20 Years of Girl Power: How the Spice Girls Fought to Keep ‘Wannabe’ Weird
The iconic video that launched an era of pop-fueled girl power was nearly subdued by Virgin executives. Here’s how the girls fought back—and how the song’s spirit stays relevant today.
In a post-Brexit world, it’s important to remember a time when England’s main export wasn’t bad news. Twenty years ago our frenemies across the pond gave us the greatest gift of all—the Spice Girls’ debut single, “Wannabe.” Legend has it that the iconic track was written in just 20 minutes, and recorded on the very same day.
In her autobiography, Geri Halliwell recalled, “we started off simply mucking about with chords and raps. Right from that moment, I think we all realized that this was something special. It happened so naturally that the song seemed to symbolize what we were about.” The energetic ode to chicks before dicks is hardly a cookie-cutter single. Its unfinished, punk vibe—complete with shouty rap and the DIY intro of Melanie Brown’s footsteps approaching the mic—immediately differentiated the Spice Girls from the polished, R&B-style ghosts of girl bands past.
Of course, “Wannabe” demanded an equally off-kilter video. The girl group convened in a dilapidated hotel for the shoot, where they assembled their own looks, with Geri Halliwell sporting a £20 showgirl outfit she nabbed at a Notting Hill market. They shot all night, even as the set became less and less temperate. The freezing cold conditions are evident in the final product—the video was banned in a handful of Asian countries due to the prominence of Brown’s nipples. The legendary music video that introduced Scary, Baby, Sporty, Posh, and Ginger Spice to the world was so unusual, Virgin execs almost succeeded in getting the whole thing re-shot. Luckily the Spice Girls went to bat for their eccentric creation, nipple-itis and all.
The English-speaking world seemed to take it in stride; “Wannabe” topped the U.K. Singles Chart for seven weeks, and remains the highest charting U.S. debut by a new British act to this day. Eventually “Wannabe” became the best-selling single by a female group in the world, selling over 7 million copies worldwide by the end of 1997.
Two decades later, “Wannabe” still stands the test of time. Re-watching the vaguely misandrist masterpiece, one is reminded that the Spice Girls were true trailblazers. They broke the group mold by cultivating individual styles and personas—so the next time Harry Styles is hit with a wave of gratitude for being allowed to grow his hair out and cover his body with stick-and-poke tattoos, he knows who to thank. Not to mention the fact that Sporty Spice was rocking athleisure back when Kylie Jenner was just a fetus.
The concept of the video itself isn’t exactly novel—girls break into hotel, dance on tables, drink champagne, and taunt all the boys who wanna be their lovers. But the raw energy and irresistible group rapport speaks for itself. The rowdy five-some jostle for the limelight and scandalize a bunch of stodgy, confused British dudes—a fairly prescient depiction of the Spice Girls mania that was about to rock the nation. A glum Victoria Beckham—the only Spice Girl who doesn’t sing a word in “Wannabe”—Mona Lisa-smiles at the camera with the quiet confidence of someone who knows that they will one day sleep with David Beckham.
In addition to the eternal mystery of the phrase “zig-a-zig-ah,” “Wannabe” continues to leave its mark. Noted Spice Girls fan girl Adele crooned the 1996 hit with James Corden on “Carpool Karaoke,” before revealing that she’s a total Ginger Spice. And in 2014, it was rated the most easily recognizable pop song of the last 60 years. Just this week, the ’90s jam was given a 2016 makeover by The Global Goals campaign, which reimagined the girl power anthem as a call to end worldwide injustice against women. The clip, which has received crucial stamps of approval from both Posh and Sporty Spice, features a range of stars from across the globe and has already been viewed more than 46 million times on Facebook alone.
In honor of the iconic track exiting its teendom, Mel B, Emma Bunton, and Geri Halliwell posted a celebratory video with some pretty exciting news: a band birthday party is in the works and everyone is invited. Spice Girls stans are interpreting this video blast as confirmation of a long-rumored concert in London’s Hyde Park next year. Unfortunately, diehards were disappointed by the news that the threesome is going by a new name, GEM, as Victoria Beckham and Mel C aren’t slated to appear at the reunion gig. Beckham seems unlikely to budge, with her rep issuing a characteristically posh statement: "Victoria has been very respectful about the fabulous time they had together in the past, however, her focus is now very much her family and fashion business."
Fans who may take Scary and Sporty’s decision to abstain as a personal affront would be missing the point: 20 years ago the Spice Girls seriously rocked the music business with a single that’s remained legendary to this very day, proving once and for all that well-behaved women rarely make pop culture history.