A Dance to the Music of Time — “Wannabe”

(Editorial note: well, it’s finally happened — after eleven weeks of frantic typing, my penchant for lazing about has finally caught up with me and I’m unable to deliver the last full chapter of my Australian travel journal tonight. I saw this coming a couple of days ago, though, so as kind of a stopgap I rushed up the following article — shallow and rehash of existing material though it may be. Regular Australian retro-dispatches resume next week; until then, hope you enjoy the random pickings of my brain…)

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.

The Song: Wannabe
from the 1996 album Spice by the Spice Girls
reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart (as well as practically everywhere else)

The last time the Spice Girls performed as a five-piece, it became the best thing to come out of the London Olympics. During the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the Spice Girls reunited as part of a showcase of British culture, along with such icons as George Michael, Annie Lennox and even a resurrected John Lennon. But to the people there, none of them matched up to the moment when five taxicabs pulled into the centre of the stadium, and the Spice Girls emerged to a rapturous scream — not just from the Girls, but from the whole crowd as well. There’s footage of that performance, and you can pinpoint the exact moment where everybody suddenly realizes “hey, it’s ‘Wannabe’!”, as well as the exact point where more than a few people faint from sheer excitement. Small wonder, then, that it promptly became the most liked Olympic thing on Twitter.

There’s so much that’s endearingly funny about that video, but for some reason my favourite is not the video itself, but the comment section: so many of the comments, so many of the eyes, are on Victoria Beckham, and specifically how she walks off to pose and look sultry while the other girls are doing their solos. It speaks to how magnetic the girls were that someone who’s just standing there can capture the online commentariat’s imagination, send them cackling about the most ordinary things. If anyone with slightly less personality had done it, it would have looked awkward or haughty — but because it’s Posh Spice, we take this aloofness for granted.

This was a personality that was largely solidified by “Wannabe”, and the prevailing narrative on their debut single should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Spice Girls — this was the song that delineated their personalities, established who they were as a pop group, and rocketed them to superstardom. And yes, that is basically what happened — I’m not about to launch into a frothing diatribe about why “Say You’ll Be There” would have been (as their manager insisted) “the better debut”, even though I do agree that it’s a better-made record and like it better as far as I’m concerned. But “Wannabe” is more than just “the perfect beginning” — in fact, there is so much that’s fascinating about it, from its rough and rowdy origins to the shockwaves of its after-effects. So: let’s pick it apart, and find out where we stand in the story from A to Z.

Right away, though, we hit a snag, because there are simply too many interesting qualities about “Wannabe” to talk about. Let’s start with their history: the story of the Spice Girls themselves up to June 1996 would fill a book — perhaps a huge one too, one that’s filled with the strangest strands and most fascinating diversions, as they came from different walks of life and different social classes. All the same, I don’t think we give enough thought to the implausibility of the entertainment group, how much of a big ask it is to just throw five girls together and hope that they create instant chemistry. But they stuck, and they stuck so fast — by all accounts, they wowed everyone with their humour and charm everywhere they went, and then when it came to songwriting they just knew instinctively what to put down, what their friendship was about.

Of course, all the material they needed was already there, a simple statement (or declaration?) of who’d they become over the many months of training and living together. They knew who they were, they knew what people needed to see of them. But it’s one thing to know your friends well enough to blather about who they are, it’s another to turn your spontaneity into something that works, every syllable, grunt, and note part of a fabric that drags every single person into its wake. That they not only managed to get it right, but managed to mould it so that it encapsulated them effortlessly — within half an hour, no less — is nothing short of amazing. That monster hook, those euphoric lyrics, that nonsensical “zig-a-zig-ah”, everything just fits snugly here, wrapped up beautifully by the girls. It’s a triumphant validation, both of their bond and of the central tenet of this song.

