Published in The Independent June 14, 2019
It’s 25 years since the Spice Girls formed, and their reunion tour – minus Victoria Beckham, who gets a dig on “Wannabe” (“Easy V: where is she?”) – has packed out Wembley for three nights.
Nineties nostalgia is big business, leopard print is back in fashion, and the crowd – women of all ages, and a fair few men in ginger wigs – are as fizzy and overflowing as the prosecco necked on the Tube over.
We all know what we’re here for: the old hits, a bit of stadium spectacle, and another glimpse at girl power and these particular “girls”’ enduring friendship.
They deliver the expected songs and sparkle. There are fireworks, more sequins than a Strictly finale, and coo-inducing light shows that flicker through wristbands in the crowd. The Spice Girls’ back catalogue is hardly extensive, so all the big tunes are obviously here. I grew up with this music – my first ever gig was the 1998 Spiceworld Tour – and there’s no denying that the heart swells on hearing this huge crowd chanting along to every track.
Highlights include the groovesome “Say You’ll Be There”, the perfectly formed pop classic “Stop” – yes, everyone here can still do all the moves, except apparently Geri – and even “2 Become 1”, because it never gets old having Emma Bunton sweetly lecturing you about safe sex.
Still, there is some real barrel scraping: I’d forgotten the kitschy cabaret pastiche “The Lady is a Vamp” and wish it had stayed that way, while the singles from their third album such as “Let Love Lead the Way” and “Holler” remind you why they stopped making music. There’s also a real misstep leading into the latter, when over a marching band (very budget Beyoncé) they revive their old chant “we know how we got this far/strength and courage in a Wonderbra”. As a vision of feminism, this maybe – maybe – passed muster in the Nineties, but sounds woefully out of step in 2019.
Earlier concerts drew complaints about the sound, and it’s still pretty murky and muddy, although surely less disastrous than previous outings. And their singing is nothing special, apart from Melanie Chrisholm, whose vocal strength and confidence does the heavy lifting, as it always did. But then it was never really about the singing technique.
It was about the girls, and their friendship. And that, I’m afraid, is less glittering, more grimacing. Before the tour, Melanie Browncaused a kerfuffle by saying she’d slept with Geri Horner, who described the revelation as “hurtful”. The drama seems to have spilled onto the stage: Horner looks stiff and awkward, wandering off while the other three – who do still seem like best mates – laugh, cry, and hug it out. It’s knuckle-chewingly awkward at moments – and completely fascinating to gawp at.
The show’s whole message is “friendship never ends”, and the commitment to and celebration of female friendship first was always the appeal of the Spice Girls. So this stagey version feels a little sickly. Earnest video inserts about being like sisters ring hollow; they literally cover “We Are Family”, even though Horner is abandoned like she’s everyone’s least-favourite uncle.
The other appeal of the Spice Girls was their clearly demarcated, heavily marketed individual characters, and their chaotic, girls-let-loose sense of fun. The former is present, but feels more rigid than ever: each woman has a “house” of dancers (shamelessly adopting the terminology of drag ball culture) who mimic their colour-coded outfits.
Bunton is still a baby in pink and fluff, Mel B looks sensational in a leopard-print body stocking that certainly would scare most women, and Mel C rocks trainers and trousers, albeit of the tightest, spangliest variety. Then there’s poor Geri, who seems to have come as… Royal Spice? Dressed in long flowing robes and tiaras, Horner often looks like she’s drifted in from another show entirely – perhaps an am-dram Shakespeare history play. Her performance is about as wooden.
Granted, there are occasional moments of genuine daftness, bickering and piss-taking – they all cheerfully moan about a malfunctioning lift, and mock Mel B, who once married a backing dancer, as she prowls after their lissom chorus. But mostly it feels carefully stage-managed. Maybe it’s too much to expect their unfettered, unfiltered energy to be intact. They’re still selling the same brand decades after anyone might have expected; no wonder it’s ossified. Few of us want to live solely in the same outfits and listen to the same songs we did two decades ago – more likely, we want to step back into Spiceworld for one nostalgic night only. And, in that respect, the Spice Girls still really do it for their fans.