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Yes, We’re Finally Talking About the Spice Girls

T.J., here.

When Frankie recommended writing about the Spice Girls this week, I kind of cringed. The Spice Girls? Really? I made fun of them when I was 12!

But I’m the same guy who adores the idealism of Full House, the charm of Boy Meets World and of course the corniness that is Saved By The Bell. Who am I to be a pop culture snob when I love such…crap.

So to ignore The Spice Girls and “Girl Power” would be wrong.

“I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want
So tell me what you want, what you really, really want
I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha)
I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah
If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.”

Get with your friends? Wouldn’t that ruin the relationship?

I digress. The legendary Spice Girls were formed in 1994 comprised of Posh Spice (The future and current Mrs. David Beckham), Scary Spice (Melanie Brown), Baby Spice (Emma Bunton aka TJ’s favorite Spice Girl), Sporty Spice (Melanie Chisolm) and Ginger Spice (The one and only Geri Halliwell).

The above lyrics are from “Wannabe” their mega hit released in 1996 that spawned their run in the mid-to-late 90s. That debut album Spice sold 28 million copies, making it the best-selling album by a female group in music history.

Overall, they’ve sold 75 million records worldwide good to make them the best-selling female group of all time. Those numbers are impossible to ignore and it’s not hyperbole when the numbers back it up.

In the era of the ring tone hit and the digital download it seems impossible for today’s newly released music to make the same impact. So it’s a little jarring to see how many records the Spice Girls have sold through the years and the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue they brought in.

My first big recollection of the group was in 6th grade. Pop culture wise, two things stand out that year; Titanic and The Spice Girls. I didn’t get the big fascination with the girls from England, but the girls in my class were all about them (Things you pretend to tolerate because of the opposite sex).

Frankie Thirteen: I Blame Blockbuster Video.
I was at my local Blockbuster with my family on a Saturday in the summer of 1997. I was sixteen at the time and glancing around the video game section when I heard them: five processed female voices singing in carefully manufactured harmony. I looked up at the nearest video monitor, and there they were, five women in tight black outfits, stomping through the desert and shooting things. It was the “Say You’ll Be There” video, and this was the first time I really caught a glimpse of the Spice Girls.

I guess you could say I was late to the party–after all, “Wannabe” had already broken big here in the States, catapulting the Spice Girls to the top of the charts almost instantly. I’d certainly heard of the Spice Girls, or at least heard talk of them. But watching that video for the first time, I knew I was immediately crushing–mainly on the redhead, Geri aka Ginger Spice.
I don’t know if I actually admitted this to anyone. I may have, as I’m terribly cavalier with many of my own secrets. But for a brief period, I enjoyed the Spice Girls. Yes, it was as much the presentation as it was the music, undoubtedly more so, but it was a genuinely infectious package as a whole. Catchy songs and hot women with attitude? Sure, sign me up. More than anything, the Spice Girls seemed to be selling fun, the idea that all you need in life are your best friends and good times.

My infatuation with them didn’t last very long. Once “2 Become 1” dropped, I jumped off the Spicebus. Hated, haaaaaated that song. I still don’t care for it very much. But, well, the girls weren’t built for longevity anyway, not the sort that every artist truly desires.

Word broke this week that the highly-anticipated (?) musical Viva Forever, based on the music of the Spice Girls, would debut in England this fall. It comes from the producer of Mamma Mia, which of course is based on the music of ABBA. It reminded us that nearly 15 years ago, during the peak of “Girl Power,” they decided to capitalize on their fame and massive success with a major motion picture. Music artists making movies was nothing new. Elvis had done it and of course, The Beatles did it with A Hard Day’s Night and influenced the Spice Girls movie venture, Spice World.

It was January 1998 and the United States was hit with Spice World. It was nonsensical, ridiculous, over the top and similar adjectives. It tells the story of the events leading up to a Spice Girls concert, the biggest one yet, at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

They deal with the pressures of fame, a newspaper that seeks to destroy their reputation, a film crew who wants to make a documentary about them, George Wendt and Mark McKinney as Hollywood writers, all while trying to hang out with their pregnant best friend Nicola. That’s a lot to deal with!

No surprise, it was a “favorite” at the Razzies, each girl winning the award for Worst Actress. It would also be nominated for Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, and other “Worsts.” It has a solid 29 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Roger Ebert gave it a half-star rating.

Critical opinion of Spice World was amazingly scornful, and at the time, it wasn’t hard to see why.

