Let me tell you what I want, what I really, really want: I want the 20th anniversary of Spice Girls' "Wannabe" hitting number one on the Billboard chart to be given some serious respect. The song launched thousands of impromptu sleepover singalongs, and made "Girl Power" the rallying cry of the '90s. "Wannabe" introduced a generation to feminist concepts long before they were old enough to read the works of bell hooks or immerse themselves in riot grrrl punk, and it is about time the band got the respect they deserve.
With their seemingly sweet names and parent-friendly pop sound, the Spice Girls' music reached girls from all walks of life. Their signature anthem, an ode to putting your friends before guys, became a cultural phenomenon — and not just because of its catchy lyrics. When the song hit the radio 20 years ago it made listeners feel empowered and emboldened.
Here were five women telling the world they were going to do things on their own terms. From Baby Spice embracing all things pink and girly to Sporty Spice making trainers a valid fashion choice, each one of the Spice Girls personas sent the message it was OK to be whoever or whatever you chose to be. It may seem like a small thing now, but in 1997, when the song made its stateside debut, open discussions about gender politics and expectations were not the norm.
In the age of Tumblr and Instagram, young women have access to the ideas of intersectionality, sex positivity, and all of the other tenets of third-wave feminism earlier than ever before. Growing up in the '90s before every household had a computer, never mind the internet, turning on MTV and seeing the video for "Wannabe" was nothing short of revolutionary. Here was a girl band featuring five unique individuals who were reinforcing the radical notion you were important, your friendships were valuable, and shouting "girl power" at the top of your lungs was more than OK, it was a rallying cry.
Even if you did not have a word for feminism yet, "Wannabe" tapped into the burgeoning need many '90s kids felt to break free of societal expectations — especially those attached to gender. During the time "Wannabe" came along, film and television were offering up female protagonists like Clarissa Darling and Buffy Summers, who were all about smashing gender expectations, but not everyone was allowed to watch those shows or see those movies. As a band, Spice Girls were inescapable thanks to the radio. "Wannabe" picked up the slack on the musical side of things as kids shared the song on playgrounds, at sleepovers, and bopped along to the music every time it came on at the mall. Before long, a generation was zigazig ah-ing toward their futures as feminists.
Need a few real life examples of what a cultural touchstone "Wannabe" is? Take a look at Emma Stone's emotional reaction to meeting Mel B, or Adele's rapturous praise of the group. As recently as July, the song was re-purposed for the UN's Global Goals campaign to end poverty. "Wannabe" and the Spice Girls made the spirit of feminism mainstream and, above all, accessible. And 20 years later, the song still resonates.
With one pioneering pop song about female friendships, unapologetic ferocity, and refusing to devote all of your energy to romance, the Spice Girls left a powerful mark on a generation of young third-wave feminists that will never fade. Personally, I really, really want to say thank you.