In this essay, Lisa Jones takes us on a nostalgic journey into the manufactured pop music world of the Spice Girls, reflecting on fandom, growing into adulthood, lusting after girlbands and the impulse to listen to music that should be impossible to love.
> On May 17th, 1996, I am handed a tiny, scared hamster and a copy of the Spice Girls' debut album on cassette, and a ridiculous thought crosses my half-formed, parochial, seven-year-old mind: this means I'm not a child anymore. An interminably slow starter, whose reservations about being born in the first place kept a trail of midwives tapping their watches, I was keenly conscious of the fact that to actually own, and listen to, and enjoy a piece of music was something I'd never done, something I'd only ever seen in cartoon depictions of the Burger King Kidz Club listening to their CD Walkmans. Scrolling down the overwhelming list of things I should be doing by now, flinching and wincing at every mention of making friends or going outside, I was suddenly so drawn to this world of pop music, a world that asked nothing from me, needed no flesh-and-blood involvement with other people; and yet it was a way to grow up. To a pudgy, bowl-cutted Scottish child with a Play-Doh pallor, who had recently and inexplicably been struck down with a chronic shyness that was to swallow me whole for the next ten years, this was illness and cure all at once. I didn't know it, but I was waiting for something to lose myself, completely obliterate myself, in. And here it was, an ostensibly terrible pop album opening with the sound of a former Blackpool holiday rep cackling into a bin. This means I'm not a child anymore.
> Thank you to everyone who has taken part in the Spice adventure – you know who you are. This mildly threatening marketing blurb, folded into the paper insert of my now-treasured cassette, gave me my earliest sense of being in on something. Up until that point, everything 'meant' for a small girl - the miniature ironing boards, shopping trolleys full of tiny, facsimile groceries, and plastic sponge cakes with pull-apart Velcro slices that were, in the early 1990s, still being issued to every female child in the country on prescription - somehow hadn't fitted, had looked a bit wrong on me and left me feeling confused about what my job here was exactly. Most unsettling of all were the baby dolls, with their bulbous rock-solid heads and fragile embryonic limbs. Some of them horror-film giggled, some of them cried and shrieked from the depths of an indescribable pain, and some actually pissed in your eye while you rushed frantically 'round and 'round the imaginary supermarket, flinging packets of pretend Fish Fingers into your plastic basket whilst your hair fell out and you worried whether you were giving your grotesque synthetic offspring too much salt. Not only, then, was I spoiled, ungrateful and picky, I was also failing, constantly and embarrassingly, at being a small girl. Even as I aged, and the adverts grew shriller, the marketing creepily contouring itself to my growing mind and body, there was nothing there for me. The boybands – Take That, Boyzone, E17, 911, MN8, and all the other 27-year-old men awkwardly shoehorned into our lives – were dull, in the way that a toy teapot is dull, and somehow it all slotted together, it all made sense and produced a picture of what lay in store: go away with your boyband dream date, produce a beautiful bundle of big-headed screaming joy, stick on the Terylene apron, and knuckle down while Terry from 911 is out all day pursuing a misjudged solo career.
> Just when you’ve decided to give up and model yourself on Convalescent Barbie - or at least on ‘Fashion Doll’ from Poundstretcher - whilst knowing full well that you'll be awful at it, imagine something with huge, slick yellow-and-red hair like mustard and ketchup dripping down its head, with thrillingly bad tattoos and a crop-top apparently made from an outstretched pearlescent blue rubber swimming sock; imagine it turns up and starts shouting vacuous sound-bites about following your heart, or about how karma will get them all in the end, or about how no boy is worth it or something, you can’t really remember. You just know that this unintelligible blur of fabrics and skin and sounds is bad-taste, loud, adult but untethered to anything so achingly unfunny as a job or a baby, and that you’re suddenly drawn to a life beyond pink mittens, plastic puppies and bits of old eiderdown.
> The Spice Girls appear to have been trapped together like hastily-written characters from an unbroadcastably stupid sitcom pilot. A woman in a fake-fur-leopard-print-soap-opera-barmaid's-two-piece-suit leans against a sulking 22-year-old leisure centre attendant with hair scraped so tightly her eyes almost roll back into her head, while the red-headed lead from a Russ Meyer film set in the Watford branch of Miss Selfridge feigns allegiance with a tall adult woman unsettlingly dressed like a little girl in a life-insurance advert designed to induce familial guilt. An underfunded Cruella de Vil figure lurks gothily and separately at an uncomfortable angle like she's been asked to. They are all trying painfully hard to look like they don't care because they're having too much fun, when really their lives depend on this, and it would all be so laughable if you were a 38-year-old man working at a wry music magazine and not a seven-year-old girl grasping for something, anything, that isn't having pencil shavings sprinkled on your head whilst a greasy boy dressed by The Sweater Shop makes sarcastic ugly-girl kissing noises at you all through Maths.
