Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 52, about the Spice Girls’ breakout hit, “Wannabe.”
Quick question for you: Do you know the band Take That?
Take That formed in Manchester, England, in 1989, a five-member boy band, most prominently featuring songwriter Gary Barlow and eventual breakout star Robbie Williams. Their smash-hit 1992 debut album was called Take That & Party.
So do you know this band? Are you English or European? Then yes. Are you American? Then probably not, unless you know their sole top-10 Billboard hit, 1995’s tender and tuneful blanket apology “Back for Good.”
Seriously, that’s a lovely melody with which to convey the sentiment I’m sorry for literally whatever I said and did. I apologize for all of it in perpetuity. Baby, it is 3:30 in the morning, and you have won this argument. Take That are superstars in their own sizable backyard. They have sold more than 14 million albums in the United Kingdom alone. I am eternally fascinated by U.K.-centric teen pop that does not translate to the U.S. at all. Robbie Williams has apparently sold more albums than any British solo artist in history and he couldn’t get on, like, Dancing With the Stars in America. He couldn’t get on Floor Is Lava. The critic and author Maria Sherman, a friend of the show who wrote the rad 2020 book Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS, included in that book a section on the “golden age of English boy bands” in the early-to-mid ’90s. She wrote that at least compared to New Kids on the Block and so forth, “Perhaps there’s a, uh, S-E-X-I-N-E-S-S English boy bands could get away with that their prudish American counterparts could not.”
Who else we got here? We got East 17, from London, formed in 1991, ostensibly as “bad boy” counterparts to Take That—well, bad boy counterparts with a hit 1994 Christmas song called “Stay Another Day.”
That video cost $35 in Selfridges gift cards. Nice snow, fellas. One more. OK. Boyzone. Brooding Irishmen explicitly modeled after Take That. Their 1995 debut album is called Said and Done; here we’ve got a tasteful chest-pounding power ballad called “Love Me for a Reason”:
Budget for this video was $40 in Dunnes gift cards, devoted entirely to candles and sweaters. (I’m just over here looking up U.K.-based department stores I’ve barely heard of. This is my job.) So, in the early ’90s, a plucky young entrepreneurial prodigy named Chris Herbert, who starting at 17 years old had already launched a successful paintball venture, joined forces with his father, Bob Herbert, and pivoted to music management. As Chris much later told the British online magazine CLIC, “At the time, boy bands saturated the market. The formula worked. Dad and our backer wanted to go down that route, but I wanted to reverse it. I thought a girl band—sassy, sexy, and well put-together—could be more successful because it would appeal to female and male listeners. You’d double your audience.” Chris wanted to cast this group like the then-popular and now-popular American sitcom Friends, with distinct personalities and characters that would appeal to every segment of the population.
The Spice Girls, therefore, were initially conceived as aspiring to the commercial heights and international reach of the likes of Take That, East 17, and Boyzone—not to mention such lesser lights as A1, Let Loose, and MN8—which at the time no doubt sounded delusional and megalomaniacal, coming from Underaged Paintball Boy, but in retrospect of course it sounds a bit parochial. Turns out he was underselling it. Cattle calls, auditions, boot camps for songwriting and choreography and so forth, a year or so of this heavy prep, couple lineup changes, buh buh buh, enough preamble. Let’s get to “Wannabe.” Let’s meet the biggest girl group in world history.
Melanie Chisholm, a.k.a. Mel C, a.k.a. Sporty Spice, a.k.a. my favorite Spice Girl. No apologies. By far the best singer in the Spice Girls. That’s not exactly a hot take. The construction of their songs will confirm this. Also by far the best accent in the Spice Girls; she’s got that rad, thick scouse accent, a little more working class, she’s from Merseyside in northwest England. Jodie Comer from Killing Eve has that accent, if she’s your jam. There’s no chance I’m out of my depth here. Sporty Spice of course rocked the tracksuits, the trainers, the ponytail, the back handsprings. (Trainers. Sorry. Sneakers. Athletic shoes. Come on, Rob. You spent one night in London 16 years ago.) She also challenged Liam Gallagher to a fight at the 1997 Brit Awards. Even odds on that one. Sporty Spice. She’s the best. OK.
