Spice up your life

spice_girls_etihad

There are some people who would jump at the chance to be at a Spice Girls concert on their birthday. I am not one of them.

At the end of May I found myself in a repurposed rugby merchandise stand outside the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, selling expensive merchandise to a glittered and increasingly slurred bank holiday crowd. The rain inevitably came, slapping down as if from loose guttering.

“Can my mate,” one bedraggled Baby Spice asked me, “have a discount, or something for free, cause it’s her birthday?”

I told her that, unfortunately, her mate (in leopard print) could not have a discount or a freebie. “It’s my birthday, too,” I added.

For a couple of the tour dates over ten days, I followed the Spice Girls up north in the peripheral economy surrounding the tour. I worked for the distributor of the merchandise, who sells stock on behalf of the client who owns the stock, which has been endorsed and possibly designed by the band members themselves. Like me, the others working on the stands were just there for summer work and extra money. A performance artist, a Devon farmer, a couple of students, a sound engineer.

I was amazed by the way that people buy the merchandise in spite of the extortionate prices. It’s like serving kids in a sweet shop. They point and demand as if choosing fried eggs and cola bottles from a pick-and-mix.

“I need one of those, a t-shirt in size medium, a hoodie in large. I’ll take a pack of the buttons.”

There’s one word that sticks with me: need. How can anyone need this stuff? On the stands we actually refer to the non-clothing items as tat – badges, wristbands, a teddy bear, baby grow, bib, tote bag, draw string bag. Most of the t-shirts cost £30, hoodies are £65. The prices are rarely questioned, and any doubts are usually dispelled.

Some of the fans who come to buy merchandise at the stand seem to think that I will have met the Spice Girls, or that I work directly for the Spice Girls. Many also assume that I am delighted to be following the tour around and seeing so much of the Spice Girls. I will clarify that I have not met with any of their members, and likely never will, certainly not selling T-shirts.

As for watching the show itself, the first time I experienced any of it was at the Etihad Stadium in east Manchester. I went in for around twenty minutes to see what exactly I was a part of. I could usually hear the concert pretty well from outside, and by the time that the main act is on and everyone disappears inside, I’d much rather sit down and read than face an assault of girl pop and backing dancers.

I’m not ashamed to say I don’t think very much of their music. It sounds typical of the time, a kind of background tune that you might recognise in a high street shop and not quite be able to place. Considering that the Spice Girls are nominally musical artists, the concert didn’t have a heavy emphasis on the actual performance of their songs. There were frequent outfit changes during which backing dancers would emerge for a stylised homoerotic combat ballet or there would be some arranged stomping, or a compilation of interviews where the members muse about their long and glorious past.

“It has been a privilege to be a Spice Girl. At heart, I think everyone is a Spice Girl.”

That’s from the tour program. I thought to myself, “I’m not a Spice Girl at heart.” But this is what the tour and what the band is really about. Not the music, but about the story. They provide a narrative, a kind of mythology even. It’s the drama of separation and reunion, the fated return to the stage, the characters they embody and which their fans emulate in costume. The crowd is strewn with flashes of leopard print, bunches like blonde antennae, knee-high boots and shining Union Flag dresses that take on a different hue in this new, post-referendum Britain.

It was an amusing microcosm of the ways that the past is made to fit with the present. Despite all the talk of existing as a girl band across decades, there was the obvious glaring omission of one of the members. Concert-goers, I discovered, did not seem too perturbed by this. Several people noted her lack of contribution to the band, or referred to her as “she who shall not be named”. The tour t-shirts were only emblazoned with the four remaining members. Posh Spice had quickly been written out of the story, or at least written into a different part of it, where she remained at a safe distance. The past was told through the present, and was made to fit smoothly with the current state of affairs.

It’s no secret that nostalgia drives much of the fanaticism around the tour and their reunion. Their debut tour was called the Spice World Tour. This one is called Spiceworld – 2019. As you would expect, the crowd is made up largely by young mothers with their primary school age children, introducing them to the girl band that mummy listened to in the 90’s. The tour does not come on the heels of a new album, so the material is the same as ever, and the spoken interludes from the members frequently allude to how long they’ve been around and their apparent legacy.

90’s nostalgia has been all the rage for a while now. The 90’s have become a unified, coherent object of longing in the current “nostalgia cycle” that follows 20-30 years behind the times, and is well explained in this video. The Spice Girls fit nicely into that general longing for Pokemon Go and the Netflix reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But maybe nostalgia doesn’t work so well these days. After all, it relies on the fact that we don’t remember perfectly. Since the 1990s, we have had all kinds of audio-video recording and storage, so that we don’t need to remember. Maybe that’s why fans left the concert early. They have too clear a picture of what the Spice Girls used to be. A band will struggle to generate nostalgia when when we’ve hardly had a chance to forget.

Perhaps there is another kind of nostalgia to be read into the Spice Girls tour. They offer a safe way to celebrate Britishness in an era when expressions of national cultural identity can be extremely divisive. Their brand of British is a known quantity, mostly apolitical, sensibly inclusive but not radically so. Their act is safe, preserved as it is across two decades. They aren’t attempting to do anything new, just to give fans the old stuff that they want, the stuff that is familiar. It’s safe. You know what you’re going to get.

**

For me, the tour ended after the gig in Sunderland. I worked five in total: one in Cardiff, three in Manchester, one in Sunderland. The Spice Girls went on without me to Edinburgh, Bristol, and then several dates in London.

I looked up some of the tour reviews while I was sitting outside the Etihad with ‘2 Become 1’ crashing out of the stadium. They had been slated by many die-hard fans and faced sound issues in Dublin and in Cardiff as well. On the Guardian, it was noted what we all really know about the tour: it’s a sponsored money-grab. We even knew that down on the stands. Profit from expensive merchandise all flows upwards toward the band, with everyone else trying to get a worthwhile cut as it travels upward. It’s how to make money in the age of streaming and piracy.

The review that stays with me, however, was one I got on the merch stand from a woman leaving the gig early with her mother and her daughter.

“They were shit when I came twenty years ago with my mum,” she said, “And I’ve brought my daughter and they’re still shit now.” It can’t have made too much difference, because she still spent fifty pounds on a t-shirt and a programme. It turns out you don’t even have to like the Spice Girls to be a fan.