In a sense, Beatlemania and Girl Power are as far apart as they can be. The Beatles were brilliant musicians with a desire to present different outlooks in their music that reinvented pop. Their image remains as the pure rock band - the ones that never sold out. It's hard to say that the Spice Girls changed music in any way. Their music fitted the pop mould of the '90s pretty well. Many Beatles fans will regard the Spice Girls as the ultimate in crass commercialism - a manufactured group in the most complete sense.
But I think that the Beatles and Spice Girls share much more than we would expect. If we can see through the differences then we might be able to understand what it was that enabled both to inspire the kind of devotion that we saw in the form of armies of screaming girls and vast amounts of merchandise being bought.
Greil Marcus has an idea that will help us here. His idea approaches pop music by looking at image. A group cannot help but put out an image - even a song can be thought of as selling an image. Marcus's idea is that a star will be most successful by embodying an apparently contradictory image. By doing so the apparent contradiction seems to have been magically resolved by a star that now appears more than human.
Marcus's idea can easily show us a lot about many acts. Bruce Sprinsteen (pictured) has a thoroughly macho look and voice but sings about weakness and insecurity. Springsteen seems to achieve something magical by being both masculine and emotional. Morrissey both hates English reservation and bemoans the loss of an English identity. Morrissey was able to embody the ambivalence that many people felt but struggled to articulate. I think that both the Beatles and the Spice Girls achieved something similar. Together, each group was much more than the sum of its members. The Beatles were more than just John, Paul, George and Ringo - they were the Beatles. Similarly, the Spice Girls seemed to be much more together than as Ginger, Sporty, Posh, Baby and Scary. Their group unity allowed them to embody each personality. They could be something different to different people. Somebody of a quiet nature would be pulled to George and to Baby. The naturally assertive would be pulled to John and to Scary. But I think that there is much more at work than this. Both groups were able to connect with wider culture in the way that Morrissey did. To understand how, we need to look at their group images.
The Image Game
In their early days, the Beatles were perceived as a group of young, working class likely lads who had got together and suddenly taken the pop world by storm. This is the image they furthered in their first film, A Hard Day's Night. Later, they became experimental, drugged-up and spiritually curious music gods. This is the image furthered in Magical Mystery Tour.
It is interesting to see how far the Beatles image rests on truth and how far on myth. They were young and they had a wonderful flair for teasing the press - their sense of humour was certainly that of a likely lad. They were certainly from Liverpool. But they weren't clearly working class. Ringo was the only Beatle not to go to a Grammar School. Their success was surprising given that they were on the Parlophone label but they did not come from nowhere - they had worked hard in Hamburg and had built up a large following in Liverpool.
There are also some interesting un-truths in the Spice Girls image. The imagery of their first video ('Wannabe') clearly presented them as ordinary girls. We see them walking into an aristocratic party, apparently just to cause a fuss. Two particularly interesting moments are when Emma throws the guest list in the air as they enter and when we see the group leave by bus. The video establishes a subtext about being oneself (as is hinted at by the title - 'wannabe') that seems to present the Spice Girls as rejecting the fame establishment. Later, they would appear in Spiceworld as unhappy with fame and longing for their pre-fame life. This film furthers a myth that they had been friends before being famous. In fact, the Spice Girls were selected at audition and only a few had met one another before through other auditions. They were each seeking fame and fortune and achieved when they became Spice Girls.
These myths, in each case, contribute to the group's appeal. They are factors that helped enable them to speak for and with a generation. The Spice Girls derived legitimacy by seeming to be ordinary girls. We could expect them to behave as one of us might do if we became famous. They became a window into the world of fame. The fact that they had sought fame did not take anything away from this. Every young girl wants to be famous. They simply embodied our own contradictory attitudes towards fame. Similarly, the Beatles derived appeal by appearing to come from nowhere. The image fostered was one of people like you and me who had something to say and had chosen music as a way to say it. The image of overnight success supported the image of rock and roll as embodying a message. The image each projected traded on ambiguity and contradiction. They were able to embody apparent contradictions and thereby seem to (and possibly actually) resolve them. As Marcus explains, embodying apparent contradictions is vital service that a star performs and it is why we let them speak for us.
How The Beatles Spoke For Us
The contradictions in the Beatles image are many and complex. Their image was thoroughly British - they were the Liverpool likely lads. Yet they became fascinated in the very un-British phenomena of eastern religion, hallucinogenic drugs and the hippy love and peace philosophy. It would be easy to say that many young people started experimented with these because the Beatles were doing it. No doubt this is true. But I think it is more true to say that they took up the interests that many young people at the time were pulled to. By doing so they made it more acceptable. There was no risk of compromising one's British identity by experimenting with drugs and eastern religion because the Beatles were doing it. And they retained their appeal for those that weren't experimenting - Ringo was clearly uncomfortable with the other Beatles spiritual experimenting, John had mixed feelings about the hippy movement and it was quite hard to picture the polite young Paul doing drugs (even though he did).
