By Rick Jensen
Anyone who was around in 1996 will likely remember the day they first heard Wannabe, the debut single from Spice Girls, incredibly catchy and depending on your taste a great pop song, or a massive annoyance. It divided people, it was controversial lyrically with lines like If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my friends which was in fact probably harmless in meaning but anything popular will get torn apart by “serious music” critics. Initially disbanding in 2000, their brief career firmly placed them into the annals of pop culture and they inspired millions of young women to chant about girl power and feel empowered.
Just less than 20 years prior to Wannabe, Sex Pistols released their debut single Anarchy in the UK in November 1976, also controversial at the time (though nothing compared to the furore around God Save the Queen). Their brief career sealed their place in the canon of musical history by bringing punk rock into fashion, and inspiring countless other bands. They were criticised by the mainstream but that didn’t matter, millions of young people were empowered to start their own band, anyone can be a rock star.
The two groups couldn’t be more opposite in sound, but both stood for some kind of rebellion, both were commercially successful, both have had reunions. Sex Pistols are getting old now and had their first reunion in the mid 90’s and haven’t performed since 2007. Spice Girls have all gone and started families and they’re about to embark on their latest reunion, the first since 2007.
It’s 1999 at the V99 Festival near Chelmsford, UK. The Spice Girls are on their first hiatus and Melanie Chisholm (a.k.a Sporty Spice, a.k.a Mel C) was busy launching her post Spice Girls career, doing one of her first gigs as a solo performer. Despite the worldwide stardom and success of Spice Girls, not many people were too excited about them without the other members although Geri Halliwell had done quite well on her own. With a great deal of hindsight and some time since the first wave of their success many people, mostly women, are happy to say Spice Girls inspired them and made them feel confident. At the time many people found their war cry of ‘girl power’ to be somewhat insulting to the female artists who had been fighting for equality and battling against the male dominated systems for many years before them (Patty Smith through to Riot Grrrl). The reason for this is they were a manufactured pop group, one of many before them and many to come after. This BBC news article explores the response during and after. Regardless of your view of them, they were everywhere during their heyday, not possible to ignore.
It was men who were deciding what songs they’d sing, what they would wear and how to sell them to millions of girls around the world. Gaining any legitimacy as an artist is always going to be a struggle after being in such a group.
In launching her solo career, Melanie C was trying to gain some of this legitimacy. She was easily the most talented singer in Spice Girls but struggled with her image leaving a group which was so omnipresent previously.
Her performance at V99 didn’t go well at all. Anecdotal reports suggest the audience didn’t really want to see her, or any Spice Girl and likely watched her set for kitsch value or with a knowing derision. She was pushing water uphill. Maybe her management or Melanie C herself made a bad choice playing this festival alongside “serious” adult rock groups like Manic Street Preachers, but the festival is remembered more for her performance than anyone else’s.
Song choice is always the key of a good set list – she chose badly. Doing a Sex Pistols cover is generally a bad idea. Covering such an iconic act means you’re always going to be compared to them and one that is perceived to be at the opposite end of the spectrum to Spice Girls is certainly misguided. Not only did she cover Anarchy in the UK, she changed the lyrics.
I am the Anti-Christ, I am Sporty Spice, I do what I like…
It riled the crowd, they jeered and threw objects at her. How dare she think she could cover that, let alone change the lyrics! This article reviewing her set at the time explains the reaction and shows her somewhat punkish hair style as well. She was trying to stamp her solo identity, she had been the tomboy of Spice Girls, she could do back flips, she had biceps and wore track suits. Maybe stylistically she decided to run with this image and take it to another level.
It was blasphemy, sacrilege… Or was it actually punk, more punk than even Sex Pistols themselves?
That sentence will no doubt anger many, but if you look at what the Pistols actually were, there isn’t a huge difference.
They were a manufactured group, Malcolm McLaren put them together, they were told what to wear by Vivienne Westwood, and they signed to a major label immediately and became symbolic of an entire generation of young people, just like Spice Girls. Yes, they existed as a group called The Strand prior to McLaren coming along, but he found Johnny Rotten, and conceived their aesthetic. There’s little doubt that McLaren and Westwood had their eyes on the money when doing this, neither is opposed to a commercial venture.
What about the music? I do prefer to listen to Sex Pistols, but I’m not a huge fan and in fact find them quite dull at times. Another similarity to Spice Girls is the story is more interesting than the music. They were musicians who did write their songs, but the lyrics weren’t a whole lot better than Spice Girls and both groups were quite immature. From their song Friggin’ in the Riggin’.
It was on the good ship Venus
By Christ, you should’ve seen us
The figurehead was a whore in bed
And the mast was a mammoth penis
This is not to argue about whether or not Spice Girls as a group or any of the members solo was any better than Sex Pistols, they are arguably as influential though, and Sex Pistols weren’t exactly the DIY underground act that many think – many fans seem to glance over the fact. They complained about the major labels but have continued to release their albums on them ever since. Not only that, their reunion tour a few years before Melanie C went solo was called Filthy Lucre, a bit of irony that they were just making some money, the fans pretended that was cool…
Were the fans at V99 justified in criticising Melanie C? Sure, they can dislike what they want, but to be criticised for covering Sex Pistols is unjust. She probably should have avoided that song, but she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both groups are considered British institutions now, mostly by completely different people, but they have attained a similar status in pop culture.
Sex Pistols are part of the rock establishment, Spice Girls are about to commence on a reunion which has gotten many people excited, not too dissimilar to the Filthy Lucre tour the Pistols embarked on back in the mid 90’s. People will like what they like for whatever reasons they do, depends on your age and whether something is contemporary, or maybe your ideology fits that artist or you just like a good tune, both groups tick those boxes too. You could argue that longevity is a sign of great music, and certainly imitation is the greatest compliment. Here’s what John Lydon (a.k.a Johnny Rotten) said about Spice Girls in an interview with The Times in March of 1999.
‘I like the Spice Girls because they don’t pretend to be anything they’re not,’ he explains. ‘They’re just good fun and they make kids’ lives a bit less miserable. The Spice Girls are music hall in the same way that the Pistols were,’ Lydon grins. “They are so English, they could not come from anywhere but this country.’ He cackles. ‘In fact, I like them so much I bought the dolls.’
Rick Jensen is a musician and writer and manages an educational service for people with learning disabilities by day. He’s published two books and released around 300 albums.