The teenies vote for snog 'n' run

Taking the Spice Girls seriously is like asking how the Power Rangers will vote
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The Independent Online
The success of a well-known all-female British pop group in scoring four number-one hits in a row as well as hitting number one in America has led certain sad, wizened wrinklies to ask, is this not a world-historical event? Whenever, since the heyday of the Andrews Sisters or the Beverley Sisters or indeed the sainted Vernon Girls (sponsored by Vernon Pools back in the 1950s) did such a thing happen? Where are the girl groups of yesteryear? Or even this year, for that matter?

A cursory inspection suggests that female groups have always been relatively thin on the ground. Our battered copy of 1963 And All That points to a volcanic eruption of female vocal talent at the start of the 1960s: the Crystals, the big, brassy, inimitable Phil Spector sound, then over in Detroit the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and the rest of the Motown stable.

Then silence. Silence for decade after decade: the Seventies, the Eighties. Somewhere in the Eighties a band called Bananarama sprang up, had a string of hits, got bad-mouthed and scorned and ridiculed, begat Shakespear's Sister. And that, until the dawning of the age of Ziga-zig-ah, was about that.

It's one of the little jokes history likes to play. The Sixties comes along, sexual equality gets on to the political agenda, women begin making incursions into industry and parliament and journalism and the law; God the Father becomes "Creator God". Then just to prove that things aren't quite that simple, rock'n'roll, quintessential youth art form of the age, turns out to be the most male-dominated, male chauvinistic phenomenon since the Mongol hordes.

When female pop groups do occasionally appear, they are all too obviously manufactured, and they have the life expectancy of buttercups. Remember The Toys, anyone? Well I do, but only for one song, "Symphony of Love" (the tune was nicked from Bach). The Shirelles sang "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", which had the rare distinction of also being written by a woman (Carole King). It's a great song. But to place any of these groups in the same company as the Beatles, the Stones or the Smiths would be absurd.

Charlotte Greig begs to differ. In her book about female groups (called Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and published by Virago) she asserts that there were lots of girl groups making good music - Patty LaBelle and the Bluebelles is one name that springs to her mind - but the pop music press snobbishly ignored them, partly because many of the groups were black, partly because the press was infatuated with Genesis, Queen, and all things Progressive.

The Eighties were even worse. "When I was writing the book in the Eighties, Bananarama was the only girl group around," she says now, "and everyone was really foul about them, calling them bimbos and so on."

Of course, once you start scratching around it soon becomes clear that girl groups have been around for as long as rock'n'roll has existed, but they have never done well enough to make it really big.

Historians point to the Californian group The Runaways, a glamrock fantasy band of the Seventies, or Girlschool, a heavy metal outfit of the same decade, who had a hit with Motorhead, "Please Don't Touch", which archaeologists of rock still drool over. In Britain there were female punk groups such the Raincoats and the Slits, "real Notting Hill" as one fan remembers fondly; the frontwoman was a German Rastafarian called Ari Upp, daughter of a count. Yet the footnotes of musical history is where, rightly or wrongly, these acts have ended up.

Then came Madonna, and after her success, and particularly after the way she spun it out and transformed her appeal year after year, things for girls in pop were never going to be the same again. She bestrides the age, and one-hit wonders and four-hit wonders alike creep about in her shadow.

Charlotte Greig again: "Madonna was doing something a bit new, bringing a lot of hip-hop, Latino and gay disco music into the mainstream." She also popularised what one commentator styles the "roaring girl" feminism that is such a striking feature not only of the Spice Girls but also of their rivals, such as Eternal, Shampoo, En Vogue, and the new sensation from Sunderland, Kenickie. She paved the way for the "snog'n'run" culture which the Spice Girls champion, the "strange mixture", according to another observer, "of sensitivity with in-your-face assertiveness; the subliminal message of romance - you get your boy by not giving a stuff about boys. The pose is yo-yo knickers, but the reality is they're quite straight." Evidence: both Madonna and Geri Halliwell, the so-called "Sexy Spice", lost their virginity at the incredibly advanced age of 18 (and both to disc jockeys).

The general shape of the argument is becoming clear. Girlie pop (we're allowed to use such terms again, it seems) eked out a miserable half-life in the lee of the male variety for 40-odd years, but now at last has discovered the heady mix of assertion, frivolity and fun which can set it free. This is why we are right to eschew the sort of snobby attitudes brought to bear on Bananarama and the like, and instead to submit the Spices' latest single to exegetical analysis quite as stringent as that applied to last week's Premier League matches.

There is another possible view, however. The Spice Girls' success, according to these heretics, is down to the fact that (thanks to the telly) they have tens of thousands of fans as young as four or five, for whom they are fully articulated Barbie dolls, and who badger their parents into buying the CDs. For slightly older fans, up to puberty, their dumpy looks and frumpy clothes are comfortingly reminiscent of what they see in the mirror. The groups' vast success, they say, is above all a reflection of how the pop music market has fragmented into dozens of niches, among which the teeny weeny boppers may be as big as any.

Taking the Spice Girls seriously, in other words, is tantamount to enquiring how the Power Rangers are planning to vote. It is a category error. Perhaps the old contempt for bubble-gum music is ripe for a revival.