If I want to locate people in a room who are roughly my age, I put on “Wannabe”. Like out-of-date eggs rising to the top of a pan full of water, it swiftly clears out everyone bar those who were kids or early teens in 1996. And I get it — even those of us who love the song wouldn’t claim that it’s a work of musical genius. It isn’t.
Neither is the video, which seems held together with good faith and a bag of hair scrunchies. But to criticise “Wannabe” as “bad” (or, more often, “intensely irritating”) is to misunderstand its magic. You’re not pointing out to fans anything we don’t already know. Its DIY charm is the reason we adore it.
Other than the birth of the Spice movement (as history books ought to remember it – “Wannabe” was released on 8 July), 1996’s music scene was dominated by men: “Three Lions” was on every radio station, Oasis sold out Knebworth – and even bands who made headlines as their careers petered out (such as Take That – before the reunion at least) were formed by men. Other notable hits came from Mark Morrison, George Michael, The Prodigy and Peter Andre.
Not that these artists don’t have (mostly) excellent songs, but there wasn’t much for a 9-year-old girl, who couldn’t yet get her head around rubber-clad dancers, prison references, or oiled-up six-packs.
There could also be a distinct lack of humour with some of these performers. In March, Status Quo took BBC Radio 1 to court for not playing their single “Fun Fun Fun” (they lost, as the station’s audience apparently found the song Dull Dull Dull), while Robson and Jerome somehow managed to hit the top spot with two albums of dreary covers. Then there was Michael Jackson dressed like Jesus at the Brit Awards (albeit with Jarvis Cocker providing some levity). Say what you like about the Spice Girls, but they were never afraid to send themselves up.
Where we’d previously had two modes of boy band (tightly choreographed/seated until key change) here were five relatable girls bursting onto our TVs like school had just closed for the summer. The “Wannabe” video is “muck up” day energy writ large: they’re one step away from scrawling “don’t 4get me in college, luv ya” on each other’s sweatshirts, or sticking wadded up loo roll on the canteen’s ceilings.
One criticism routinely hurled at Spice-fans, is that the band was manufactured, which contains only a kernel of truth. They did all apply for a band role following an advert, but the men behind the operation weren’t trying to create the Spice Girls as we know them. Their aim was a slick, soul band – with the unspeakably naff moniker: Touch.
Even when the girls had left that company, and signed with a more sympathetic label, the record execs weren’t keen on “Wannabe” as a single. But trying to get the Spice Girls to do anything that didn’t feel true to them was like trying to stopper Mount Vesuvius with a Chupa Chup.
It’s amazing to me, still, that in their late teens and early twenties, they all had such a strong sense of personal style in the “Wannabe” video (which, contrary to opinion, wasn’t brewed up in a lab to appeal to maximise consumers — just the normal differences between five randomly selected young show-offs).
There’s Mel C in her tracksuit bottoms, Mel B in vivid lime green, Emma in a baby doll dress, and Victoria in one of a thousand identical LBDs. Geri, meanwhile, ever the non-conformist, bought a sequined leotard from Notting Hill Market, and even then wore it backwards. This wasn’t the result of a team of stylists, this was what British girls looked like when they had £20 in their back pockets from a Saturday job, and confidence to zig-a-zig-ah.
It’s hard to remember, at a distance of 25 years, after parodies, reunion tours, and knock-off Union Jack dresses, what a breath of fresh air the Spice Girls were for so many of us.
They might not be to your taste, but the impact of “Wannabe,” and their subsequent hits, is undeniable. If you find the song irritating, it’s because it wasn’t written for you – it was for us. I hope to still be dividing rooms with it in another 25 years.
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