The Secret Feminist History Behind The Spice Girls' "Wannabe"

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Twenty years ago, the Spice Girls made girl power a global phenomenon when they released their first single, “Wannabe.” As feminist anthems go, “Wannabe” might be a bit light on depth (“make it last forever, friendship never ends”), and its basic, drummed-up rhythm doesn’t exactly hold up in today’s era of pop overproduction. But there’s no denying the song’s cultural impact on how entertainment and media package women, female friendship, and sexuality. “Wannabe” got young women talking about feminism at a time when it was very much an F-word in mainstream culture.

In 1996, Eve Ensler premiered The Vagina Monologues in New York City. The confessional performance piece became a global phenomenon and also spawned V-Day, Ensler’s foundation that has become a powerful influencer to end violence against women and girls. But the public reaction at the time was basically, “Eww, vaginas!” The world wasn’t ready to embrace women reclaiming their bodies as a political act quite yet.

But the idea of female friendship as empowerment had already taken hold. A year earlier, Clueless writer Amy Heckerling smashed the rom-com formula when she made the relationships between best friends Cher, Dionne, and even third-wheel Tai, the emotional core of her blockbuster film. It set the framework for a Clueless TV series, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which gave girls a kick-ass heroine who would literally kill for her friendships.
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“Wannabe” arrived somewhere in the middle, its message of bras before bros more of an intra-gender high-five than a rallying cry. But “girl power” isn’t the most important legacy of the Spice Girls. Their biggest political statement was having a point of view to begin with.

"Wanted: R.U. 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance? R.U. streetwise, outgoing, ambitious, and dedicated?”

It was with this advertisement in The Stage magazine in March 1994 that the machine that would produce the Spice Girls began to grind. The father-son team of Bob and Chris Herbert — plus some deep-pocketed investors — placed this ad in hopes of finding their next financial windfall.

Hundreds of women applied, and the men settled on five: Victoria Adams (a theater kid from upper-class Hertfordshire), Melanie Brown (a Caribbean-English former resort dancer), Melanie Chisholm (a trained dancer who once sang backup for Bryan Adams), Geri Halliwell (a model and former nightclub dancer), and Emma Bunton (a struggling actress, who actually replaced original member Michelle Stephenson, who was reportedly fired for not having as much drive as the other members).

These women were handpicked not for their vocal prowess — their collective skill level hovers somewhere between Britney Spears and Selena Gomez territory. Their voices are capable, even pretty at times, but almost always overproduced. Richard Stannard, the man who would co-produce their first album, Spice, recalled upon meeting them: “You didn't care if they were in time with the dance steps or whether one was overweight or one wasn't as good as the others. It was something more. It just made you feel happy. Like great pop records.”

The Spice Girls (first named Touch) were part of a new experiment. The girl-group formula remained untested — or at least unsuccessful — in the U.K. And as the Herberts watched American groups like TLC and En Vogue dominate the charts, they wanted in. Pop groups rarely shared any of the power with the all-male producers, managers, and record label executives running every aspect of the show — from songwriting to wardrobe. But the Spice Girls, despite their inexperience in all of these areas, were intent on controlling the narrative from the beginning. And by fighting for it, they created their legacy.
Photo: ITV/REX/Shutterstock.
On the surface, the Spice Girls were as manufactured as a girl group can get. Even though their nicknames — Posh (Adams), Ginger (Halliwell), Baby (Bunton), Scary (Brown), and Sporty (Chisholm) — weren’t coined until the British teen magazine Top of the Pops made up the monikers in 1996 — the five pretty girls with slightly different physical attributes were perfect for pop-character archetypes. If that magazine hadn’t named them, somebody else would have soon enough.

And yet, they used their very first recording session with producer Stannard and his writing partner Matt Rowe to craft a very specific message. The girls had been brainstorming song ideas for weeks, and once they entered the studio, “Wannabe” was apparently written within 30 minutes. “We wanted our songs to tell you how we felt,” Halliwell wrote in Marie Claire earlier this year. “And ‘Wannabe’ was catching a moment and sharing it. From the minute I met the other girls, I knew I had found my tribe. My passion for music and success was ignited and amplified; it was unified and strengthened with four other girls into world domination. We all had different strong points and personalities, yet we were so similar. This must be what girl power feels like.”

