After word was briefly floated (though quickly quashed) last week that we were going to get another Spice Girls movie, I had a flashback to the international insanity that made the band an international phenomenon in the first place. They really were kind of inexplicable, weren't they? The market-testing that went into designing the bandmembers' identities was so crass and obvious that no one ever bothered to disguise it in the slightest. They couldn't dance. Their singing was wildly inconsistent. Even in their sweeter, lower-tempo stuff, their lyrics were insipid. That Girl Power was a corrupted feminism-lite needs no reiteration. And yet, they kind of mattered. However crazy so many of us were, the Spice Girls were a charming derangement that spoke to a genuine hunger for female pop stars. And they continue to kind of matter, not as global superstars, but as a memory of that hunger.
Certainly, the most persistently famous of them, Victoria Beckham, was possibly the least talented woman in the band. And today she's mostly famous for being famous, for having an incredibly hot husband and a relatively tacky wedding. But Beckham has a kind of integrity about her. She's been very up-front about the fact that she wasn't a good singer, and she hasn't embarrassed herself by lingering in a profession that for her really never should have been anything more than a passing phase. Her interest in fashion seems reasonably serious, and she may yet come into her own as a serious designer. In other words, she's succeeded by embracing the Spice Girls' emphasis on artifice and taken it up-market.
By contrast, Melanie C was always the Spice Girl I felt sort of sorry for. She was Sporty Spice, and was expected to be kind of plain and kind of tough. But she had the best voice of the group, and I was always rather pleased that she actually kind of made it as a solo artist. As a writer, she's written or helped write more British number ones than any other woman. When I was in the UK in 2000, I got hooked on this good little dance number she did, "I Turn to You" (which really deserved a better video):
It's got some of the same unfortunate qualities as Spice Girls' songs, mostly in the imagery in the lyrics, but the song's rooted in ecstasy rather than cuteness, and she can sell it. It's all in the rise on the "I turn to you" that leads into the chorus. You expect it to get more excitable, but instead, it gets a bit more serious and melancholy, and the song has a seriousness to it. It's a good counterbalance.
Fortunately, she moved beyond that phase, and found a look that worked for her, and a much calmer register. Who knew a former Spice Girl would end up working a piano ballad?
As Victoria embraced the look, Melanie took the music part seriously. They've both done well for themselves. That's a pretty good ratio for a five-girl band. It's a much better than the Backstreet Boys, for sure.
And hey, if you're going to go from being a Spice Girl to embarrassing yourself like this...
...at least you're not coming aggressively down in the world, right?
Alyssa Rosenberg is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com. She is the pop culture blogger for ThinkProgress, where she writes about the intersection of politics and culture at http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa.
Alyssa is also a columnist for the Washington Monthly and The Loop 21. Her career as a critic began at 8, when she began a children's book review column for her local paper, taking payments in gift certificates to the neighborhood bookstore. Since then, her interests have expanded to include Atlanta hip-hop, procedural television shows, and action movies she watches without any sense of irony whatsoever. Her writing on culture has appearedin Esquire.com, The Daily, The Daily Beast and the American Prospect, and she has written about politics and the executive branch for Government Executive, The New Republic and National Journal.