In the first episode of Spice Girls: How Girl Power Changed Britain, we see father and son management team Bob and Chris Herbert holding auditions for “a girl version of Take That”. They have a rating system for the applicants, and Chris reads aloud the scorecard of one such hopeful: a 20-year-old Victoria Beckham. “Dancing – six; singing – five; looks – seven, not very good skin; personality – five.”
It’s just one example of the patriarchal behaviour the group come up against in Channel 4’s revealing new three-part documentary, which marks 25 years since the release of the band’s debut album, Spice, and spans from the group’s “manufactured” formation in 1994 to their eventual breakup in 2001.
In that same audition scene, the team’s business manager, Chris Murphy, is asked how to successfully manage an act. “Putting it bluntly,” he says, “what I would do is work ’em.” As far as concerns about mental health and wellbeing go, there are few. It’s a crushing environment, and one unsuccessful candidate from the same audition is brought in by directors Vari Innes and Alice McMahon-Major to recall the harsh realities of the process. “Back then, expectations of women in the music industry – the most important thing was definitely image and sex appeal,” singer Lianne Morgan says.
It’s no wonder that soon after their formation, all five members ran away from the group. Knowing their worth and talent, they are shown taking their careers into their own hands, demanding autonomy and creative control. We see how they interviewed dozens of labels themselves, eventually signing to Virgin with pop impresario Simon Fuller as manager. The deal allowed them to write their own songs, design their own style, and call the shots in an industry where women had little or no say.
The series is particularly good at framing just how radical actions like this were for women in the music industry in the Nineties, setting new precedents and challenging what had gone before. As contributor Jane Middlemiss says: “For a group of five young women to not only be having writing credits but to have an input into what they were singing [then] was absolutely huge. That was not done, even with boy bands.”
The first episode also traces the group’s famous “Girl Power” slogan back to its Riot Grrrl roots (via feminist punk bands like Bikini Kill), exploring how their new feminist manifesto reached millions of young girls via huge album sales around the world – especially through their first single “Wannabe”, which reached No 1 in over 40 countries.
Other contributors, such as Miranda Sawyer, examine the harsh Nineties music landscape for women, which was characterised by the “lad mag” culture of FHM and Loaded, and the way female artists were “pitted against each other” and “shamed” by the publication of revealing photographs. One celebrity photographer admits to sending pictures to editors based on which Spice Girl they found most attractive, knowing it would result in a better chance of a commission. Elsewhere, we see the group dealing forcefully with misogyny when asked to “show more cleavage” on a video shoot. All five refuse and chastise: “You should know better,” Mel B tells one photographer.
The documentary would benefit from more varied interview voices (especially from inside the Spice Girls’ own camp), but the archive footage here is a highlight, as is watching the group achieve enormous success – from their huge chart success to making £50m in a year – despite the obstacles a patriarchal music industry put in their way. It’s an expansive look at the legacy of “Girl Power” and one to which women in the music industry today will still be able to relate.