Life In An Album I: Spice Girl's Wannabe
This article was first published in April 2016.
“Why do you like the Spice Girls so much?” I turned and looked at my father, who was driving our family’s gray Peugeot station wagon. Ever since we had moved to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, evening drives with him were one of my favorite things to do. Abuja was still a relatively new city at the time, with vast expanses of undeveloped land and mostly traffic-free streets. Sometimes we drove to the rich Minister’s Hill neighborhood, populated by top government officials, to take turns picking out our favorite mansions. Other times, we drove to a busy street not too far from our home, to buy little treats from street hawkers like fresh sugar canes and roasted corn. The hills that surround the entire city—visible even through the thick dust and fog of the harmattan season—always gave me a sense of calm. I don’t remember where we were going that day, but I remember studying my father’s face to see if he was still upset with me. You see, it was 1997, I was ten years old, and the Spice Girls were always getting me in trouble.
Growing up, my Pastor-parents did not allow secular music in our home. This was a crisis of sorts for me, because I was obsessed with the English pop group, the Spice Girls. Actually, obsession puts things mildly—the Spice Girls were my childhood idols bar none. After trying (and failing) for months to get my parents to lift their Spice Girls embargo, I became resourceful. I spent weekends in the homes of friends who had MTV. I traded Archie comic books with classmates for Spice Girl fan books. And on this particular occasion in question, I had taken my weekly allowance to the market, bargained with the hawkers who sold “Aba-made” (pirated) CDs, and secured my very own Spice Girls CD. I was quite proud of my prowess, until my father discovered the contraband CD and seized it. What I hated most about my parent’s method of discipline was how they would first read multiple scriptures from the Bible to convince me of the error of my ways, and then allow me to marinate in the guilt they had slathered on my soul.
As I looked at my father’s face that evening, I could tell he wasn’t upset anymore—just genuinely curious, so I responded enthusiastically: “Because they are the greatest singers of all time! Why don’t you like them Daddy?”
“Because their lyrics and outfits are not decent, Blessing.”
“But Daddy you listen to Kenny G! That’s secular music!”
“That’s jazz, Blessing. It doesn’t have any words!”
“But Daddy, how do you even know something is wrong with Spice Girls lyrics if you don’t listen to them? They are going to sing at my wedding.” He laughed hard. Nothing about it was funny to me.
“They will not be in vogue by the time you are old enough to get married. When I was about your age, there was a group called the Beatles. I never thought they would stop being popular but you haven’t even heard of them.”
“Just you wait and see Daddy... If I’m right, you will owe me ₦100,000!”
“So can I listen to them now?”
“Nice try, kiddo. The answer remains No.”
And so, to the drawing board I returned…
Spice Girls—two words that meant everything to millions of girls like me across the globe in the mid to late 1990s. Comprised of Melanie Brown (“Scary Spice”), Melanie Chisholm (“Sporty Spice”), Emma Bunton (“Baby Spice”), Geri Halliwell (“Ginger Spice”) and Victoria Beckham (“Posh Spice”); the Spice Girls are the best-selling girl group of all time, and one of the best selling pop groups in history. According to Zeba Blay, writing for the Huffington Post, the Spice Girls sold 80 million records worldwide, and made approximately $800 million through major endorsements with brands like Pepsi, Chupa Chups, Polaroid and Playstation. One of the most memorable aspects of the Spice Girl’s phenomenon is another two words: Girl Power.
‘Girl Power’ was the quintessential message of the Spice Girl brand. What was their Girl Power about? It was about authenticity. The Spice Girls were goofy, playful, and unapologetically so. In “Do It” they sang: “You gotta show what you feel, don’t hide/Come on and do it/Don’t care how you look, it’s just how you feel...” It was about diversity. From Baby Spice with her pigtails and girly dresses, to Scary Spice with her wild hair and leopard prints, the Spice Girls showed that beauty and femininity exist on a spectrum. It was about empowerment. As Sady Doyle reminds in Rookie Mag, there is a scene in the Spice Girl’s movie, Spice World, where Ginger Spice scars off a potential date by talking about feminism—and her friends all laugh at him. It was about ownership of their bodies: in “2 Become 1,” the group insisted that their sexual partners use protection. It was about celebrating motherhood (“Back then I didn't know why/Why you were misunderstood/So now I see through your eyes/All that you did was love/ Mama, I love you…”). But most of all: the Spice Girl’s girl power brand was about friendship. In “Wannabe,” their debut single, the group declared: “friendship never ends!” In “Love Thing,” they warned: “God help the mister, yeah God help the mister, that comes between me and my sisters.”
Some of my earliest memories of friendship revolve around the Spice Girls. At a time when puberty was upon me, there were the Spice Girls, making womanhood look fun and dominating the world as a group. I spent many childhood weekends staging Spice Girls concerts with my friends: our hairbrushes were our microphones, our boom boxes were our band, and our mirrors were our audience. I was often Scary Spice because she was the only Spice Girl with melanin skin. One summer though, my parents bought me a tracksuit, and you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t Sporty Spice. With the rear view mirror in full view, I trace the start of my passion for women’s rights to those carefree Spice Girls days.
Of course, in addition to parents like mine who were understandably not pleased by their tweenage daughters listening to sexually charged content, the Spice Girls had many critics. One of the main criticisms of the Spice Girl’s, was that they took girl power—a concept the underground feminist hardcore punk movement known as riot grrrl coined in the early 1990s—and made it a watered-downed product for sale. Their girl power was too commercial, too childish and too corny, the pundits protested. In my opinion, these characteristics were actually their strength. It was precisely because the Spice Girls were mainstream, marketable and politically neutral, that girls growing up in far corners of the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe, could relate to them.
Alas, my father was right: the Spice Girls were no longer a thing by the time I was old enough to get married and they did not sing at my wedding. Yes, they disbanded. Oh yes, this broke my heart. But: they left with a bang and with a legacy. As noted in the National Geographic, flaws notwithstanding, the Spice Girls achieved something quite revolutionary: they injected the message of gender equity into mainstream culture.
In 2012, I happened to be spending the night at the London flat of my childhood best friend, and we were watching the Summer Olympics closing ceremony, when the Spice Girls made a surprise performance (it was the most tweeted moment of the London Olympics). Like old times, we danced, and sang, and squealed. We were ten years old in Abuja again.
Continue this series HERE.