So tell me what you want / What you really, really want…
On July 7, 1996 these iconic lyrics rang through the UK for the very first time. It’s difficult now to imagine a time when the entire world wasn’t familiar with the chorus to the Spice Girl’s first hit “Wannabe,” but it was all a risk at the time. So much so, that a few weeks before the song came out, a music video for it — which was directed by a Swedish commercial director named Johan Camitz — was released to test the waters.
In the now-infamous clip, the five women tear through the St. Pancras Chambers in London like a tornado, nothing short of a metaphor locked in a feminist time capsule. Five women storming through a stuffy setting, throwing papers and behaving badly is who these women were, and more importantly — who they were to pop music.
This rebellious, groundbreaking behavior would become characteristic for the girls, five women determined to use pop music to run down what they really, really wanted, at all costs. This was not the way the genre had traditionally been used for and by women, but even if they had come together via a label-hosted casting call, the Spice Girls had their own ideas.
From their inception in 1994, it only took three years for the group to reach the peak of their enormous, improbable run in 1997. Their prime lasted through most of the late ’90s, until they lost member Geri Halliwell in 1998, and eventually went on hiatus in 2000. But what they accomplished in those years is nothing short of incredible: Five BRIT awards, three AMAs, three MTV Europe Music Awards, 80 million albums sold worldwide, and 9 number one singles in the UK alone.
In the ’90s, Scary, Baby, Ginger, Sporty and Posh Spice created a cultural epoch. Almost a quarter century after their initial debut, the success of the Spice Girls is still impacting pop music at large. Here’s a look back at their fascinating story, subsequent fall, and what their music means today.
How The Spice Girls Got In Formation
In February 1994, London-based management team Bob and Chris Herbert published an advertisement in The Stage, a British trade magazine:
“WANTED: R. U. 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance? R U streetwise, outgoing, ambitious, and dedicated? Heart Management Ltd are a widely successful music industry management consortium currently forming a choreographed, singing/dancing, all-female pop act for a recording deal. Open audition. Danceworks, 16 Balderton Street. Friday 4 March11am @ 5.30pm. Please bring sheet music or backing cassette.”
The music scene and overall cultural pull of women in 1990s pop culture was bleak before the Spice Girls. In fact, Hearst Management’s creation of the group was a response to the all-male, boy band-driven pop scene. Peter Lorraine, the Top Of The Pops editor credited with giving the girls their “spice” names,” told Vice, “There was a real lull when it came to female pop stars…If we put a female on the cover of Top Of The Pops magazine, our circulation would drop.” Of course, they were dead wrong.
One month later, 400 eager, dream-chasers filled the streets outside Danceworks on an impossible mission: To quell the boy band revolution. Eventually, Victoria Adams, Melanie Brown, Melanie Chisholm, Geri Halliwell and Michelle Stephenson were selected.
You might be wondering, who the hell is Michelle Stephenson? The supergroup that would come to find international fame as the Spice Girls went by the name Touch at first and originally didn’t contain Emma Bunton. Initially, the members of Touch moved into a house together to train, record, and meld. It sounds like a reality show premise, in hindsight, but while they recorded a few numbers — one of which being “Sugar And Spice” (you see where this is going) — the fit wasn’t right and Stephenson (who would have probably been called Mystery Spice) was fired.
In a 1998 documentary called Raw Spice, Stephenson insisted she wasn’t upset by the split, “though obviously the money would be nice.” She furthered, “I was not happy in the band…It was not the kind of music I wanted to be doing. It was very, very pop.” However, Christ Herbert, former manager of the Spice Girls, said Michelle was asked to leave because she didn’t fit in with the band. Taking her place was Bunton.
Taking Control And The Success Of 1996
Little did the girl’s first manager Chris Herbert know, Melanie wasn’t the only one the band thought they didn’t fit with. Soon, the five girls showed us their teeth for the very first time: They stole their master recordings from the management office and sought new management on their own. David Sinclair notes in his 2004 book, Wannabe: How The Spice Girls Reinvented Pop Fame: “Geri and the two Mels went to the management offices and, by means that remain unclear to this day, managed to retrieve the master recordings of their songs… Victoria and Emma, meanwhile, went to Trinity Studios to collect various odds and ends belonging to the group. They met up at a roundabout outside of Maidenhead and took off.”
This initial rebellion would foreshadow their entire career.
After weeks of convening in Geri’s Fiat Uno as their unofficial management office, the band (which was then called Spice) eventually found a home with Simon Fuller and signed their first major deal with Virgin Records in September 1995, where they officially became the Spice Girls. This moment was important; the Spice Girls took control of their brand and began heading in the culturally significant, feminist direction that would ultimately define their career.
