Bubblegum Thatcherism

The Spice Girls want you to think they're Tiger Beatish riot grrrls. Actually, they're inane Young Tories.

Topics: Spice Girls,

there’s no getting around that the success of any pop-music performer is built at least somewhat on image, and that’s not a sin by itself. Every performer — whether she’s a creepy, shallow crooner like Celine Dion or a sophisticated, intelligent one like P.J. Harvey — has an image, whether it’s been carefully pruned by a corps of PR types or merely fixed in people’s minds by something a performer said or wore on a late-night talk show.

Every once in a while, though, the pop-music image machine outdoes itself with tackiness and glitter, with posturing and sloganeering, with a steaming heap of hype so calculated that it’s almost a work of art — or propaganda — in itself. Though their debut LP, “Spice,” has only just been released in America, the British pop phenomenon Spice Girls already has an image here: The video for their unapologetically sassy dance hit “Wannabe” is all over MTV like a pair of cheap boot-cut pants. And thanks to all the pre-LP chatter on these shores, we know that Spice Girls are take-charge chickies with a don’t-mess-with-me attitude. That their fave phrase is the empty-thought-bubble of a slogan “Girl Power!” (clearly a toothless bastardization of the riot grrrl battle cryRevolution Grrrl Style Now!“). That they wear unabashedly sexy clothes that show how much pride and pleasure they take in their bodies. And, what’s more, that they write (and actually sing! with their own lips!) their own songs, most of which outline exactly what they want from their boyfriends and declare they’re not going to settle for less. At worst, the Spice Girls hype — and the hit single — seemed goofy and harmless at first.

But the closer you look, the worse these 15 minutes start to smell. The big problem — and you wouldn’t know it unless you’ve seen some of the press Spice Girls have garnered in their own country — is this: They’re proud Thatcherites.

A Dec. 13 article in The London Times (“Pierced-nose pop group adds spice to the Tories”) reported that Spice Girls had announced their backing of the Conservative Party in an interview with the high-toned right-wing publication The Spectator. “We Spice Girls are true Thatcherites,” Spice Girl Geri Halliwell told The Spectator. “Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology — Girl Power.”

It was this particular brand of Girl Power, of course, that single-handedly brought about the economic devastation of the people who had the most to lose in Britain — surely it can get Spice Girls a hit record. Anything that can destroy national health care and put vast numbers of people out of work must be pretty strong stuff, so why shouldn’t Spice Girls want to bottle it and make their first million off it? Among the slogans cheerfully emblazoned on the leaflet for “Spice” are “Wonderwoman,” “She Who Dares Wins,” “Future Is Female” and “Spice Revolution.” The only thing missing is “Don’t Fight the Power: Buy a Piece of It.”

Of course, conservative “feminists” aren’t all that rare — America has its share of them. And the idea of Margaret Thatcher as the ultimate feminist is hardly original.

But Spice Girls are something else again. It’s one thing to spout off silly beauty ‘n’ boyfriend tips on the Web site sponsored by your record company (“If you’re going to kiss a boy, make sure you’re wearing stay-on lipstick”), but it’s another to make political endorsements when you have no idea what you’re talking about. In the Spectator interview, Spice Girl Mel Brown stressed that getting the upper-class vote was a necessity for the party. In a brilliant piece of gum-snapping rhetoric, she explained, “We shouldn’t be prejudiced against any background, poor or aristocratic. The middle class are the worst. We like the aristocrats.” Even worse, the Spice Girls’ comments about the rest of Europe are amazingly crass — particularly coming from pop stars who obviously want to conquer the world: “We travel throughout Europe,” said Halliwell. “All those countries look the same. Only England looks different. That is why the Spice Girls are profoundly suspicious of Europe.”

The Spice Girls brand of conservatism is more about packaging than substance. The “Spice” CD leaflet, done up in bright bubble-gum colors, features perky pictures of the Girls in hip outfits, and even includes a little form that you can fill out and send in “to learn more about Spice Girls.” The whole effect is queasy-making — like the Young Americans for Freedom you see on campuses canvassing incoming freshmen.

Spice Girls represent the ultimate betrayal in pop music: When pop gives itself over freely to the people in power, it’s done for. People often think of pop — as opposed to punk, rock ‘n’ roll or soul — as being lightweight, but the truth is, because it’s perceived as being not much more than fluff, it can actually be more subversive than other kinds of music. The songs on a recent CD by the Hong Kong pop star Fay Wang all sound completely Westernized, but when you hear the English words “summer of love” pop out in the midst of one number, you realize that even the most docile-sounding pop song can embody secret messages, that the song itself, regardless of the language it’s sung in, is often communicating with its listeners in a kind of code. (Imagine what a reference to 1967′s drug-drenched summer means in the context of a country that’s about to be handed back to the world’s No. 1 human rights violator.) It’s hard to believe a group like Spice Girls could ever grasp the delicacy of that code. You get the feeling that, given the chance, they’d turn all the secret love letters of pop over to the authorities without blinking an eyelash.

Sometimes even the artists we love have political views or personal beliefs that are at odds with our own: Picasso was a misogynist, T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite. Then again, Spice Girls aren’t Picasso. And whether it’s completely rational or not, there are times when an artist’s views can’t help but color your opinion of his or her work. When I first heard “Spice,” it sounded merely like a bunch of dippy pop tunes — it wasn’t much different from The Partridge Family or any of the other Tiger Beat treacle some of us were force-fed in the early ’70s.

But now that I know Spice Girls’ dirty little secret, “Spice” sounds different to me. When I first heard the soupy ballad “Mama” (“Every little thing you said and did was right for me … Mama I love you”), I rolled my eyes. Now I hear it as an admonition that we’d better always listen to our authority figures, because whether we think so or not, they’re always right. It’s an ugly manifestation of the “traditional” values that fuel the fire of the right, in this country and in Britain, and it conjures my own private, hellish vision of Margaret Thatcher’s grinning maw dripping with blood. “Spice” may be music tailor-made for teenagers, but it sure doesn’t smell like teen spirit. It smells like something else entirely.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>