It's war - for the hearts of Britain's 11-year-olds

Vanessa Thorpe attempts to stay neutral in the battle between the Spice Girls and upstarts All Saints

TAKE THAT had its East 17, Blur had its Oasis and the Beatles had the Stones. It followed, then, as night the day, that the Spice Girls would be challenged.

Step forward the slinky, slightly sulky All Saints, the newcomers who signalled the start of the Spice Wars earlier this month by winning the Brit music award for best single.

Even now the four young members of this new girl band are threatening to eclipse entirely the Spice quartet by the middle of the summer.

Phoney wars between bands have broken out in the music press many times before but, as the hype around the groups concerned takes its familiar shape, it is harder than ever to pinpoint the source of the putative ruck. The members of the bands scarcely know one another.

So far the row centres on allegations that the Spice Girls deliberately turned up late to collect their special award at the Brits in order to upstage All Saints. And in response to the continuing international success of Spiceworld: The Movie, an extended All Saints video is planned.

James Fisher, the general secretary of the music industry's International Managers' Forum, thinks the band managers are largely innocent of hyping up the competition. "People just seem to like to see this rivalry," he says. "I don't think a strong manager would be interested in simply creating one though. They are more interested in building up a genuine fan base. But on the other hand I don't think any one of them is going to say that the publicity is going to harm their band."

You can be fairly certain too that Ferdinand de Saussure did not have the battle between Britain's girl bands in mind when he set out his linguistic theory of difference, but the same principles apply. We can only ever know what something is by understanding what it is not. And the four members of All Saints are definitely not the Spice Girls. In playgrounds across the country, if you love the All Saints and their soulful number one Never Ever, you are, by definition, no longer a Spice fan.

The London Records management team behind All Saints is banking on the fact that most of Britain, in particular its 11-year-old girls, is by now bored by the Union Jack-emblazoned, up-front tactics of Girl Power. All Saints style, in comparison, is subdued, almost sophisticated.

"All Saints are charming, while the Spice Girls have just got too arrogant," according to Matthew Wright, The Mirror columnist who thrives on such musical popularity contests. "I would say that the Spice Girls are 100 per cent manufactured, whereas All Saints are probably about 35 per cent manufactured."

It is true that All Saints formed in a more organic fashion. Mel Blatt and Shaznay T Lewis were working together as session singers when they were asked to form a band. They then approached their old friends from drama school, the sisters Natalie and Nicole Appleton. Yet Spice fans argue that the All Saints lack the spunky personalities of the orginal girl band.

"The Spice Girls are still bigger than anything," says Clive Banks who manages Babylon Zoo, Paul Young and Mike Oldfield. "All Saints are very nice, with nice songs. But the Spice Girls are still an absolute phenomenon, in the same way that Elton or The Beatles were enormous."

Mr Banks also warns managers away from manufacturing publicity stunts. "You can only fail by playing that sort of game," he says. "You stay out of it all if you have any sense, because it goes out of your control very quickly. I think the only people who take it really seriously are the schoolgirls in the playground."

So is it all a marketing scam aimed at the parents of young children? Nigel King, a child psychologist and senior lecturer at Huddersfield University, suspects so. "The girl and boy bands are now so carefully put together and marketed. They are immediately appealing to young children. The pop industry seems to have realised that the pre-teen market is far more valuable than they once thought."

PR consultant Max Clifford concedes that the rivalries between bands that he has followed since the days when he worked for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are often fabricated, but he also believes they are none the worse for that: "They freshen up the business. For 18 months the Spice Girls have had no competition. It's healthy that All Saints should come along to challenge them. It's only in two years' time that we will find out if either has any real staying power."

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