Spice Girls




The Fat of the Land

(Maverick/Warner Brothers)

By Jim DeRogatis

On the books, England just took a giant step to the left. In May the conservative Tories suffered their worst defeat since 1832, as former rocker Tony Blair became prime minister, the Labour Party took power by the largest margin in its history, and even the Liberal Democrats won 44 seats in parliament. So how come two of the country’s most popular cultural exports right now come with none-too-subtle subtexts that would seem to place them somewhere just to the right of Margaret Thatcher?

The temptation is to dismiss both the Spice Girls and the Prodigy as bubblegum for the 90s–flashy pop fluff aimed at a young and unsophisticated audience. If you buy this, the Spice Girls are an updated Josie and the Pussycats, and the Prodigy is the Monkees of the techno scene. It’s kind of nice to imagine prepubescents starting out listening to “Wannabe” or “Firestarter” and moving on to Fluffy and Sleater-Kinney or Aphex Twin and the Orb.

This is probably why the music press has handled the Spice Girls and the Prodigy with kid gloves. Few critics want to come across as curmudgeons dumping on the kiddies’ new fave raves or clueless old farts who are out of step with the latest trends, especially when it’s just as easy to condone them with a sly wink. Those who have lashed out have resorted to the same tired arguments about authenticity: The Prodigy isn’t really a band, it’s a front for Liam Howlett, a programming whiz with a knack for punching in high-octane drum grooves and pecking out extremely memorable synth riffs. And the Spice Girls were recruited through a newspaper ad to fill preordained roles in a carefully contrived girl group to rival boy teenybopper bands Take That and East 17.

There’s no point in attacking the music, either. On Spice, the Girls sing badly and rap even worse over watered-down house, R & B, and hip-hop grooves; sure it’s old hat, but it’s brand-new to an audience that shuns Madonna as an oldies act. Meanwhile, Howlett takes a cue from the Chemical Brothers and Trent Reznor and injects his much-hyped electronica with lots of familiar guitar rock, sampling Skunk Anansie and the Breeders, quoting the synth line from the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” and covering L7’s “Fuel My Fire.” The results are catchy, accessible, and hard to resist–even for folks who swear that they hate electronic dance music.

No, my problem with both of these pop phenoms is what’s between the grooves. Despite the absence of female DJs, techno has mostly resisted the allure of sexism. The sexual predators of disco have never been welcome at raves, and while the music has often been very sexual, it has almost never been threatening. This is why “Smack My Bitch Up,” the opening track on The Fat of the Land, stands out as a new low for the genre.

Howlett has done some backpedaling in interviews, insisting that the song is intended ironically. But he’s the only one who hears it, because the tune consists primarily of a percolating rhythm track and rapper Maxim Reality’s frequently repeated boast, “Change my picture / Smack my bitch up.” The track breaks down in the middle for a weird and wordless Eastern vocal part sung by guest Shahin Bada, and then the beating starts up again. It reads like an unimaginative male fantasy of a woman reveling in a bout of rough and ruthless sex, as tasteless as anything Warrant or Motley Crue ever recorded. Further weakening Howlett’s case is the photo in the CD booklet of a piece of industrial machinery marked “blow-off cock,” a joke worthy of Beavis and Butt-head.

The rave scene is essentially pacifist, presenting a slightly clearer, smarter version of the ethos of the parking lot at a Grateful Dead concert. But the Prodigy seems determined to bust heads: “Serial Thrilla” finds spastic singer Keith Flint in the role of a sadistic serial killer, exhorting a victim to “succumb to me.” The hook in “Mindfields” is the proud and entirely too happy exclamation, “This is dangerous,” and while it might not have struck you before, “Firestarter” is a song about an arsonist who loves his work. Then there’s this charming slogan, prominently displayed in the Prodigy’s album artwork: “We have no butter, but I ask you, would you rather have butter or guns?…Let me tell you, preparedness makes us powerful. Butter merely makes us fat.” He’s supposedly a Nine Inch Nails fan, but Timothy McVeigh would really love this band.

The Spice Girls have some slogans, too, also splashed across the album artwork. “Silence is golden but shouting is fun–freedom fighters–future is female,” reads part of their manifesto. But the future they outline in their lyrics sounds more like the American 50s, right from the very first lines: “Say you’ll be there / I’m giving you everything, all that joy” (from “Say You’ll Be There”). “Candlelight and soul forever / A dream of me and you together” (from “2 Become 1”). “Treat me right, all night / Makes me feel good, like you should” (from “Last Time Lover”). In their big hit “Wannabe,” the Girls proclaim time and again that they’re gonna tell us what they want–what they really, really want!–but when they finally get around to it, the only desire they can articulate is, “I wanna zig-a-zig, ha!” You go, girls.

Last spring, as a record 120 women were about to sweep into parliament (compared to 63 in the old House of Commons), who did the Spice Girls hold up as their personal political heroine? In a cheeky interview with the British magazine The Spectator that they’ve since tried to play down, Geri Halliwell and Victoria Adams posited Maggie Thatcher as “the original Spice Girl” and “the pioneer of our ideology–girl power.” One thing’s for sure–the Spice Girls’ “ideology” is the exact opposite of the sex-positive, self-empowering message of artists such as Polly Harvey, Liz Phair, or Kathleen Hanna. They reduce all of womanhood to five stereotypes–which, whether they like it or not, are serving as role models for the just-post-Barbie set–differentiated by their particular designer duds and the subtle twist that each puts on the basic Playboy-style fantasy: the underage Lolita in white (Baby Spice), the snooty rich bitch in Dior (Posh Spice), the red-haired girl next door in cheerleader garb (Ginger Spice), the football groupie in logo-bearing athletic wear (Sporty Spice), and the black beauty in hip street gear (Scary Spice–and what’s up with that?).

Instead of dismissing the pretty, vacant cardboard stand-ups of the Spice Girls and the freaky-haired, pierced geeks who front the Prodigy as harmless cartoon characters, maybe we ought to be worried that they’re all too serious–like a big wad of bubble gum with a razor blade in the middle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.