But just as togetherness matters, so does individual personality. Nobody wants to see five completely identical starlets, all blending together, their personalities indistinguishable from one another. But most bands choose to present this through an intermediary — with a good PR manager leading the way, with loads of interviews on the road, with time and patience, perhaps, we’d have seen that Emma was the cute one or that Mel C could do both girly and butch. The Spice Girls didn’t want that, so instead we get a pretty egalitarian division of labour — each member except Victoria (then out of the country on family business, therefore setting her up for 24+ years of “she can’t sing”) stepping up to the mic, singing a line each. It’s a thrill just to hear four different voices serenading you, and figuring out who’s singing what — maybe the way they sing these lines is a tease in itself, letting us guess at the personalities behind the voices. The famous rap that Mel B belts out two-thirds of the way into the song doesn’t really do much to set the table for all the other girls — Geri and Mel C simply get compared with each other (“got G like MC”) and she herself simply leaves us dangling with a “haha, you’ll see!”. But that, in itself, serves her well — it’s her voice we’ve been hearing the most throughout, providing the laugh and the catchy refrain at the very beginning. If you haven’t been paying attention to her, well then more fool you.

None of that works, however, if you can’t show all of this in action — you can’t sell personalities on sound alone, not in this day and age. Enter the music video, shot a couple of months before their debut. Just as the song begins with Mel B running up to the mic and stealing your attention with a laugh, the MV begins with the five Girls running out of the shadows and into the limelight, and then for the next three-and-a-half minutes it’s complete anarchy as they tear their way through the London St. Pancras Hotel, flagrantly disregarding the rules at every turn. But what sounds like a simple concept — the young tearing through something establishment — is a glorious thing to behold when you look at how much fun they seem (seem) to be having, and how much contrast director Johan Camitz draws between the two. Almost everyone else in that hotel is dressed up to the nines and have an average age of 79 — which makes the Girls’ interactions with them so hilarious and so weird. (Only one woman tries to join in the fun, but she gives a distinct air of the European fashionista — in other words, someone who’s the complete opposite of the Britain they were taking down.) While everyone in that hotel acts scandalized and afraid of media exposure, the girls are giving it their all, doing backflips and dance routines on tables and stairways and generally having the time of their lives kissing everybody who comes their way. At one point, they take the papers at the reception and scatter them everywhere, and the message is clear: we’re breaking down the doors of what is acceptable with our chaos — and you, everyone, are welcome to our new world.

That complete subversion, that repopulation of the old landscapes, might as well have been an allegory for their place in the pop canon. Britain was then at the height of Britpop, bands like Oasis and Blur were making inroads into overseas markets and with “Three Lions” had even crossed over into the world of football. Yet it was all so fractious — Oasis for example famously broke apart every day and by summer 1996 were beginning their slow but inevitable descent into mediocrity. Reactionary, too: Britpop was a self-reassuring (-pleasuring?) call-back to the angry, howling punk rock of the 70s and, except for “Wonderwall” and maybe “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, never even cracked the top 10 outside the UK.

The Spice Girls, however, came out with a song explicitly about camaraderie and joyously celebrating aspects of life, and managed to hit number one in 37 countries. I wasn’t around yet when the Spice Girls exploded onto the scene in the summer of 1996, but it must have been the biggest thing the world had experienced for upwards of 30 years: people were suddenly screaming their heads off, buying records like they hadn’t since the onset of Beatlemania. (I might be bringing the Beatles into everything, but the trajectory is stunningly similar — Spice World was a blatant attempt to copy A Hard Day’s Night, for instance.) They changed the idea we had about girl groups too — pop music always seemed like a boys’ thing before this, and almost every band that had a girl in it would be swiftly balanced off by three or more men (Blondie, ‘Til Tuesday, Fleetwood Mac…). The Spice Girls came in, showed us how good they were, and — as they did in the music video — opened the door for us and invited us to party once more.

Of course, having gushed here for almost 1600 words, it feels disingenuous for me to claim at this point that “Wannabe” is not the greatest song on Earth. It’s not even the greatest song from the Spice Girls (for my money, that would be “Viva Forever”), a girl group which I like but do not love. After all, their target demographic were young feisty girls, and I am aware of the fact that I am only one of those three things (and even my youth is… debatable). But no matter what age you are, you can appreciate a miracle happening. The Spice Girls, a ragtag bunch of girls hastily lumped together for the sole purpose of making money, a group who had to fend for themselves and their artistic vision at one point, created a monster song that hooked the world, and all that from the sheer power of their friendship. On the basis of that one song, they went on to conquer the world and acquire a place in the pop pantheon, all in the space of two-and-a-half years — an absurdly short amount of time. You don’t get that sort of magic happening in every song, and one has to recognize genius when they see it. When we listen to “Wannabe”, we’re not just getting three minutes of solid music. We’re getting a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of the power of femininity, of human bonds, and above all — of just being yourself.

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