Some of the progress they made is more internal to music. Their love of doo-wop and girl groups comes through almost as clearly in their early records as their love of rock 'n' roll. This made each genre more accessible to the fans of the other. The same can be said of the way that George Martin's classical training comes through in their records. (Particularly in the later years. McCartney could not have written 'Eleanor Rigby' were it not for George Martin.) They were able to borrow some classical legitimacy from Martin. This is the kind of legitimacy that Beethoven had - the legitimacy of visionary musician, expressing his subjectivity through music. Primarily, the Beatles came from their being able to speak for their audience. But we should not forget that a classical romantic concept of legitimacy exists and that they traded off that too. (Some people hold that the romantic idea of legitimacy is the only valid one. To do so is to refuse to even try to understand pop music.)
The Beatles also traded off the folk concept of legitimacy. This comes through particularly clearly in Lennon's love of Bob Dylan. In songs like 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away', 'I'm a Loser' and even, to an extent, 'Norwegian Wood', Lennon adopts the pose of the confessional songwriter, sharing his intimate experiences with his audience. This autobiographical element is important to certain brands of folk and blues but is rare in pop.
But the greatest contradiction in the Beatles is in the Lennon-McCartney pair. McCartney seems eternally satisfied and optimistic. Beatles songs pull you into their perspective by repeated use of 'I', 'you', 'we' etc. We cannot help but be drawn along with McCartney's optimism on 'Here, There and Everywhere', 'Something', 'Penny Lane', 'I'll Follow the Sun'… But Lennon pulls us into his world of frustration. For Lennon, everything seems to involve struggle. Beatles For Sale is particularly illustrative. The first three tracks seem to be clear Lennon tracks - 'No Reply', 'I'm a Loser' and 'Baby's in Black'. After being emotionally drained by them we are given some release with a cover of Chuck Berry's 'Rock And Roll Music' before a touching piece of McCartney optimism in 'I'll Follow the Sun'. The beauty of the record isn't just that it has tracks that appeal to everyone. The beauty is that the first three Lennon tracks are easier to engage with and appreciate when you know that 'I'll Follow the Sun' is coming up. And with the Beatles, there always is something brighter coming up. They explore a range of attitudes that neither Lennon nor McCartney could manage alone.
But Lennon and McCartney are not at their best on Beatles For Sale. At their best, they do more than just embody our own feelings of frustration and satisfaction. They suggest ways to resolve them. 'We Can Work it Out', 'Getting Better', 'With a Little Help From My Friends', 'Help!', 'Let It Be'…
Before moving on to the Spice Girls, I'd just like to mention the enduring appeal of the Beatles. To an extent, the music of the Beatles is now hijacked for purposes it didn't have in the '60s. Older people may listen to a McCartney tune as symbolising their happier youth. I am only interested in this if that happier youth involved the music of the Beatles. Young people might turn to the Beatles as a rejection of modern drum and bass, hip-hop, rock etc. I am only interested in them if they come to appreciate the music as something more than a rejection. My question is whether the Beatles' music can still satisfy in any of the ways that it used to in the '60s.
As the cultural changes that they embodied become less relevant, we might expect some of their appeal to fade. Similarly, their playing with many genres was groundbreaking has lost some of its power as those genres themselves have faded. But the varied attitudes towards life produced by the tension of the Lennon-McCartney relationship have not faded in their appeal. There is still something liberating about going from 'I'm A Loser' to 'I'll Follow The Sun'. This isn't something that you can easily find in any single song. But if somebody listens to an entire Beatles album (except Yellow Submarine) and fails to find anything remarkable then I feel entitled to say that they are missing something beautiful.
How The Spice Girls Spoke For Us
Naturally, we cannot expect the music of the Spice Girls to endure as well as that of the Beatles has. It is an interesting question to ask whether it has already lost its relevance. I shall now try to answer this question.
Something I want to point out straight away is that a Spice Girls record on its own has little appeal. Each record contributes to and embodies part of their image. Elizabeth Leach makes some very insightful observations about this in her article 'Vicars of 'Wannabe': authenticity and the Spice Girls'. 'Wannabe' is a carefully eclectic record that aims to give the appearance of being improvised with each girl contributing pieces in her own style. This both brings out the girls different images and suggests that they have a kind of 'street' talent. Their lack of more traditional talent (they aren't wonderful singers) is irrelevant because they have a skill for saying what they think and doing it artfully. The appearance of improvisation adds to their credibility as representatives of the ordinary against the evils of fame.
