20 Albums 20 Years Later

In The Span Of Two Albums, The Spice Girls Served Up Female Empowerment To Last A Generation

The Spice Girls' "Spice" and "Spiceworld" turn 20 this year.

20 Albums 20 Years Later remembers and explores the music that touched us back then and still resonates today. Join A Plus as we take another listen to albums released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions not only to the charts but to our lives.

If you were to choose a single year that defined the Spice Girls' success, it would have to be 1997. In January, the group's first single "Wannabe" was released in the United States, where it spent four weeks at the top of the Billboard chart. Their debut album Spice (first released in the U.K. in 1996) went on to become the best-selling album of 1997, and they wasted no time putting out sophomore effort Spiceworld that November, followed by U.K. release of their cult classic movie Spice World in December.

This meteoric rise was accompanied by a public obsession that spanned several countries and filled stores with tie-in merchandise — from Barbie dolls to lollipops — faster than you could say "Zig-a-zig-ah!" Visit any playground in the U.S. or U.K. in 1997, and you were guaranteed to find at least one group of girls playing pretend as Scary, Sporty, Ginger, Baby, and Posh.

In November 1997, David Plotz of Slate summed up the Spice Girls mania currently dominating pop culture, writing, "This is, in short, the Spice Girls moment, the apogee between launch and crash." He predicted their reign would end by Christmas — and he wasn't far off, as Geri Halliwell (Ginger) announced her departure from the group in May 1998, during the Spice World Tour.

The Spice Girls may not have been as prolific as The Beatles (whose across-the-pond success and overall mania is a common point of comparison), but it feels wrong to call them a flash in the pan when you consider the impact they made in such a short period — on the pop music genre, as well as an entire generation of young women who carried the message of "girl power" into the new millennium. 

"Wannabe"

In a 2016 retrospective, Sophie Wilkinson of The Debrief praised the Spice Girls as "the messiest feminist icons," explaining how they appropriated the concept of "girl power" from riot grrrl, a feminist punk movement in the '90s, and made it "palatable, for a wider audience."

Their empowering philosophy was even reflected in the control they took over their own image and creative process behind the scenes. As Mel B (Scary Spice) told Stephen Colbert earlier this year, "We actually created ourselves, and we wrote all of our music ourselves."

"Wannabe," the group's first single and most enduring hit, introduces some of the most prominent feminist themes in their entire repertoire — including the value of female friendship over romantic relationships. It's a concept that's repeated later in the album on "Love Thing," in which the Girls sing, "My friends are with me when you ain't been around." They later share a take on an old Irving Berlin lyric: "God help the mister that comes between me and my sisters."

"Say You'll Be There"

"Wannabe" and "Love Thing" also exemplify the Spice Girls' tendency to set out rules or ultimatums for their lovers. These are women who won't settle for anything less than the best — an antithesis to the longing ballads some might expect from female pop. Their standards are so high, in fact, that the song "If U Can't Dance" proclaims just what it says on the tin: "If you can't dance to this, you can't do nothing for me, baby."

In "Say You'll Be There," the group's second single, the request is more serious: "I'll give you everything, on this I swear / Just promise you'll always be there." The women remind the song's subject, "If you can't work this equation, then I guess I'll have to show you the door."

"2 Become 1"

The Girls take a softer approach in the dreamy ballad "2 Become 1," which joins "Last Time Lover" and "Naked" in speaking frankly of sexual desire ("Wanna make love to ya, baby"), as well as alluding to the importance of safe sex. "Be a little bit wiser baby, put it on, put it on," the Girls sing, in what was once confirmed by Mel B as a reference to condom usage.

In another progressive move, the group even acknowledged same-sex love by featuring an interracial lesbian couple among the various heterosexual pairings in the song's music video.

"Spice Up Your Life"

With the release of Spiceworld, the group went all-out with several upbeat, motivational tracks similar to "Who Do You Think You Are" on the previous album. The lead single "Spice Up Your Life" is a prime example of this, as the ladies remind listeners, "All you need is positivity." Their call for unity was unfortunately undermined by such lyrics as "Yellow man in Timbuktu," which earns a cringe in 2017.

"Never Give Up On the Good Times" and "Move Over" continue the trend of inspiring the listener to get on their feet and make things happen, although the latter's rallying cry of "generation next" is watered down by the fact that it was part of the group's endorsement deal with Pepsi. The most overtly feminist of all these get-up-and-go tracks, however, is "Do It," in which the Girls ignore requests to "keep your mouth shut, keep your legs shut," and declare that "the rules are for breaking."

The Girls also returned to their take-no-shit attitude toward romance with "Saturday Night Divas," "Denying," and the song that launched a thousand hand movements, "Stop" — in which the ladies tell their suitor that things are going "too fast" and they've "crossed the line."

"Stop"

Spiceworld closes with the perfect track, "The Lady Is a Vamp." Its old-school sound matches the lyrics' classic pop culture references, as the women essentially explore their place in history, describing "a power girl in a '90s world" who has "something new."

"We're the Spice Girls, ready to go," the song closes. "Ladies and gents, can please take your seats / And we hope that you enjoyed the show."

It's a bittersweet ending, as Halliwell's exit not only broke the hearts of the group's young fans, but also effectively ended their reign. The remaining four members released the 1998 single "Goodbye" and then the comparatively unsuccessful album Forever in 2000 before going their separate ways.

But not before leaving an indelible mark on pop music and millennials alike — even both at once, when you consider how many artists of today they inspired. Little Mix cited them as an influence growing up, and Fifth Harmony once recreated "Wannabe" for Halloween. And we must never forget that Adele told James Corden during Carpool Karaoke that Ginger leaving was her first heartbreak.

"Girl power was a mission," Halliwell said in a 2016 interview with Vice. "It was like, 'We feel like this, and we believe there is a whole generation of girls who feel like this, too.' "

And they were right.

Spice is available on AmazonGoogle PlayiTunes, and Spotify.

Spiceworld is available on AmazonGoogle PlayiTunes, and Spotify.

Cover image: Virgin Records

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