"TRUST JESUS OR BURN IN HELL" read the sign just outside the gates to the Shoreline Amphitheater. And the man who was holding it was being, like, no fun at all. "There is no Girl Power!" he cried, as anxious mothers hurried their children forward. "There is only God power!" Well, fine, but Jesus and the disciples haven't staged a tour for nearly 2,000 years now. There've been rumors of a comeback for some time, but the Spice Girls have taken the initiative and hit the summer sheds. While they may not be bigger than Jesus, as John Lennon once said of the Beatles -- the pope's still a good draw, even though he doesn't charge $65 a head for the best seats -- they have marketing power and ways to convert the masses. Think cross-media bankrolling, Mr. Jesus-Sign Guy. Think synergy.
Lennon caught, um, hell for his Jesus remark, but the Spice Girls do share some common ground with the Beatles, something that goes a bit deeper than the ubiquitous Fab Five references -- now they are indeed a Fab Four with the midtour departure of Geri "Ginger" Halliwell, Got-Out-While-the-Getting-Was-Good Spice. Though there's an obvious gap in the talent department, the Spice Girls plan for world domination functions much like the Beatles' early transcontinental approach, and it's a marketing style that few acts would dare to attempt anymore. Their two records, Spice and Spice World, are structured like rock records were in the '60s and '70s: About 45 minutes long, they're hits-plus-filler collections with the big hits up front and no pretenses about rock-as-art. (You see, kids, back when your parents were your age, there weren't CDs, so records were short and music critics didn't shed tears of exhaustion when they got to what would be Side J on a vinyl album.) The Spice Girls make un-self-conscious, breezy songs that romanticize an older pop milieu; two of Spice's perkiest moments, "Say You'll Be There" and "If U Can't Dance," feature the hiss and snap of a well-worn 45rpm single as part of the mix.
Prepackaged groups haven't disappeared in the '90s, of course, but they always do their work under some banner of art and talent, as if to justify their chart-climbing crassness: Boyz II Men can sing, Hanson can play their instruments, and the Backstreet Boys ... well, at least they have dashing good looks and model-ready figures, and heck, Milli Vanilli could at least dance professionally. The Spice Girls aren't plain-looking, but they're certainly not supermodels. They don't sing or dance terribly well, and the music-playing duties are left to others, dressed in black and hidden in the stage's cubbyholes. All the Spice Girls have is their Spice-ness, and a hope that it's enough to get to the masses, which it has been; they're unique in that their chart-climbing crassness carries no justifications along with it. While hipsters today take some amusement out of old Monkees episodes, no hipster ever expected a group to take the Monkees' route to stardom in the late '90s, let alone become successful at it. Because the Spice Girls (or their handlers) make no apologies for being upbeat and image-conscious, the critical response has been a search for deep meanings, or at least good dirt. But that's not the Spice Girls' problem; when they opened their concert with "If U Can't Dance," slinking about the stage in simple choreography, deep meaning wasn't the point. After all, who was burdening the Supremes with post-feminist theory in 1964? Who was floating an epistemology of Donna Summer in 1978? Who was writing lengthy think pieces about Bananarama in 1984?
Not a damned soul, that's who. As perky popsters, the Spice Girls are critic-proof. They don't have to perform well to put on a "great" concert; all they have to do is show up. All that matters in Spice World are the massive sales numbers, and besides, criticizing a group that 10-year-olds like is music journalism's equivalent of clubbing baby seals. Still, the Girls' two-hour show at the Shoreline was a surprisingly dull disappointment. Part of the problem is the music itself, certainly. They have their share of grand pop hits: In the year 2025, when Rhino Records releases Pre-Millennium Tension: Greatest Hits of the Pre-World War III Era, the force-of-nature giggle-pop "Wannabe" and Motown homage "Stop" will be the first to be called. But there's a lot of filler in the hits-plus-filler world that the four Spice Girls (Posh, Scary, Sporty, Baby) have reclaimed for themselves, and the show's 18 songs were ballasted with lengthy codas. When it's a lightweight throwaway like their ersatz Andrews Sisters rehash "The Lady Is a Vamp," it's slightly endearing, but overblown ballads like the goopy "Mama" are painful.
The real problem, though, is that the Spice Girls' true asset is personality -- there're four flavors to choose from, pick the one you like best. Overscripting and perhaps too low an opinion of their fans' attention span left little time to exploit their freewheeling images; the sole unscripted moment came when Posh observed between songs that an insect had flown down her dress. By contrast, their film Spice World (as well as some of the records' better moments) positively oozed personality. Part of the fun of the movie was watching how much fun they were having spoofing themselves (along with A Hard Day's Night), cavorting in a double-decker bus, cackling at partygoers, being catty, assisting with a pregnancy. In other words, the Spice Girls were human beings on film, while onstage they're animatronic dolls jerking about in an ever-changing array of Crayola-colored outfits. They got to jump around a bit during a relatively excited take on Eurythmics' "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves" and the Pepsi-shilling "Move Over," but mostly they hit their cues.
Right, right -- like the 10-year-olds cared, or even had anything to judge it against. For them, the show was smartly structured as a "starter concert" -- they'll learn about getting thrown up on at hole-in-the-wall rock clubs soon enough. So there were no sudden moves or loud noises, and pity the poor little boy who was pulled onstage by Baby as she sang the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go," for a brief moment the most embarrassed human being in the world. ("This one's for all my babies in the audience!") Spice World the Tour is, in truth, a television show, complete with ads on the video screens during the half-hour intermission, pushing things like lipstick and blackhead-removing strapping tape. The concert even has some semblance of a plot. The Spice Girls have this spaceship ("Spice, the final frontier," said the voice over the opening video -- actually William Shatner's, as the end credits noted), which occasionally lands to unleash the Spice Girls to the masses along with an unmoving backup band and cache of buff male dancers.
They produce sets to play-act in; in the cafe scenery of their R-E-S-P-E-C-T-demanding pop ditty "Denying," Scary likes to play cards with the boys, but Posh is a more enigmatic, flirty sort. Then after finishing with their final proclamation of Girl Power and positivity, a cover of Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," a disembodied voice informs the Girls that it's time to go. Doors open, and they act as if they're being pulled by an invisible force but are trying hard to resist; do they not want to leave, or is there something bad going on inside the ship? Perhaps the catering's no good? The buff dancing boys a little too pushy? Maybe an angry Ginger has snuck inside and wants a word with them? No matter: The girls are sucked in and the spaceship's off again. Roll credits (the Spice Girls have six caterers, according to the video screen).
Oddly, all of this was watched by many of the 10-year-olds with a sort of detachment. The Spice Girls' forays into synth-soul, disco-funk, and Latin pop are beaty enough, but few of the youths in the audience were dancing much, though they filled the between-song silences with solid screeching. Mostly they watched the show in the same way everybody watches television: eyes slightly glazed and rigid, mouth slightly open, patient and passive, attentive to the Spice Girls' movements but not particularly engaged with them. The video images on the screen are a constant glow of flash and color, featuring clips of Spice Girls videos. Charitably enough, Ginger's actually still in some of them. Why? Well, kids, it's because friendship never ends. That heart-to-heart chat about how expensive it is to re-edit video footage in the middle of a tour, that discussion about how pop stars like Ginger often ditch the band they got famous with to focus on synergistic avenues of cross-marketing promotion -- it can wait.