From their early beginnings with their first single “Wannabe” in 1996, the song took on a life of its own. It crashed onto the charts at No. 3, quickly jumping to No. 1, where it would stay for four weeks in the U.S. and seven weeks in the UK. Surrounded by 1996 chart-toppers Boyzone, 3T, the Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC, the girls stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Wannabe” even made history — with that song the Spice Girls were the first female group to top the charts with their debut single. Eventually, it went to No. 1 in thirty countries, and sold over six million copies that year. These were Beatles numbers — and they were coming from girls making pop songs. In October of 1996, they released their second single “Say You’ll Be There,” followed by “2 Become 1” in December, both became number ones.
Their explosive debut album Spice was released that December. Spice was the highest selling album of 1997 in the U.S., selling 5.3 million units. That year, the album outsold Jewel’s Pieces Of You, Hanson’s Middle Of Nowhere, The Space Jam soundtrack, No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, and The Notorious B.I.G’s Life After Death. It was certified eight times platinum by the IFPI, and by the end of 1997, the Spice Girls were the biggest girl group in the world.
‘Girl Power’ And The Rise Of ’90s Feminism
After the surge of their massive commercial success in 1996, the girls began to build out something even more important — their image. On February 24th, 1997, the Spice Girls won two BRIT Awards and performed live on the awards show. It proved to be an important performance for the band — Geri Halliwell sported a tight and skimpy Union Jack dress. The dress soon became an iconic and controversial symbol of the Spice Girls; their music was only half the allure.
Their loud and fiery image continued to be a cultural shaping force at the highest levels. In May of ’97, the girls performed at the Prince’s Trust 21st anniversary concert. Breaching royal protocol, Scary and Ginger Spice planted kisses on Prince Charles’ cheeks. Halliwell even pinched his butt, infamously prodding, “You’re very sexy. We could spice up your life.”
The Spice Girls injected a new brand of feminism on an international scale. Jenny Stevens of Vice wrote extensively about their influence and spoke with Geri Halliwell (now Geri Horner) about it in 2016:
“Girl power was a mission…It was like, ‘We feel like this, and we believe there is a whole generation of girls who feel like this, too,'” she said in the interview. Geri also credits the band Shampoo as the origin of Girl Power for her. Stevens agreed, saying of Shampoo, “They were wild, rude, aggressive, and lazy…They were everything two teenage girls had been told they shouldn’t be.”
Ginger Spice didn’t just talk the talk, she strutted hard. Of their early days, Geri Halliwell mentioned, “Simon [Fuller] arranged a day out at the races to introduce us to everybody, all the media-type people. We thought it was funny because it was all stiff upper lip and we were just our normal selves and being really quite mad.” She continued, “Anyway, we jumped on the statue of that old horse, Desert Storm. I’ve got a great photo of us on it, and you can see the security guards in the background running towards us.”
Another part of their down-to-earth appeal came from the nicknames that Top Of The Pops editor Lorraine bestowed. Through word of mouth and a few articles in Top Of The Pops, other publications began calling the girls by their new nicknames; Emma Bunton as Baby, Melanie Chisholm as Sporty, Melanie Brown as Scary, Geri Halliwell as Ginger and Victoria Beckham as Posh.
The nicknames were another element that bonded the group as a unit. In Geri’s interview with Vice, she noted, “When I met the other girls, I was pursuing a career as a solo artist, but it suddenly occurred to me that there was something so powerful in the idea of ‘we’ — when women, or people in general, really support one another.”
Throughout the late ’90s, the Spice Girls continued to find insatiable success over the course of the next year and a half. Their second album, Spiceworld, was released November 3, 1997. It quickly became their second number one album. According to the Spice Girls’ official website, at this point in their career, they had “amassed enough sales for one out of every two people in Britain to own a Spice Girls album.” And if that wasn’t enough, their debut film Spiceworld was released on Boxing Day in 1997, amassing over $30 million in US sales. But as we know, nothing good lasts forever, and at the peak of their career, things started going awry, most notably, when Ginger Spice defected from the group.
On May 28, 1998 Geri Halliwell was mysteriously absent from the Spiceworld tour in Norway. She didn’t show up the following day at the next stop, either, and on May 31, Halliwell’s lawyer released her statement:
“Sadly I would like to confirm that I have left the Spice Girls. This is because of differences between us. I’m sure the group will continue to be successful and I wish them all the best! PS, I’ll be back.”
Obviously, the news was not well received. Prince Charles sent Geri a personalized letter expressing his disappointment. Shares in their record label, EMI, dropped by 10%. “For the first few shows it was really weird because I kept thinking, where is she?” said Mel C. on the band’s site. “We were just gutted, we couldn’t even get out of bed. You know, when you feel just so deflated, absolutely deflated. It was like you had just lost part of you, like a death.”
