[on girl groups, queerness, and growing up gay]
As a young boy, I loved The Spice Girls. What’s peculiar is that I was never embarrassed about it, or any of my other very un-boyish obsessions (such as Skip It), especially given my self-consciousness about almost everything else. Their whole oeuvre was something to cherish: I had multiple unofficial fan books, watched their “Live in Istanbul” VHS until its cover was worn thin, and saw their movie as soon as it hit theaters.
Then I was a little older and their fad had faded, by which time I had heard the words “gay,” “fag,” and “queer” brandished as pejorative terms, not enough to know what they meant, but enough to know that my love of the British girl squad was enough to implicate myself. Those were dark years.
Given the magnetic camp of their performances, music videos, and interviews, I consider my obsession with Ginger, Baby, Posh, Sporty, and Scary was the beginning of my queerness. It was the most wonderful, the most fabulous thing I had ever seen, if I may write in superlatives. Of particular appeal was their message of love and acceptance, one that I did not always find around me as a boy who could never determine my place in the social circles of other boys. I couldn’t have a conversation about sports, I wouldn’t have a conversation about boogers, and I was not about to shoot spitballs or have one shot at me. The Spice Girls didn’t necessarily help me form many social bonds either, but at least it served as a separate world I could escape to in my own imagination.
Sporty and Scary Spice were personal favorites. As Kyle Keefe and I rode on the school bus together, I attempted to sing Scary’s interjections from “Say You’ll Be There,” imitating her tasteful use of vocal fry. My reasons for loving Sporty were practical in nature; hers was the only wardrobe I could readily imitate at home, although my requests for a nose piercing went unacknowledged by my parents. Regardless, if I ever stood a chance at replacing one of them, it was her (if only I had more time to practice my kicks). Sporty and Scary’s appeal was enhanced by the fact that each of them was non-normative in regard to the types of femininity I had seen in the world; Sporty for acting a tomboy, and Scary for being unabashedly loud and boisterous. As a young gay boy, you’re an outsider, and you tend to look up to outsiders in whatever form they take, especially if they’re in heels.
There are, of course, things about the group that are disturbing in hindsight, like the blatant sexualization of a young woman dubbed “Baby Spice.” Does that not strike anyone else as deeply concerning?
Then there were the ones I didn’t care as much for, such as Posh Spice. At the time, I was unaware of the phenomenon of socialites, of the supposed merit of “famous for being famous.” Given my current dislike for the modern incarnations of that trend, such as Kim Kardashian, it makes sense why I didn’t particularly care for Posh. Out of the lot, she didn’t seem to have a lot going for her beyond sleek styling and a pouty face, and she didn’t seem like much fun either. In hindsight, especially given the socialites of the past decade, she had (and still has) a lot going for her.
Ginger Spice was one that never really appealed to me, although it seemed like she had plenty of fans and was often placed in the center during choreographic sequences. Given my grown-up affection for ginger men, I find my former ambivalence for her a tad unusual. Also, I will never forgive her for leaving the group to pursue a solo career. “Look At Me,” was simply not as good of a song as any of the hits of her former cohort, and its title unabashedly reflected the moment’s narcissism. She’s probably just lovely in real life, although according to an exclusive insider source (Wikipedia) she once said “For me, feminism is bra-burning lesbianism. It’s very unglamorous…We need to see a celebration of our femininity and softness.” Is there something she missed about Girl Power?
Their footwear was enthralling. Those platform shoes. I was a short-ish kid, and that probably had something to do with it, but also, men’s shoes are incredibly boring. There was a time at a mall in Florida when I was with my dad, I must have been 7 or 8, and I saw a pair of shoes in a store window that looked like they could have been straight out of Ginger’s closet. Not only was I convinced that I had saved enough allowance money to buy them, I was also convinced that they had them in my size. My dad grabbed me by the arm, prohibited me from entering the store, and claimed that they didn’t carry my size. At the time, I thought it was because they really didn’t have my size. When I got a little older, I thought he was embarrassed at that moment to have a son displaying some sort of effeminate characteristics. Now, I don’t even know. In his defense, even if it was the latter, my dad has been a stalwart supporter in my adulthood (as has my mom).
And then I grew up somewhere along the way. I graduated from leading conservatories of music, studying the masterworks of classical music of the past five centuries. As I studied Beethoven, Mahler, and Stravinsky, my taste for much of the popular music from my childhood changed, but The Spice Girls never really left me, even as I grappled with some of their cultural appropriation. Their appeal is still appealing, but it wasn’t until the last several years that I discovered that others shared in my not-so-guilty pleasure.
When I was 26, I was in Winnipeg for a couple weekends in January for work. I agreed to meet a guy from Grindr for a date for three reasons: he was cute, he had a hot tub (it was twenty below freezing), and he had Spice World on DVD. I will never reveal my ranking of the aforementioned reasons.
Right now, I’m preparing for my doctoral qualifying exams in the field of classical music. There are three CDs on rotation in my car: Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, the Bach St. Matthew Passion, and Spice World. My department head would either laugh or kill me if he knew.
In 2017, as the 90s fascination has come full circle for my whole generation, it is an out-of-body experience to enter a national chain purveyor of trendy clothing and see logos of things that haven’t been made since the 90s (for example, the TV show “Friends”). The day that I see a Spice Girls shirt at Urban Outfitters, I will scream. Not because I won’t buy it, because I will, but because none of the kids these days will truly know what it was like to love them back then and ever since.
Ultimately, I’m here to write an affirmation: I still love The Spice Girls. I love them unironically for everything that they represent as an emblem of my queer youth, and, as a feminist, for what they represented (and still represent) for so many young women. They symbolize the joys and innocence of my childhood, a message that it is possible to claim our own power, and to make the world over in an image of positivity, good, and glamour.