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Spice Invaders

By Bruce Crumley

ARIS, 12 June 1997 - While the English are truly deserving of praise and appreciation for their many contributions to humanity over the centuries, Old Blighty's offerings have been more miserable than monumental of late. In the 1980s it gave us Maggie Thatcher, the Falklands war, and ambulatory football hooliganism, while the 1990s has seen England digging in its heels at any sign of European integration, and exporting beef that turned every steak on the continent into a potentially lethal weapon. All that, however, seems benign compared to England's most recent poisoned gift to the world: the Spice Girls.

or those readers still blissfully unaware of this musical blight, the Spice Girls would be best understood by dropping all musical or cultural references and adopting a hard and cynical marketing mindset. The Girls and their tunes are scantily-clad assaults on your intelligence, a poke-in-the-chest warning that you have no taste, and ergo have no choice, and point to armies of gum-smacking adolescent fans and astonishing record sales for credibility as proof. But proof of what? Does 10 million albums sold and number one hits in over 50 countries necessarily reflect qualitative content and merit? In this era where more is ever less - a logic that turns nothing into a superlative - can popularity be a yardstick of anything but inert mathematical volume? No, but that doesn't mean you can't get rich trying to prove the opposite.

o much for quantity, what about quality? Not that the insincerity of the music - indeed, of their entire act - is exclusive to the Spice Girls. Pop groups have long made format, paradigm, and uninspired repetition the industry standard. What's different with the Girls is their studied and calculated manner of rending music of substance to make it more marketable in Madison Avenue terms. Like microwave popcorn or Diet Coke, you spend, consume, and are momentarily distracted by Spice Girl sound, but can forget it just as fast since it leaves no trace behind. Your musical appetite is fooled, not sated, by a substance with neither nutrition nor calories. As such, Spice Girl music is an ideal hollow-commodity for a world increasingly obsessed with "low": low-fat, low-sodium, low-calorie, low-IQ. Even in the cultural realm, ephemeral is being embraced as gloriously unencumbering. The Spice Girls are to music what the Pet Rock was to the family dog: an attempt to turn a living presence and companion into a disposable, money-making parody of itself.

his cynical product launch, moreover, was timely given the shifting pop winds that now blow against once reigning "bad" rap, rock, grunge, and neo-punk bands that made dissonance a trademark. People are tired, and want a rest. Grunge and all its strains were mostly light-weight rehashes - a punked hippydom - involving rather gratuitously posed, studied neglect, and faux expressions of nihilistic angst. As that tide recedes, the Spice Girls offer a sound and message so vacuous they serve as the ideal background music for the closing of self-inflicted piercing wounds. If Grunge was fashion with an attitude, Spice is just what's left when fashion dies, and the attitude becomes too much work. Courtney Love's voyage from sub-culture to counter-culture to mainstream icon may be a case study in the inherent hypocrasy of pop rebellion, but the Spice Girls are something altogether different: test tube music hitting the charts with a trust fund already collecting interest.

pice Girl apologists argue the band offers a healthy portrait of the modern young woman - one that stresses earnestness, straight forwardness, and a commitment to friendship in relationships even as it proclaims its own "spunky" sexuality. As an icon, we are asked to see the Spice Girls as a symbol of female empowerment, social hipness and - not insignificantly - a business savvy generating millions in profit that led these paragons of "the new woman" to hail Maggie Thatcher as their idol. For all their labored PC sophistry, however, the musical pundits miss the point that Spice Girl music is in qualitative terms the most blatant of bait and switch games: machine-generated sound that swaps inner-pop idiom faster than the Girls change Union Jack halter tops; lyrics representing audio forms of the Nutrasweet marshmallow. Their first three monster singles - "Wannabe", "Say You'll Be There", and "Two Become One" - idiom mix-and-match vivisections, all dealing almost exclusively with the novel notion that intimates and lovers should above all be caring pals. Their current single - "Momma" - is the call to view one's mother as chum rather than opponent, revolving around the chorus of: "Momma/I love you/Momma/I care/Momma/I love you/Momma/My friend". Edith Piaf gave us the anthemic Hymn to Love; the Spice Girls give us the bastardized Hymn to Cleaning Up Your Room. In doing so, The Spice Girls offer nothing new - musically, socially, or intellectually - and seem to demand hero status for selling us nothingness.

ther essential musical and cultural elements missing from this Spicy stew include creativity, sincerity, inspiration, and talent. Indeed, far from the "school-day pals putting on a show" picture the Girls paint, the truth is that just three years ago they were all strangers, sufficiently struggling as actresses and dancers that they stooped to answering a trade magazine casting call - along with 400 other Wannabes. Under the direction of two established music business impresarios, the Girls' admittedly shoddy vocal talents were shaped and crafted into...admittedly modest vocal talents with an attitude. But no matter, thanks to cleavage-generated video success, what really counted came next: a Spice Girl biography, a movie in the making, and marketing tie-ins generating thousands of low quality but high profit posters, backpacks, and perhaps one day even a lunch box. This was never about music, folks; it was about mass manipulation. Whither pop culture.

n preemptive defense rather than a spirit of fairness, it should be noted that the Spicettes are not the only pop Pet Rocks raking in millions today. Across Europe and elsewhere in the world, the form of audio dry rot known as "boy bands" are filling music video rotations and concert halls with screaming pubescent females. Neither band members nor their management waste much time discussing the music: the music is not an issue. Like the Spice Girls, "boy band" members are hired for their looks and pelvic gyrations, not vocal talent. Their job calls for occupying that space between body builder, top model, dancer, and blowup doll for frenzied adolescent fans. Not illogically, a marketing operation underway in France offers low-priced "boy band" CDs for proof of purchase of a particular sanitary napkin brand. If you are going to hit below the belt, why not be honest about it?

n stark contrast to the Spice Girls' loud and loutish declarations on politics and social issues, the members of bands like Boy Zone, Worlds Apart, 2 Be 3, and G Squad don't really have much to utter off stage - they are there to keep the videos churning out, and insure screams from near-orgasmic teens. Despite that difference, both the Spice Girls and "boy bands" share the abuse of music and pop culture for avaricious ends. Music becomes the Trojan Horse in which they enter a gigantic market, then pillage it for all it's worth with a pre-recorded tune on their lips. Pop music has always been vulnerable to commercial manipulation, but this time the process has been inverted so that commerce gives birth to the band before its members have even met. While that approach may be standard in many areas of business life, it is not acceptable in the cultural domain, since culture requires thought, and music requires a message. The Spice Girls are not about message, but rather motive; and the idea behind their inception is that the listener will faithfully take himself for as big an idiot as the music industry has.

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