You can look at us, in fact, look at us! But we are more interested in our relationships with each other than with men.

The chorus reads like a direct address to the male gaze: “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.” Like many female pop stars before them — and certainly all of them since — the Spice Girls’ biggest marketing tool was their sexuality. They didn’t apologize for it. In fact, Bunton scoffed at the idea that their fashion choices were for anyone but themselves when she told an interviewer in 1997, “Just because you've got a short skirt on and a pair of tits, you can still say what you want to say. We're still very strong.”

They wore the short skirts, tight dresses, low-cut tops, and high heels, all customized to their personas — with leopard-print, pink pigtails, track suits, ultra platforms, and painted-on sheath dresses serving as extensions of their identities. And they did not apologize for them. Their larger message was more important: You can look at us, in fact, look at us! But we are more interested in our relationships with each other than with men.

The concept of girl power was born with the writing of “Wannabe,” but the actual power — the activism, in fact — came from how the women fought for the song — and for themselves — every step of the way.
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Photo: Julian Makey/REX.
“Wannabe” is the biggest-selling single by a female group in the world, ever. But it almost didn’t make it to the radio. Everyone but the Spice Girls themselves seemed to hate the song. Their manager, Simon Fuller, sent it to a team of American producers, and it came back laced with hip-hop beats and an R & B vibe that Halliwell described as “bloody awful.” The members of the group staged a protest until it was remixed to their liking. When it came time for Virgin Records to choose the first single, execs wanted “Say You’ll Be There,” a sappy love-pop ballad that appeased the label’s mission of catering to a mainstream audience — and sending a flirty message to, presumably, men who would want to “be there” for (or with) the Spice Girls. Stannard, who co-wrote "Wannabe," lambasted its weirdness and agreed that it was too risky to use as a first single: “It’s quite anarchic,” Stannard said at the time. “There are a lot of critics who consider it a punk record because it’s quite wild, and the way it was recorded and written was like a punk song. It was in no way a contrived, crafted pop masterpiece that we sat down and specified.”

Fuller agreed, and pushed the Girls to acquiesce. Halliwell, speaking for the group as she often did — including the time she demanded each of them receive individual management contracts before signing with a label — told the men: “It's not negotiable as far as we're concerned. 'Wannabe' is our first single.”

Standing up to a powerful label and deeply vested managers hasn't always pan out for pop stars. Correction: It’s not a thing pop stars even did at the time. Ginger and the Girls made it clear that they were in control. The only risk was if the industry walked away; they’d be fine. One can imagine Kelly Clarkson channeling Halliwell when she fought the illustrious Clive Davis to the point of near-career suicide because she refused to be “bullied” into releasing another American Idol-like record instead of one that reflected her artistic vision.

“Wannabe” was not beloved by critics. And, in fact, it’s safe to say no one even knows what the song is really about. Its jumbled lyrics are a mix of in-jokes, made-up words (“zig-a-zig-ah”) and micro bios of each character spliced into the bridge. But it didn’t matter. “Wannabe” soared to the top of the charts in the U.K. and remained the No. 1 single for seven weeks. By March 1997, “Wannabe” had topped the charts in 37 countries. It didn’t matter if it was gibberish; the spirit of “Wannabe” resonated with the world and it remains one of the most recognizable pop songs of the last 50 years.

When five insta-friends huddled together 20 years ago to write a song about hanging out together, they didn’t have an agenda beyond expressing themselves in that moment. The song itself is not a feminist anthem. But the ways in which the Spice Girls demanded respect and took — didn’t ask for, but seized — control of their careers and the image they presented of girls to girls is a legacy worth celebrating. “Girl power” lives on, and as feminism is mainstreamed into our lives via Beyoncé, Shonda Rhimes, and even President Obama, the meaning of that once-vapid term grows ever more powerful.