But unless you saw the video to 'Wannabe' you wouldn't know that a complex attitude towards fame was part of the Spice Girls image. The song makes demands of sincerity ('if you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends') but these appear to be demands about relationships. They take on a new significance when seeing the video. With the video, the demand for sincerity is also a demand to not give in to the corrupting force of fame. What appears to be a simple feminist message choosing relationships is actually much more complex.
Girl Power was no doubt part of the Spice Girls appeal. This was certainly not original. Anyone who has seen a Bananarama video will see that they were actually clearer than the Spice Girls in embodying a feminist image. (Most notable is the video in which the girls of Banarama box and defeat a series of muscle-bound men.) But the Spice Girls updated Bananrama. Girls needed to know that they could be authoritative and sexy at once. Bananarama may once have embodied that but by the mid '90s they were certainly no longer sexy. The Spice Girls were.
The individual images of the Spice Girls are both more pronounced and more important than those of the Beatles. This, I think, is because the Spice Girls were consciously aimed at a younger audience. Ginger, Sporty, Posh, Baby and Scary were able to tell young girls something that they needed to hear - that they could forge a unique personality without losing close relationships as part of a group.
As with the Beatles, we should expect some of the elements of the Spice Girls image to retain their appeal and others to fade. Girl Power, in the sense of the feminist ideas, has, ironically, undone its own appeal. The Spice Girls change British culture enough for Girl Power to now seem completely unremarkable. The sexy-aggressive attitude was later adopted by many imitators and lives on with Destiny's Child and Avril Lavigne, amongst others. (The number of bands that have traded off the Beatles image is too many to list - their influence is almost everywhere in the pop world.) The individuality of the group members is likewise something that has been copied in order to appeal to a young audience. It's now quite common to find a token black member of a group to come in with a rap part. (S-Club 7 is a well-known example.) But neither of these things had much breadth of appeal. If the Spice Girls have made a lasting contribution to music, it is through subtly embodying the complexities of our attitude towards fame.
The Spice critique of fame didn't always work for me. Sure, I wanted to see sexy young girls next door break into a show-biz party and mess things up. If I was famous, I hope I would remember my old friends and not put them aside for my public or distort my own image. I would hopefully deal with it similarly to how the Spice Girls do in Spiceworld. But the Spice Girls seemed to lean too far towards celebrating fame than towards denouncing it. 'Spice Up Your Life' seemed to implicitly say 'be famous'. It gave young girls an excuse to make-believe at being famous. But it didn't satisfy my desire to see pretty young things tear the fame institution apart. By the time of 'Mother' (the video for which features the mothers of the girls) it was too late for the Spice Girl to appear ordinary again. They had appeared too much in Hello, OK and The News of the World. They were part of the institution now. Any critique would be hypocrisy. Had they not broken up when they did, they couldn't have lasted much longer. Without the appearance of being ordinary they couldn't appeal to me (at least at any respectable level) and they couldn't continue to give young girls an excuse to play at fame. Their fan base could only shrink from there.
I reckon 'Wannabe' will still be able to affect me ten years from now. The memory of the Spice Girls as they were at the beginning of their career will probably allow me to like that song. I can't see that my attitude towards fame will have changed much in that time. If this essay has been worth writing, then I won't be the only one to feel like this. But I can't see anything else by the Spice Girls enduring; even their most devoted fans will most likely grow out of them. The hypocrisy of the Spice Girls makes them easy to sneer at and this can only get easier as time goes on. But they said something about one of the biggest issues of the '90s - fame and surface appearance.
Back to Bigger Than Jesus
Links:A BBC history of the Spice Girls
The wikipedia gives the best online Beatles history that I know of
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Beatles The wikipedia also gives a very good history of the spice girls
A yahoo.com article that is amusingly, and rightly, confused about the legitimacy of the Spice Girls
The Greil Marcus Official website
Powells interview with Greil Marcus
Marcus's book, Mystery Train, at amazon.com
A musicological analysis of every Beatles song
References:Greil Marcus, Mystery Train
Elizabeth Eva Leach, 'Vicars of 'Wannabe': authenticity and the Spice Girls' in Popular Music (Cambridge University Press)
Bibliography:Elizabeth Eva Leach, 'Vicars of 'Wannabe': authenticity and the Spice Girls' in Popular Music (Cambridge University Press)
Tim Riley, 'For the Beatles: notes on their achievement' in Popular Music (Cambridge University Press)