Emma Bunton, a.k.a. Baby Spice. On account of being the youngest, on account of being the last to join the group, on account of being, like, extra blonde and bubbly and family-friendly. Ergo Baby Spice. Hence the pigtails; hence the omnipresent sucker in her mouth, which gets super weird on a long enough timeline, such as if you’re watching a whole movie with her in it; hence the megawatt smile. In the Spice World movie, when it’s time to charm the cops after a deliberately poorly filmed climactic bus chase situation, that’s Baby Spice’s job. If you’re a big Talking Heads person: Baby Spice and dei-fiable Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth, I always thought they had a nice little crossover synergy going, I mean that as a great compliment to them both.
In 2018 the British market research firm YouGov asked 31,000 British people the most important question roiling the United Kingdom at that or at any other time: Who’s your favorite Spice Girl? Baby Spice won. 37 percent of the vote. I got no quarrel with that. She’s got the second-most-demeaning role in this group and she charms her way out of any awkwardness. It’s remarkable. As for the most demeaning role, well, you’ll see.
Melanie Brown, a.k.a. Mel B, a.k.a. Scary Spice. Yo. As has been frequently remarked upon, it is unfortunate, to say the least, that the one nonwhite member of the Spice Girls—she was raised in Leeds, which comes up in the movie, her mother is English, her father is from the Caribbean island of Nevis—is the girl they nicknamed Scary Spice. Mistakes were made. A journalist, a writer for Top of the Pops magazine in the ’90s, came up with the nicknames while interviewing them because he couldn’t remember all their names. All five members have told that story millions of times apiece.
It’s not his fault. That’s a benign enough origin story, as origin stories go. Scary Spice
is boisterous, yes. Her laugh, her cackle, basically introduced the Spice Girls to the world: It’s the first sound you hear on “Wannabe,” and so the first sound you hear on their 1996 debut album Spice. She had the tongue-piercing, yes. She was loud, brash, wacky, super energetic even relative to her quite energetic bandmates. Nevertheless. She was also the member of the group, when they were shooting the “Wannabe” video, who got told by a stylist that she needed to straighten her hair, which of course she didn’t. She told The Independent in 2020, “My hair was my identity, and yes it was different to all the other girls, but that was what the Spice Girls were about—celebrating our differences.”
Mel B also told The Independent a story about taking Geri Halliwell, Ginger Spice, back to where she grew up. “I got her to come back to Leeds with me, and we went to one of these really old-school underground blues-and-bass clubs that all the Black kids in the area went to.” She goes on, “It was tiny and really packed, and when we were standing there, I said to Geri, ‘Look around and tell me what you see,’ and she looked round and said, ‘Everyone else in here is Black except me.’ And I said, ‘That’s what it’s like for me nearly every day. I’m always the only brown girl in the room.’ That was quite an important moment for me.”
A lot of boisterousness and brashness and infectious energy to Scary Spice’s voice, as well. In fact, I’m a little too in the tank for Sporty Spice, so let’s adjust and say that Sporty and Scary Spice, in tandem, are the two strongest pure singers in this crew, and the construction of the songs reflects this. And sorry, I got a little ahead of myself.
Geri Halliwell, a.k.a. Ginger Spice. If not the most fashionable, then the most flamboyant member, fashion-wise. If you remember exactly one Spice Girls look, that’s gonna be Ginger Spice in the Union Jack minidress, with the peace sign on the back, at the aforementioned, apparently cataclysmic 1997 Brit Awards.
I do think in the “Wannabe” video—which as you may recall is one long shot of the Spice Girls playfully wreaking sleepover havoc in a fancy nightclub-restaurant-speakeasy situation; Sporty Spice does a handspring on a table; a dude’s monocle falls out, in surprise, at one point, I’d never noticed that—your eye is drawn especially to Ginger Spice, who is clomp-clomp-clomping around in extra-giant high-heel boots, and also she is striking the most beguiling balance to me between acting spontaneously and trying visibly hard to be where she’s supposed to be, on and off camera, at all times, blocking-wise. Also I don’t want to drag this out, but certainly we can agree that Ginger Spice has, by far, the single best line delivery on “Wannabe,” and by extension probably in the entire Spice Girls catalog:
If you really bug me
Than I’ll say goodbye
Thousands upon thousands of self-help books, relationship books, how-to-find-and-keep-a-man-or-a-lady-type books, containing millions upon millions of words, when really all you need is nine words, as delivered by Ginger Spice. If you really bug me / Then I’ll say goodbye. It’s a little over half a haiku, but it makes full haikus feel overlong and indulgent, somehow, yes?
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.