It was 20 years ago this week that the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” came on to our airwaves.
The femme fatale dance-pop track was released in July 1996, but North America was late to jump on the ‘Spice Up Your Life’ train, debuting the song in the U.S. in January 1997. After a month climbing the charts, “Wannabe” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and since then, the song has never really gone out of style—who doesn’t still lose it when it comes on in public?
The lyrics of “Wannabe” address the value of female friendship over heterosexual relationships, creating the ultimate girl power anthem for generations to come. With “Wannabe,” the Spice Girls established themselves as iconic symbols of female empowerment, reinvigorating feminism and making “girl power” mainstream in the late ’90s—a time when grungy, punk-rock boy bands, such as Rancid and Blink-182, were dominating the music scene.
But at that time, feminism was still scary to the public. The underground feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl combined feminist politics with an indie-punk style mostly used for musical expression by men—it was very different from the feminism about to dance down the pipeline.
Shortly thereafter, the Spice Girls came into the picture with their big hair and body glitter, turning Riot Grrrl’s rallying cry for girl power into a pretty product, and suddenly making it all seem sort of fun. They showed fans that they didn’t have to hate men and burn their bras to be feminists; yes, you can wear a pink, babydoll dress and high heels and still be a bad ass.
Fast forward 20 years and there’s no denying that the Spice Girls are the original girl “squad” and have set the tone for future girl groups. But there have been few successful ones since. The Pussycat Dolls, Danity Kane, Girlicious—all female groups with commercially successful pop songs about empowering women, all had issues supporting one another behind the scenes. Such issues included jealous egos and cattiness, resulting in repeated disagreements that eventually led all these girl groups, Spice Girls included, to call it quits. Not a great look for pop culture feminism.
How could the Spice Girls’ message of female friendship get so lost when these groups weren’t in the public eye? Doesn’t that defeat what each group was promoting? Plain and simple, when you put together a group of bold people with a wide range of personalities, they aren’t always going to get along.
There’s also no denying that the pressure to fit a specific mold created by industry higher-ups also contributed to the demise of all these girl groups. Select band members no longer want to be the character they were supposed to be and chose to pursue individual projects. Some of the Pussycat Dolls blame the overemphasis of Nicole Scherzinger as the group leader for their split. Chrystina Sayers was the first member to leave Girlicious to pursue a solo record. Geri Halliwell and Melanie Brown were always arguing, leading Halliwell to walk out on the Spice Girls in early 1998. It was all ‘sisters before misters’ until egos got involved.
Although these manufactured girl groups struggled with female empowerment behind the scenes, their messages of feminism were still able to resonate commercially.
Girl groups aren’t the only ones to break up; we’ve seen the same thing happen to manufactured boy bands as well—look at *NSYNC, The Wanted and One Direction. But female groups are vastly outnumbered on the stage, record labels and radio by their all-male counterparts. For every girl group that breaks up, two boy bands pop up in its place.
Today, two stand-out girl groups who seem to be—despite all odds—making the girl group thing work are Little Mix and Fifth Harmony. Regardless of a few tumultuous instances (including Camila Cambello’s sudden exit from Fifth Harmony and her newfound solo music career), these groups have stuck to the Spice Girls’ original concept of feminism, but have brought it into its fourth wave of intersectionality—taking the Spice Girls’ idea of girl power, moving it past gender-only and including more racial and body type diversity.
These groups are important in today’s music industry because they use their fame to send messages to young women of all races about current topics affecting them—self-esteem, healthy relationships and equal rights, to name a few.
In an interview with Latina Magazine, Fifth Harmony member Normani Kordei said, “Anything a man can do, a woman can do just as well… I am part of the feminist movement, but I also feel that a lot of the times women aren’t supporting each other. We stand for equality and claim to be feminists, and need to support one another.”
Feminism is more entwined with pop culture than ever before, though the girl groups who sing about it have a tough time practicing what they preach. The Spice Girls sang about friendship and stressed the importance of being oneself, but they struggled with empowering each other after the pleather pants and all the zig-a-zig-ahing was over. Yet, it looks like pop girl groups today are learning from the past and don’t quit when things get tough.
Sure, the Spice Girls’ mild spoonful of girl power wasn’t overly sophisticated, but it did make feminism a little more mainstream and served as a stepping stone for reshaping what it means to be a feminist figure in pop culture. That’s the power of girl power.