Those who don't get MTV might have believed they were safe. But those five perky, cartoonish faces were gleaming out from the pages of every magazine (with the exception of The Nation, and that's probably just because it doesn't print pictures). Eventually I for one just had to know -- who are the Spice Girls and how do I instinctively know that I hate them?

The quality of their music would be one logical reason -- the inescapable single "Wannabe" stuck rudely in my head after only one verse -- but it's actually a relatively minor irritant. Spice, the debut album from these British imports, is obviously a studio concoction; like Menudo and New Kids on the Block before them, the Spice Girls traffic in the kind of watered-down synth pop that provides a vapid but harmless backdrop for the more crucial matter of the way they look. They sing, they dance, they smile, and they are packaged and sold by a management team whose eyes are trained on the overabundant hormones of adolescents everywhere. Musically, the Spice Girls are no more or less offensive than their predecessors in the genre. The new twist, however, is that they're a feminist prefab singing-dancing-smiling pop group. This means that although the content of their songs is indistinguishable from any non-feminist prefab pop numbers (titles like "Say You'll Be There," "2 Become 1," and "If U Can't Dance" pretty much sum it up), the Spice Girls throw in a few catchy slogans to work that whole nutty, politically correct women's angle, and let the consuming public do the rest. For skeptics who still believe that being a feminist means you don't shave your legs, this CD must be a real eye-opener. From their photos, it's clear that the Spice Girls not only shave their legs, but they undoubtedly shout "Girl Power!" while they do it, thus making shaving a -- you know -- feminist act.

In fact, the Spice Girls seem to shout "Girl Power!" whenever they can, presumably to offset the fact that the group was assembled, in a cattle-call audition, as a female counterpart to British all-male pop groups like Take That and East 17 who have had a loyal teen audience in Britain for years. The gimmick of "Girl Power" is also calculated to mask the marketing of the Spice Girls as five sexual fantasies in one parcel, each one with her own nickname and corresponding personality. There's Posh Spice (sullen, stylish), Baby Spice (blond pigtails), Ginger Spice (redhead), Sporty Spice (wears big sneakers), and Scary Spice (she's black -- ooh, scary!). The liner notes unfold into pocket-size pinups, with each Spice on a different page, complete with a scribbled endearment to her adoring fans. ("Lots of Love, Emma XXX." Shouldn't there be some O's in there somewhere?)

The use of this Mattel-doll approach to promote the Spice Girls is none too surprising. Recall that New Kids on the Block eventually found their likenesses molded in plastic and shrunk into action figures. But trying to translate packaging into empowerment is ludicrous. It's as though their handlers doubted whether the concept of Take That with breasts would be enough to move the units -- although it surely would have been -- so they worked up a hip, clean-cut, effectively apolitical angle to distinguish the Spice Girls in theory. The reality remained Take That with breasts. I really don't care that the Spice Girls were created to chump sweaty boys out of their allowance money. What I do care about is that their saccharine image is being peddled under the auspices of female advancement.

The liner notes of Spice are liberally peppered with sayings like "It's a Girl's World," "She Who Dares Wins," and "It's a Girl Thang" -- cutesy fortune-cookie missives that stop short of actual feminist purpose by quite a few miles. I mean, what's a girl thang? An insipid ballad with lyrics like "Treat me right, all night/ Makes me feel good, like you should"? Don't get me wrong -- any pro-female sentiment within the music industry is fabulous, but when it's mouthed by a group of giggly things whose strings are pulled by their male managers, it undermines the potential power of such statements.

The self-promotional sloganeering of the group (one interview, in Britain's The Face, had one of the Spices identifying Margaret Thatcher as "the first Spice Girl"), as well as the current media-princess status they're enjoying, reads like a grotesque inversion of the riot grrrl mania that occurred a few years back. The riot grrrl movement was an influential, vital, and creative expression that, after the national media latched onto it and squeezed hard, became not much more than a descriptive catchall. Everyone from Kim Deal to Madonna was referred to as "the original grrrl." Now the media is again going wild, but in this case it's for the Spice Girls, whose album heralds, grrrl-style, a "Spice Revolution." Putting aside the horrifying thought that a Spice Revolution would entail more chants of "Tell me what you want, what you really really want," this sort of proclamation rings hollow when you've got a Spice Girl innocently explaining, as one of them did in The Face, that she doesn't vote because she doesn't know anything about politics. The Spice Girls' clueless appropriation of grrrl-esque battle cries to keep their Star Search-quality bubble gum out of the remaindered bin a few months longer is laughable. But it's working -- and that's depressing.

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