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The selling power of Girl Power

The selling power of Girl Power

The Spice Girls showed what a valuable commodity feminism could be. Their success made it obligatory for female pop stars to champion gender equality

The Spice Girls showed what a valuable commodity feminism could be. Their success made it obligatory for female pop stars to champion gender equality

Rachel Lloyd | July 8th 2016

Today marks 20 years since “Wannabe” – the debut single from the Spice Girls – was released. Music critics did not take kindly to it. Smash Hits considered the single “awful” and “limp”, Top of the Pops magazine said the group could never take off and NME went so far as to vote it the worst single of the year. The Economist, meanwhile, asked “what do the Spice Girls mean?”

Yet it quickly became clear that whatever it was that the Spice Girls were selling was valuable: a few days after its release, “Wannabe” climbed to number one in both the US and UK charts, where it sat obstinately for seven weeks. It is now one of the best-selling singles of all time; “Spice”, the studio album from which the song was taken, has sold more than 30m copies worldwide. No other British girl band has come remotely close since.

This bankable commodity was, of course, “Girl Power”. From the moment Posh, Baby, Scary, Ginger and Sporty burst through the doors of the St. Pancras Hotel and ruffled up the maître d’ it was clear they were championing a new brand of feminism. 

Old-style feminism (a word they distanced themselves from) had, they felt, become too lofty and dusty – “Girl Power…can give feminism a kick up the arse” – and they (and their manager, Simon Fuller) were determined to reinvent it for a younger generation. 

Girl Power was woven into the very fabric of the band, from their lyrics (“trust it, use it, prove it, groove it / Show me how good you are”) to the brash, unapologetic way they dressed, performed and conducted themselves in public (note Geri Halliwell’s notorious royal-bottom squeeze). They were promoting traditional feminist messages – autonomy, equal opportunity, uninhibited speech and female solidarity – in an unashamedly sexy, sassy way.

It worked; girls listened to their music and believed that they had as much to offer as boys did. The Spice Girls showed that being outspoken about gender equality did not mean you were incapable of letting your hair down. It was a tempting ideology packaged in catchy lyrics and platform shoes: Judith Butler and “The Female Eunuch” simply would not have had the same effect on Nineties schoolgirls. In the words of Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, the founder of the Vagenda blog, Girl Power was millennials’  “gateway drug to feminism”. 

A cynic might suggest that the Spice Girls championed this ideology only to sell records. But no one can deny that Girl Power-style feminism has had an unshakable hold on popular culture ever since – to the point that artists (especially female artists) are expected to pledge allegiance at the altar of feminism or be castigated by the public.

Taylor Swift is one such example; asked by the Daily Beast in 2012 whether she was a feminist, she responded, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have.” Cue outrage, much mockery and the retraction of her comments. “I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities,” she explained. “I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.” The hasty volte-face suggested a fear on Swift’s part of alienating her fan base – largely young girls and teenagers. Feminism today is fashionable and urgent; it is not enough for an artist to simply make music, she must use her position to champion the rights of women.
 
Swift is now renowned for her own brand of saccharine, white feminism which mistakes an exclusive “squad” of glamorous models and actresses for genuine female solidarity (lest we forget the snafu with Nicki Minaj – where she mistook Minaj’s complaint about her song “Anaconda” being overlooked at the MTV video music awards as a personal attack – or her mysterious long-standing feud with Katy Perry). She can be bad-ass too, albeit a different kind of bad-ass from the Spice Girls. “Bad Blood” – whose lyrics describe the betrayal of a close female friend – was viewed 20.1m times in its first 24 hours on VEVO

Girl Power’s true successor is an artist like Beyoncé, who performs in front of enormous screens emblazoned with “FEMINIST” – which would have been unthinkable, or at least advised against, 20 years ago. From her Destiny’s Child days (“Independent Women” and “Survivor” being obvious examples), her music has brimmed with messages of independence and self-worth; the “Formation” tour currently offers merchandise emblazoned with phrases such as “Boy bye” and “I ain’t sorry”. In her visual album, she revels in destruction and self-assertion; smashing windows and cars much like the Spice Girls jumped on tables and crashed the parties of the fusty upper classes. Beyoncé values female companionship and uses her platform to celebrate her contemporaries: Serena Williams, Zendaya and Quvenzhané Wallis among others make cameo appearances in her work.  

And Beyoncé has, like the Spice Girls, found that aligning yourself with an ideology reaps fiscal rewards. One website estimates that “Lemonade” pours $3m a day into the artist’s bank account; the “Formation” tour may add a further $1m-2m per performance. “Run the World (Girls)” sold 1.35m copies in America alone. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)” – a refutation of the lonely single girl stereotype – sold around 7.7m copies worldwide, making it her most popular single. Anthemic music exploring female empowerment remains a potent force in the pop marketplace.  

The loud-and-proud Girl Power of the Spice Girls inevitably changed the music landscape for female artists. Music, gender and ideology were brought into harmony; their achievements enabled subsequent performers to celebrate and challenge womanhood as they saw fit, and proved that they could be financially successful in doing so. Some commentators argue that Girl Power has no place in our more modern, nuanced understanding of feminism. I disagree; given the slow pace of social and legislative change around sexism and inequality, telling girls that they should demand and fight for what they “really really want” can only be a good thing.

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