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 cry "Revolution 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.