Pop Music’s Herstory Of Female Empowerment

A quarter of a century after the Spice Girls gave us “Wannabe”, what’s become of girl power?

Pop Music’s Herstory Of Female Empowerment
Blackpink commanding the stage at the 2019 Coachella
Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California
Image: Getty Images

On 12 February 2019, America got to meet Blackpink. On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the K-pop girl group made their US TV debut, lip-syncing to their 2018 single Ddu-Du Ddu-Du while brandishing a well-honed dance routine. Fifty-five years earlier, a wholly different band had launched themselves on the same stage in the same theatre: the Beatles rolled out three songs on The Ed Sullivan Show, precipitating the rabid phenomenon we know as Beatlemania. Blackpink, it turns out, would make similar short work of their audience. 

To be fair, they had a head start. Before they turned up at the Ed Sullivan Theater, Blackpink could already boast of record-busting tracks like Playing with Fire and a sizeable, rapturous Asian audience. The zesty Ddu-Du Ddu-Du, though, would take them over the top — it became the highest-charting song by a Korean girl group on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracked a billion Youtube views in no time, transforming Blackpink into the world’s pop darlings.

It was a triumph that apparently surprised even Blackpink. As they told Cosmopolitan Korea in 2018: “We worried a lot because our concept this time was fiercer than before.” And sure enough, Ddu-Du Ddu-Du is feistier than the group’s previous releases. 

“I give it to them straight, I don’t care what people think,” it ventures. “If it’s black, then it’s pink / We are pretty savage.” You’ll also find it’s a song that refuses to “act nice” or “smile easily” since “I do it however I want because I’m a bad girl.” 

While audacious for K-pop — a format more inclined toward peddling romance than women’s liberation — it’s a vein of female pop empowerment that has long run through the Western girl group canon. Just sample TLC’s Unpretty, En Vogue’s Free Your Mind or Destiny’s Child’s Independent Woman Pt. 1, all of which do more than pine for a man. But let’s face it: when it comes to buoying it up for women in pop, the Spice Girls, one of the best-selling girl groups in history, had the market cornered. 

This year marks a quarter of a century since the English group debuted with Wannabe in 1996. You know how it goes: opening with a feral “Yo!” the dance-pop number goes on to tell us what it wants, what it really, really wants, before underscoring the strength of female camaraderie and solidarity. Upon release, the track dominated the late-1990s pop consciousness, stampeding the charts, whizzing the Spice Girls into superstardom, and inaugurating the quintet’s singular slogan — say it together now — girl power. 

Wielded in songs, live performances, films and an explosive amount of merchandise, that mantra was designed to counter the prevailing sexism of ’90s lad culture in which women were portrayed as little more than objects. How refreshing, then, a “Wannabe” was not just in its assertion of female pluck, but in its pop packaging. Girl power, you’ll notice, wasn’t any kind of feminist statement but was meant to deliver a “kick up the arse” to feminism, according to Spice Girls’ group member Geri Halliwell. 

Let’s not forget that feminism and music were intertwined long before the Spice Girls hit the scene. In the rock and punk realms, female-populated bands from The Runaways to L7 were forefronting feminism in their work; battle with the patriarchy was done in songs like The Slits’ Typical Girls and Bratmobile’s Girl Germs. Notably, the first usage of the phrase “girl power” arrived in a 1991 fanzine by Bikini Kill, the pioneering riot grrrl group who were unafraid to wear their feminism on their sleeves throughout their brief yet immensely resonant career. For reference, turn up their flag-bearing anthem, 1992’s Rebel Girl, a raucous celebration of women that declares, “When she talks, I hear the revolution.” 

When it landed in the hands of the Spice Girls, girl power was spun for simpler and flatter purposes — though vitally, it didn’t lack for fun. In fact, such was Halliwell’s promise to kick feminism up the arse: the group’s strain of girl power simplified feminist ideology, sending it out into the world with a loud, frivolous pop bow. However playfully, it thumbed its nose at the seriousness of the Girls’ forebears. 

That endeavour didn’t always sit well. In 2000, riot grrrl players Sleater-Kinney opined on #1 Must Have, “They took our ideas to their marketing stars / Now I’m spending all my days at girlpower.com.” Garbage’s Shirley Manson went further in 2016: “[Girl power] was pretending to be women taking control, but none of [the Spice Girls] took control. They weren’t writing, they weren’t producing, they weren’t playing.” 

Touché, but only somewhat true. Like today’s most popular girl group Blackpink, the Spice Girls were assembled in 1994 by talent scouts Heart Management, but were quick to split with the company to pursue their own ambitions. Halliwell, according to then manager Chris Herbert, “knew exactly what she wanted and how it was all going to look, probably even more so than I did at the time.” 

In 1995, after stealing their master recordings from their managers’ offices, the group sourced a new manager and producers, and yes, did contribute to songwriting efforts, including that of Wannabe

As Halliwell recently recalled to Vice: “We were unmanufacturable; we were unmanageable.” Proof? Rewatch the video for Wannabe, which follows the Girls as they crash a fancy party, dancing across people’s laps, stealing their cocktails and running off their tablecloths. It’s pure chaotic energy (Halliwell: “We wanted the camera to capture the madness of the Spice Girls.”) — that, above all, is the group’s speciality. The Spice Girls, after all, were hardly the most skilful of singers or dancers, but what they could rightly claim was a tireless spirit and joyous vitality that came from being, as their hit single put it, “for real”. 

And that perhaps is the source of the group’s power, more so than girl power. The Spice Girls never promised to tear down patriarchal authority; they had nothing meaningful to say about reproductive rights or workplace equity. Instead, they made wildly fun pop music that imparted self-belief and self-possession to their teenage listeners with a blithely straightforward mantra and the exuberance (once described by Spice World screenwriter Jamie Curtis as “terrifying”) to match. 

The post-#MeToo pop landscape is dotted with female-first cuts like Ariana Grande’s God Is a Woman that picks up where Wannabe left offImage: Getty Images

That lightning in a bottle was bound to be passed on. “There were braver voices before the Spice Girls and there were braver voices after us,” noted Halliwell. She’s right: we now inhabit a post-#MeToo pop landscape dotted with female-first cuts like Ariana Grande’s God Is a Woman and Cardi B’s WAP that pick up where Wannabe left off. Even Blackpink, however assiduously airbrushed to meet yesterday’s conventions of gender and beauty, have trotted out the sass in songs like Pretty Savage that strain against K-pop’s limited range. 

Or just take it from a fan, out of the many. Adele, on the way to a Spice Girls reunion gig in 2019, delightedly raved of the group. “They inspired me to run my life and never look back… Thank you for the madness I get to live, I couldn’t have got here without you.” Sometimes, awakening a girl to her power just takes that zig-a-zig ah.

This story first appeared in the March 2021 issue of A Magazine.

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