned career. Promotional photos depicted them spilling out of the same bed or piled onto a single couch, forever yanking one another into frame. In video interviews from the period, they cling to each other, all arms wrapped around legs, draped over thighs, tucked into neck crooks. While the average 30-year-old woman might prefer to perform some activities without being literally shoulder-to-shoulder with her four closest buddies, for an anxious 11-year-old the arrangement has obvious appeal.
And although the Spice Girls’ fans were old enough to understand they did not actually know the Spice Girls, they were recent-enough expats from the world of imaginary friends that the members of the group did not feel particularly far away. Being a Spice Girl seemed so easy and fun even a child could do it — and it was possible to remotely participate in the Spice Girls at any price point, from a 25-cent Chupa Chups “Official Product” lollipop to a $39.99 pink and purple Polaroid SpiceCam.
A cultivated air of regularness enhanced the illusion. The group members were capable but not extraordinary singers, and sentient but unambitious dancers — a stark contrast to say, the regimented perfection and musical aptitude of Destiny’s Child, whose virtuosic pop singles began topping U.S. charts in their wake. The Spice Girls were not intimidating: an average group of grown-up women in mismatched outfits whose dominant personality traits were telegraphed by various solid-color backgrounds. They even had easy-to-understand, somewhat adjectival labels: Whether Sporty (athletic), Posh (rich), Scary (outgoing), Baby (young) or Ginger (ginger?), all were united by an antic pride in female dynamism.
That their token catchphrase was deployed a little excessively and perhaps as marketing ploy made the sentiment no less salient for its target audience.