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It’s A Spice World, And I’m Just Living In It

It’s Weird ’90s Week on Stereogum. All week long we’re looking at the strangest musical moments and trends of the decade. Check out more here.

Before the Spice Girls, England had the Beatles. There were, obviously, other musical exports in the 40-plus years that separated the two, but none with comparable international draw. When the Spice Girls released their debut single “Wannabe” in 1996, it climbed to the #1 spot in 37 different countries. From there, they became a massive international force to be reckoned with. Nelson Mandela told the press that the Spice Girls were his “heroes” when he and Prince Charles met the band in 1997. They were massive, Britain’s biggest export, the center of many a pre-tween galaxy. In 1997, pop music orbited the “Fab Five,” and nowhere is that dominance on better display than in the Bob Spiers-directed film Spice World.

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At best, Spice World is a time capsule. At worst, it’s a terrible movie. There are many films associated with teen culture in the ’90s that bastardized and exaggerated trends to preserve them for posterity. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is an excellent example of a film that takes cultural tropes of an era and parodies them to create something timeless. When I wrote about that film on its 20th anniversary, I noted that all teen films are designated relics the moment they’re released. These films preserve trends, and when well-executed, we are able to watch them and look back on a decade with fondness. Spice World, on the other hand, is the kind of film you watch now and think to yourself: What the fuck was even happening in 1997 that allowed this movie to exist? That very question is what makes Spice World one of the weirdest artifacts of the era. It’s a film that couldn’t be released at any other moment, a relic easily lost to the mists of time.

The same year Spice World was released, Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) wore a Union Jack dress to the BRIT Awards. It was an iconic moment. That dress came to symbolize the girl group’s rapid ascendance to international fame, and in turn, England’s ascendance to mainstream pop relevancy under a new leader, Tony Blair. But unlike the Beatles or even Oasis, the Spice Girls didn’t have a charming rags-to-riches origin story. They were industry plants in the most respectable sense of the term: a girl group fabricated by the British firm Heart Management in 1994, made to combat the male-dominated Britpop groups that came to define the decade. Halliwell, Melanie Brown (Scary Spice — whose moniker was only one of many problematic things about the band), Melanie Chrisholm (Sporty Spice), Emma Bunton (Baby Spice), and Victoria Beckham, fka Victoria Adams (Posh Spice), met after they auditioned for a group originally named Touch. No one is born a Spice Girl, and the Fab Five spent most of ’94 training to become the sensational group they were conceived to be.

For anyone who grew up with the Spice Girls, this information is fairly irrelevant. They were icons, who cares why? There’s no magic to be found in a Wikipedia entry. Theirs is riddled with facts and figures, mentions of their mega-gazillionaire manager Simon Fuller (who also created American Idol), contracts, and sponsorship deals. The Spice Girls had their own dolls, they promoted Domino Sugar, they had a multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal with Pepsi. Spice World came accompanied by a PlayStation video game. Each of these tidbits proves fascinating to adults, but none of it’s intriguing to kids. And the Spice Girls were, after all, designed for us.

I heard the Spice Girls’ music for the first time when I was in the first grade, but I don’t count listening to “Wannabe” as a transformative moment. For someone so young, their music was, by and large, negligible R&B-inflected pop that occasionally verged on watered-down hip-hop. However, the Spice Girls did influence me in one very particular way: They informed the way I wanted to be when I was older. I could look up to them as the cool older sisters I didn’t have, the prototypes of women that I could one day aspire to being. It was like an entry-level course on how to look and behave like an older kid, a trend piece that introduced me to my aspirations before I could tie my shoes, let alone wear platforms.

Spice World introduced us to each of the Spice Girls as caricatures. Baby was a favorite of mine, because she literally carried around a pacifier, and since I was basically an infant at the time, I could relate. Scary had the best clothes (lots of leopard print). Posh was a snob with great hair but overall a total bummer. Sporty was gruff, always in a sports bra and track pants. Ginger was outspoken, she was the one touting messages of resiliency and “girl power” throughout. According to the film, the Fab Five were friends growing up. According to the film’s laughable legend, they used to frequent the same corner café when they were broke and starving for a record deal.

Spice World is a farcical, bizarre portrait of the Spice Girls, a divination of the girls’ “real lives” told in the most obscenely hokey way possible. It’s one of the strangest, least organized “musicals” ever to make it into theaters. It would be hard to call Spice World a “forgotten” film, but it’s certainly not one of the best-remembered of the ’90s. There’s a reason for that. Spice World, for the most part, lacks any sort of plot to cling to that would make it memorable. It’s a ridiculous romp through London that’s only really entertaining if you care about its protagonists. This film is a perfect example of Tom’s introductory assertion that this was a time period when, at least where popular culture was concerned: “Nothing made any fucking sense at all.”

