Music Editor Florence Mooney takes a look at how the Spice Girls changed the place of women in music.
When the Spice Girls came screaming into the public eye in July 1996, they were something new and exciting. Five women with different personalities, speaking their minds and demanding to be heard, they were breaking with rules when it came to women in pop toeing the line set by the male-dominated music business. This isn’t to say there weren’t women making their mark before this – Madonna for example – but the Spice Girls were different. They weren’t presented as the objects of desire; they weren’t trying to please the boys. They were being true to themselves in whatever form that took for each member, and standing up for women all over the world.
In the 1960s there were plenty of girl groups, such as the Supremes and Ronettes. They sang soulful pop songs written by male songwriters about love, pain and loss, with one lead singer and a host of beautifully coordinated outfits. This worked for decades. The Supremes had numerous smash hits, with Diana Ross forming a noteworthy solo career on the back of their success.
Fast forward to the 1980s and women’s place in music was growing. Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were writing their own chart-topping hits, and female stars such as Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush were making a mark on rock through their own talent and ability. However, there were still a lot of women following the rules of their record executives. Take Whitney Houston. Despite a questionable private life, her appearance was of a clean cut pop star. She spoke politely in interviews and didn’t ask questions, but kept topping the charts with her label’s choice of hits.
Come 1996, there was something more exciting and raw about the Spice Girls. Although they co-wrote their music, they were not the most accomplished songwriters, and their synced dance routines were questionable. Even their vocals were nothing to boast about. Despite this, the Spice Girls had something else altogether: their enticing personalities and ‘every woman’ charm. They each had distinctive characters, being led by these rather than any pre-written rules. The Spice Girls could be who they wanted.s. It was notable when, in their 1996 Top of the Pops performance of ‘Wannabe’, Melanie C was dressed head to toe in her Liverpool FC kit. Not quite the epitome of sex appeal. The subjects of their hit songs were varied, but often paid tribute to female friendship and youth. This whole philosophy was summed up in a single phrase: “Girl Power!”
Girl Power was a branch of feminism for girls who were scared of coming across as bra-burning lesbians if they claimed to be a feminist. But whatever the label was, Girl Power was an idea that women could be just as assertive, bold and confident as any man, bringing up a whole generation of women on a wave of female potential. The Spice Girls proved that women with personality, opinions and intelligence sells. For all the Spice Girls’ charm and catchy pop songs, their real legacy is of successful women breaking down the boundaries of what it means to be a woman in the public eye.
When ‘Spicemania’ swept the world in the late nineties, it was a phenomenon unlike any seen since Beatlemania in the 1960s. Their songs were everywhere as were their faces, on adverts or in their so-bad-it’s-amazing film. Scary, Posh, Ginger, Baby and Sporty were the most famous women on the planet, having an influence like no one else. And though with great power comes great responsibility, the Spice Girls took this responsibility and soared with it. Their legions of young fans were taught about the importance of friendship and being true to yourself, the value of determination and hard work, and how women can take so many different shapes and forms but are all just as brilliant as each other. This generation of young fans are now growing up to be in the public eye themselves, such as Haim, Dua Lipa and Lorde, continuing to have integrity and honesty in their beliefs and values.
The 21st Century has seen a whole host of successful and powerful women in the world of music. Pop has been ruled by the likes of Rihanna and Beyoncé for over a decade now, with tracks such as Beyoncé’s ‘***Flawless’ explicitly flying the flag of feminism. A pop star shouting about feminism doesn’t seem outrageous anymore, rather something to be proud of. In doing just that, Beyoncé has gained many female fans. She has taken a step further than the Spice Girls, discussing racism in her work and fighting for black people. Similarly, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty product line has brought increased attention to the white-washing of the beauty industry. Her status as a pop star has not detracted from her ability to speak out on social issues she believes in. In a post-Spice Girls age it is expected that women in the position of influence stand up for their beliefs and implement and encourage change.
In 2017 music seemed to be ruled by women, with exceptional new material from Lorde, Dua Lipa, Lana Del Rey, SZA, St Vincent and Wolf Alice. Sadly, this wasn’t expressed at award shows such as the Grammys, where the president of the Academy suggested that women need to ‘step up’. From Rock to hip-hop to alternative to pop, women have been proving their ability in all genres, but are often viewed as less serious musicians. Women still have to shout louder to prove themselves. At the Grammys, the category of song of the year was solely the work of men, despite brilliant songs such as Lorde’s ‘Green light’, DJ Khaled and Rihanna’s ‘Wild Thoughts’ and Dua Lipa’s modern classic ‘New Rules’. An important way to change this is to increase the number of women behind behind the scenes. Female producers are few and far between, and those in record company executive roles even rarer.
22 years on from ‘Wannabe’, the music industry isn’t quite an ideal Spice World yet (for a better idea of what this reality would be, see the Spice Girls 1998 film, Spiceworld). However, we’re on the right tracks. Women are being encouraged to speak up for what they believe in and be true to themselves thanks to a generation of artists that grew up with the Spice Girls’ positive messages. There is no longer such a strict mold of what a pop star should be. Instead, a diverse range of women from all corners of society, with different styles, opinions and characters are being allowed to stand up for themselves in the world of music, all in the name of Girl Power.