Pop star movies had an uphill climb anyway: Britney Spears’ Crossroads was financially successful but critically reviled a few years later, and we still haven’t entirely lived down the Fat Boys’ sole cinematic venture, Disorderlies. Fact is, you had a big, glossy production hung on a rail-thin plot and built around a group of non-actors thrust into starring roles. I don’t care if you are playing yourself, it’s just not a good formula.

Spice World, however, was never forgotten. In fact, its reputation has only grown in the intervening years, with some actually claiming it’s a pop culture satire on par with 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats.  For others, it’s just comforting piece of nostalgia, while others still have always loved it from the start. So with that, With that, I decided to take a look myself, to see if I slept on an unsung classic.
Turns out I didn’t.  Spice World isn’t very good, and certainly not as biting as Josie and the Pussycats. Still, it’s infectiously energetic for all its other flaws, and has a few good jokes scattered here and there. That doesn’t change the fact that Spice World is carefully polished propaganda created by and starring the Spice Girls and their handlers, specifically future American Idol mastermind Simon Fuller.

That’s not to say it’s entirely without merit. Spice World is an attempt to give the “Girl Power” generation its own A Hard Day’s Night, and it works at times when the girls are just shown chilling on their bus, playing chess, and joking around with each other. They have a natural presence that helps cover up their shortcomings as actresses, but only to a point. When they’re thrown into contrived situations and forced to play off of more experienced actors, it feels understandably forced. (Even the bits where they try to make time for their “best friend” Nicola–played by Torchwood‘s Naoko Mori–fail to ring true every time.)

Perhaps a documentary would have suited them well–certainly the filmmakers entertained that notion by casting Alan Cumming as an overzealous director looking to make his own Spice Girls doc.

Cumming (who also starred–to greater effect–in Josie and the Pussycats) is one in a long list of notable faces who pop up in the film. Right off the bat, you’ve got Cumming shadowing the girls while Elton John stops by to say hello. Meat Loaf appears as their tour bus driver (and gets an obvious, but funny line when asked to fix the tour bus toilets). Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien plays a sinister photographer hired to discredit and destroy the group, while Roger Moore is their enigmatic and demanding label head, playing a character clearly patterned after Bond’s old nemesis Blofeld. Hell, I even spotted future The Wire star Dominic West playing a fashion photographer.

And George Wendt and Mark McKinney have the most meta roles in the whole film as a pair of screenwriters trying to pitch ideas for a Spice Girls movie to their manager Clifford (Richard E. Grant, putting more effort into this than anyone else in the cast). All of their ideas are crap until McKinney starts pitching the very movie we’re watching, and describes the last act as it happens. It seems clever at first, but it really isn’t that clever, except for a brief jab at their budgetary limitations.
Spice World isn’t a great movie by any stretch, and is barely a good one, but it’s inoffensive enough to satisfy Spice Girls fans (and yeah, there are still a lot of them). The celebrity cameos aren’t too bad, and a lot of the established cast members try to throw some of their comic weight behind the endeavor. I get the feeling it was a lot of fun for some of them to make. (Wendt told The AV Club once that he had a grand old time riffing with Grant and McKinney, though he never actually met the Spice Girls.) And for all their artifice, the girls have the sort of innocent ribaldry that artists like Katy Perry still try to master. They’re certainly unattainable, but not so much in the aloof sexpot sense (except for Posh, obviously). They’re sexy without being aggressively sexual (though Baby Spice is…a troublesome topic best discussed by wiser writers), though they certain acknowledge their sex appeal as key to their success. (As they rhyme in one scene, “We know how we got this far/strength and courage/and a wonderbra!”)

Even with all the negative reviews, and many saying, “I can’t believe I was into them!” when talking about The Spice Girls now, their significance cannot be ignored. Those who are in their 20s and 30s now are the ones who were screaming like crazy for them in the late 90s. If our generation wasn’t so into them, then they wouldn’t be so memorable today.

Yes, and that’s why Viva, Forever is going to make tons of money, and likely even spin off its own movie. It’s why we keep doing this column.

Because sooner or later, someone will resurrect everything you ever loved as a child so you can throw more money at it. Viva, Forever is going to make a ton of money on stage, and should that happen, it’ll be made into a movie.

I get the feeling the Spice Girls are going to be around in some form or another for a while.

Maybe it’s not the worst thing.

But I’ve learned there aren’t that many people I know ashamed to admit they liked or still like the Spice Girls.

Even I can admit it: once upon a time, I was into them.

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