Thinking critically about Spice World in 2016 is trying for that very reason. The film begins with a ’60s-ish credit montage that introduces each member of the Fab Five. (That vintage-looking aesthetic choice is a notable one, given the fact that Austin Powers was released that same year.) We slow-fade to focus and see that they’re performing “Too Much” in concert. After they leave the stage, viewers are given a quippy, brief introduction to each of the girls as they walk through a corridor. Elton John makes a cameo for less than a minute, bumping into the band casually in the hallway. About midway through, Scary Spice fixes Bob Geldof’s hair at a party. Elvis Costello dips in and out in a millisecond. Meatloaf chauffeurs the girls around Europe in the Union Jack-decorated “Spice Bus.” When a spooky paparazzo is hired to stalk the Spice Girls, a tabloid executive states the photographer’s claim to fame:

I’ve got the perfect guy for the job. He did the Fergie toe-sucking pictures, he got the Teletubbies taking a poo. He even got Bill Clinton tucking his shirt into his underpants!

Era-specific non-sequiturs like that abound in Spice World. They’re small, winking jokes for all the parents who were dragged to the theater to watch the film.

One of the main reasons Spice World doesn’t make any sense is its plot structure. It’s a movie within a movie, a fact that viewers only figure out in the film’s final scenes. We come to learn that classic clueless Americans are pursuing a feature on the Spice Girls. They discover the girl group while watching TV, when one turns to the other and explains their appeal: “They’re young, they’re cute, they’re hip, they’re wacky.” During several recurring meetings with the Spice Girls’ cranky manager, Clifford, we slowly begin to realize that the film we’re watching is, in fact, the hypothetical one being discussed. That realization has the same maddening effect of the classic “It was all just a dream!” cop-out ending.

That’s one of many tropes that can be found throughout the film. Clifford repeatedly reports back to a mysterious man with a pet pig throughout. He’s a Hugh Hefner-type, a guy in a silk smoking jacket who recalls Charlie of Charlie’s Angels. Flashbacks occur in abundance, and we’re transitioned into them via a swirling, kaleidoscopic effect. There are various takes on classic car-chase scenes. At one point in the film, the Spice Girls encounter aliens while peeing in the woods, which serves no purpose other than to prove that they’re so famous even extraterrestrials want an autograph.

This is a vapid, fun film, but there is one theme that surfaces worth parsing from a historical lens, and that’s the roll that patriarchal men play in the Spice Girls’ lives. In one scene, their close friend Nicola comes to visit them at rehearsal. She’s super pregnant and newly single after her baby daddy up and left. “I mean, I always knew Trevor was irresponsible,” Nicola tells her friends. “But now he’s gone and proved it!” Baby Spice scoffs.

Nicola’s character serves two purposes in Spice World. The first is to remind viewers that the Spice Girls used to be normal people, just like us. The second is to illustrate all of the ways that contemporary womanhood, in its most stereotyped form, doesn’t appeal much to them. When the Spice Girls envision themselves having babies in a flashback scenario, they all grimace and look horrified. Motherhood isn’t so much the problem; it’s the fear of settling or losing a sense of independence.

“Girl Power” was a driving message in the Spice Girls’ marketing. If anything, Spice World shows us how third-wave feminism was appropriated in mainstream music, years after riot grrrl began laying groundwork. And though that message is supposed to be one of empowerment, it’s contradicted over and over and over again in the film. The Spice Girls’ careers are dictated by men like Clifford and the mysterious Charlie-type in a silk smoking jacket, and though they subvert his authority throughout, his pandering attitude is an uneasy inclusion. Even though the Spice Girls don’t actually date anyone over the course of the movie, they constantly chat about guys, and are regularly asked about their preferred types. Posh’s response is my favorite: “Six foot. Green eyes. Loafers, NO socks.” When Ginger, the most “feminist” of the Spice Girls, is asked whether or not she’s “attracted” to men, she retorts with the oh-so-heteronormative comeback: “Oh come on. Is the pope a Catholic?”

Spice World does not lack subtlety. It’s a self-conscious film, a movie explicitly made to capitalize on a particularly lucrative pop group, immortalizing them for posterity. Anyone who lived through the ’90s will watch this film with glee and remember all of the most pertinent conversations surrounding pop music at the time. We will gawk at the fashion choices, cringe at some of the film’s err, less progressive moments that surface throughout. But Spice World is, at best, a relic. Anyone who doesn’t remember the decade, who didn’t live through it, will be happy to have missed out.

Tags: Spice Girls