A couple months later, both Melanie Brown and Victoria Adams announced that they were pregnant. By August of ’98, the rumors hit a boiling point, and everyone wondered: Was it over? Are the Spice Girls breaking up? Despite a series of legal battles, and an obvious shadow hanging over the group, the girls stuck it out for another year and a half, and released an album without Halliwell, Forever, in late 2000.
Though Forever charted at No. 2 and went platinum, overall it was a notably different vibe for the group, and a notably different scale. Working with R&B producers like Darkchild — who gained notoriety for working with Ashanti, Destiny’s Child and Mary J. Blige — the girl’s music sounded very different. Fans noticed, and didn’t appreciate the growth. At odds with what the name promised, Forever would be the group’s last album for years. In December of 2000, they announced an indefinite hiatus to focus on their solo careers.
No one real reason was ever given for Halliwell’s decision to leave the Spice Girls, even now. Tensions and inner differences were the official word. In 2012 documentary The Spice Girls Story: Viva Forever, Mel C. confirms that Mel B. and Geri had a tumultuous relationship, citing their fierce arguments as a definite point of contention. “It’s no secret that [Geri] and Melanie had a very fiery relationship in the past,” she said. “They are the closest of all of the band. You know, they’re absolutely in each other’s pockets or they can fight like cat and dog.”
A popular fan theory is that Mel B. and Geri were actually romantically involved, which they lightly addressed in 2015 when Geri, Emma, Mel C. appeared on Alan Carr: Chatty Man and revealed that Geri and Mel B. used to sleep in the same bed when they all lived under one roof. When prodded by Carr if there was anything more than friendship, Mel C. glanced at Geri, saying, “We have asked questions about certain members of the [group],” to which Geri laughed and responded, “It’s all good!” Emma joked, “It’s an extension of our friendship.”
The Reunion And The Legacy
In 2007, fans did get some respite when the Spice Girls ended their lengthy hiatus with a world tour, a greatest hits album and a documentary. The tour racked up over $100 million in ticket sales and merchandise (proving that people who grew up with t-shirts, posters, books, dolls, CDs and something as seemingly silly and minuscule as a Spice Girls Chupa Chup lollipop, couldn’t get enough. The highlight: A 17-night residency at London’s infamous O2 Arena.
For the 2012 Olympics in London, the group went even bigger and rejoined once more for a splashy spectacle of a closing ceremony appearance.
In 2016, with the 20-year anniversary of “Wannabe” approaching, rumors natrually started to fly about another possible reunion tour, but Mel C. wasn’t keen on another round at that time. In an essay for Love Magazine that begins with, “It’s me, Sporty — the one who did the back flips, has the nineties tats and wore the trackie,” Mel C. divulges, “Look, I will be a Spice Girl until I die. But the continuous speculation on whether we will reform to celebrate 20 years of ‘Wannabe’ has been particularly exhausting.” She furthered, “Why can’t we just be remembered for our incredible achievements in the nineties?”
The question is an interesting one — when is it enough music and enough nostalgia? — but it’s a bit facetious because The Spice Girls’ and their dominance of the ’90s won’t be forgotten by millennials any time soon. Their impact on stars of today is stronger than ever, as new pop stars continually pay tribute to the group and add their own ideas to the concept of “Girl Power.” It’s alive in Ariana Grande’s nostalgic hair buns, peace signs, and platform boots. It’s still pushing boundaries with Lady Gaga’s loud, boisterous, costumed performance style; in 2016, Lady Gaga even told Heart FM’s Breakfast Show that she was a big fan in high school; “We used to do performances at school you know, for talent shows and stuff,” adding that she was always the Baby Spice of her friends group.
In 2013, Katy Perry described her Prism looks to Capital’s Kevin Hughes; “I’m basically taking a lot of my fashion cues from the Spice Girls.” And as recently as 2016, Adele joined James Corden in an episode of Carpool Karaoke and admitted, “It was a real important period of my life… Girl power and just five ordinary girls who did so well and just got out.” Not to mention present-day girl groups like Fifth Harmony and Little Mix, both of which have covered the Spice Girls to much fanfare.
The mere existence of the Spice Girls rocked the music scene in the 1990s in a way that can still be felt, and their feminist appeal struck chords culturally with women and girls around the world. Because of their vastly different personalities, it was easy to identify with one of them and feel included, seen, and enjoy a sense of togetherness. The Spice Girls helped instill the idea that no matter what, you deserved some shine, even if you were sporty, or scary, or somewhere in between. For some, the Spice Girls activated a feeling of belonging and a pride in female identity for the very first time. And their girl pride, girl power, and the formidable declaration that women everywhere should go out and get exactly what they want for themselves will be the eternal legacy of the Spice Girls.