Getting with their friends(Photo by Ray Burmiston/Photoshot/Getty Images)

July 8, 2021   5 mins

We imagine in an act of supreme magical thinking that by listening to the music we loved as kids, we will somehow stay young. It’s comforting, after all — until it leads to a rude awakening about the passing of time. Take the fact that the release of the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was closer to World War One than today. Or the fact that that today marks 25 years since “Wannabe”, the Spice Girls’ first single, was released. Has it really been a whopping quarter of a century since we first saw those scantily clad scamps capering on the staircase of the St Pancras Hotel?

The Spice Girls are exceptional in many ways, but especially because anyone who was over the age of five in 1996 — anyone who regularly spent time in a playground — will have memories of them. “Girl Power” was always going to win over a cohort who saw boys as smelly items who couldn’t be trusted not to put something nasty down your blouse. The pervy old Jim Morrison line “The men don’t know… but the little girls understand” had never been so accurate — or so wholesome.

But you don’t get success on the scale the Spices won unless it’s a family affair. The writer David Sinclair said that “Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary were the most widely recognised group of individuals since John, Paul, George and Ringo”, largely thanks to their ability to excite the young while reassuring the old. It sent “Wannabe” to Number One in 37 countries; Spice, the album it came from, became the best-selling album by a female group in history and was followed by merchandising deals worth more than $500 million by 1998. They have won five Brit Awards, three American Music Awards, four Billboard Music Awards, three MTV Europe Music Awards and, last year, they became the youngest recipients of the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music.

Yet — in the manner of the waiter who once asked George Best “Where did it all go wrong?” as he delivered room-service champagne to the footballer and his Miss World companion, who lay in her underwear on thousands of pounds which Best had won in a casino that night — there’s a certain sort of no-mark male who on hearing the words Spice Girls will sneer “Friendship never ends, eh?”

Certainly one of the girls made a sharp exit two years after their first hit, and their following album as a four-piece, Forever, achieved “disappointing” sales — leading them, at the end of 2000, to begin an “indefinite hiatus” to concentrate on their solo careers. But since then, they have reunited for two tours, both of which were the highest grossing of each year. So, in a way, friendship didn’t end — it just evolved, as friendships must if they want to avoid being boring. The fact that five ordinary girls made all that money from only 130 minutes of recorded material remains a remarkable commercial feat; they were the ultimate Lottery winners of fame.

Pop music is a paradox; it makes an audience of us while being individually experienced, unlike sport where we all see the same thing. Yet the Spice Girls were more like a football team than a band; it was hard to imagine someone sitting alone in their room believing that Posh was talking just to them. They were a communal experience and they seemed to be complimentary parts of a greater entity.

It was sometimes said of The Beatles that they made up one whole person, and while this wasn’t true of the Spice Girls (not everyone is either scary or babyish or posh or sporty or ginger, let alone all at once) sometimes they seemed to make up a whole nation; Geri from a Watford council estate, Baby from London, Posh from Hertfordshire, Mel B from Leeds and Mel C from Lancashire. The Northern girls favoured the Labour Party while Geri, ever the opinionated one, had a pleasant shock in store for The Spectator when the girls were interviewed in their pomp: “We Spice Girls are true Thatcherites. Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology — Girl Power. We don’t have to agree on politics — it’s bigger than that. Support a woman doing the best she can and that’s it… everyone’s politically different and that’s O.K.”

Everyone’s politically different and that’s O.K. Such a humdrum thing to say in 1996, but it sounds so daring now. If we consider the pop groups of today — be they the utterly interchangeable Little Mix with their talk of inclusivity or Mumford and Sons’ banjoist who quit the band after being hounded by an online mob for praising a conservative journalist — is it possible for band members to express counter-cultural political opinions?

We live in a world where an actress (Jodie Comer) can be monstered on social media for daring to date a Republican. What would be the reaction to a young female singer expressing admiration for a Conservative leader today? In her stated respect for Mrs Thatcher, it’s almost as though Ginger saw into the future, where the Left would become the source of a murderous misogyny, threatening extreme violence if a woman so much as mentions that penises cannot be female.

After all, “Mrs Thatcher was the first Spice Girl” is no more outrageous a statement than “Mrs Pankhurst was a Tory” but that’s exactly what happened after the sainted suffragette had one too many dodgy experiences with the infant Labour Party, such as being banned from joining her local branch because she was a woman. Her mate Keir Hardie may well have stepped in and fixed it, allowing her to join the London one, but the damage was done and she became a Conservative patriot.

Could Geri wear her Union Jack dress today without getting monstered by Bed-Wetters Inc? Possibly, though it is unbelievable that a young woman could name-check Margaret Thatcher and not to be stoned to death onstage.

But their Thatcherism and early anti-EU mutterings reflected the fact that the Spice ethos was was rooted in working-class girl-chancer culture, from vaudeville to glamour modelling. They were so beautifully common it’s no wonder Naomi Campbell asked Victoria: “Why do they call you Posh?” They were the last gasp of Chav triumphalism, now come full circle into the Left’s hatred of the working class for no longer being easy to corral, control and count by head like cattle as they pour into the voting sheds.

What is their legacy? Artists as diverse as Lady Gaga, Adele and Billie Eilish quote them as influences. Whether that’s true or not, their massive commercial breakthrough undoubtedly made girl groups a far better bet, and probably led to the creation of bands who were far better, such as Girls Aloud and Sugababes. Girl groups from the Shangri-Las onwards had always appealed to young women, but girls were mostly offered the chance to suffer alongside the singers rather than be emboldened by them.

Things are darker for girls now. I remember my goddaughters taunting their male classmates with “Girl Power”; now the girls of Love Island seek to cheer their friends with empty words as they cry over some worthless man. Today, “empowerment” usually means stripping off for the sake of showing some flesh, devoid of real meaning, whereas once it meant getting one’s nerve up to try something audacious, which might well annoy men.

As for the girls themselves, they all defied their stereotypes, for good or ill. Silly Baby turned out to be the most sensible, preening Posh the earth mother, cartwheeling Sporty the sensitive one, Scary the domestic violence survivor. Geri, always the most fascinating, who was defined by ambition and “bad” love choices, ended up married to a mega-rich and handsome man and became a rather gracious and graceful society matron and philanthropist.

They made being young, cute and up for everything look attractive, rather than the hyper-sexual, self-destructive danse macabre it so often seems today. They may not have been the best singers, songwriters or dancers in the history of pop, but in their unique gang mentality — echoed today in the way the Love Island girls, for all their empty words, appear to have far more fun with each other than with the boys — they embodied the comfort and fun of friendship which often outdoes the heavy lifting of love.

Julie Burchill is a journalist, playwright and author of Welcome to the Woke Trials, available now. Her latest play, Awful People, co-written with Daniel Raven, comes to Brighton Pier in September 2023.