> What did the music sound like? Was that even important? Well, if it's actually possible for a song to sound like a neon-pink PVC pencil case being anxiously zipped and unzipped, unzipped and zipped, over and over at a pitch that makes you cry with frustration, then the Spice Girls' first album is the only record in pop history to achieve this on every single track. These songs are crassly synthetic, made of fake-fur, Impulse body spray and contraceptive pills; genetically-modified, artificially-enhanced songs to play in the background as you try to go against nature and piece yourself together into the person you were always meant to be, mainly using hair mascara. Even the attempts at dull acoustic-guitar earnestness on 'Mama' and '2 Become 1' can't hide their naff, plastic essence, the itchy acrylics under the regulation tasteful black trouser-suits. 'Mama', an astonishing attempt at contrition to a harangued, exhausted mother weighed down by Kwik-Save bags and stage-school bills, was clearly grown in pop's least hygienic Petri dish: as a shameless lift from Talking Heads' 'This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)' loops on and on illegally, the Girls half-heartedly scold themselves ('I had a lot of time to think about/About the way I used to be/Never had a sense of my responsibility') with a dazed, shrugged indifference that almost sounds sarcastic. The promotional video, in which a group of paid eight-year-olds dress up as miniature Spice Girls playing together (as if they were raised communally from birth by 19 Management) intercut with endless footage of the adult Girls pointing at their mothers, is as sincere as a mandatory hug at the end of a stilted blind date.
> Music like this should be impossible to love, being essentially emotionally dead; and yet, I took its auto-generated lyrics to heart, and clung faithfully to its tinny melodies (melodies that still fade into my brain to interrupt important thoughts to this day, 24 years later). It was my first true obsession of any kind, and I didn’t need to understand it. Now, I wonder: what was so fascinating? Was it the fact that by some industrial accident Simon Fuller, and the doubtless countless other men who tinkered clinically in the lab, had helped perpetuate a truly charming vision of a world in which they weren’t needed? Not a world without men, but a world beyond them; a world where men weren’t the point.
> Manufactured pop has always been capable of beautiful mistakes; the ancient, pragmatic formula of taking a charismatic unknown, changing their name, giving them the right song and the wrong advice, and then laughing manically into a bathtub full of money, makes it all the more moving when something real and good reaches out to you from the production line; that one chance within the 24-hour life-cycle of the pop star to make someone, somewhere feel something.
> In this sense, my profound-deluded connection to the Spice Girls was nothing new, had been going on since the first newspaper clipping of Billy Fury was quietly pawed against someone’s flock wallpaper. But there was a difference, a strange difference. In 1996, here were girls crying desperately over, hysterically coveting and practically lusting after…girls. Not boybands who looked like your older brother’s weird friend times five, or creaking, Freudian father-figure crooners, but girls. I am far from comprehending, let alone accepting, my own bisexuality in these shuddering, shy-making schooldays; the very thought of it is mortifying, and completely at odds with my life’s ambition to be completely invisible. Still, consciously or not, at this point in time The Spice Girls are the only pop stars I have any real interest in, no matter how many Ronan Keating stickers I grudgingly apply to my forehead.
> It should also be noted, if I can stop defensively sniping for just one frail second, that they were capable of beautiful songs. ‘Too Much’, the single that proved they could achieve a Christmas No.1 even when they were just sulking, has a swelling, wounded majesty, like Shirley Bassey walking over your grave in a bad mood ('What part of NO/Don’t you understand?''). ‘Goodbye’, in elegantly passive-aggressive style, treats the overlooked subject of broken friendship to a deservedly melodramatic chorus and a series of patronising sideswipes delivered like lullabies.
> ‘Viva Forever’, from their second and, to my mind, last album Spiceworld, is admirably bleak (thanks in part to the Aardman promotional video which captures a kind of inexplicably horrible nostalgia). It’s about loss, with lyrics so perfectly vague that you can simply insert your own sadness; about unexpectedly getting what you want, losing it as quickly as it came, and then innocently “waiting” for it to come back, like a dog at a grave. It’s an experience we’re all doomed to repeat, from falling in and out of love with a band, to the end of childhood, to clattering our way around the twin worlds of romance and heartbreak, all the while confusing love songs for real life:
“Yes, I still remember
Every whispered word
The touch of your skin giving life from within
Like a love song that I’d heard”
> It is the year 2000. I am a slightly thinner, but still for some reason bowl-cutted 11-year-old. I continue quietly subscribing to the Spice Girls fan club magazine, which -combined with hours of silent lurking on vegetarian message boards and a stubborn refusal to learn anything in speech therapy - might make me the most socially ill-prepared pupil in my new secondary school. But soon I will let go completely, thanks to the new album with its doomed title (Forever) and poorly contrived attempts at airport-lounge R’n’B (‘Goodbye’ notwithstanding); the four remaining Spice Girls wear matching designer bin-liners and have identikit poker-straight hair; they make the fatal mistake of growing up, and my interest dies.
Pop music wastes lives as it saves them. I will go through these cyclical fixations in one form or another for the rest of my life, through happy times and (more so) sad times. Spice was the prototype, the one to thank/blame/thank, and my introduction to fandom: the strange joy of desiring, reaching, taking and discarding that helps us to create our truest, most synthetic selves.
Text: Lisa Jones