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Spice Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: So why won't the critics just shut up and enjoy themselves?

Surprise--the Spice Girls aren't worth hating

By Gina Arnold

OVER THE YEARS, few rock truisms have proved truer than "The men don't know, but the little girls understand." The line is particularly apt when applied to the Spice Girls, Britain's current singing sensation. In the course of their brief career, the Spice Girls have been reviled by critics of both genders and accused of every crime from inspidness to anti-feminism.

The latter charge is leveled by those who feel that the Spice Girls--whose rallying cry is "Girl Power!"--have appropriated the ideology and imagery of riot grrrls purely for marketplace gain, only to trivialize and undermine the concept by shoving it onto a group of cartoon-character women who wear skimpy outfits and flash their flesh in sexy poses.

True, the Spice Girls--who've given themselves the nicknames "Baby," "Sporty," "Ginger," "Scary" and "Posh" --own a bestselling single: "Wannabe." On the strength of that single and two others ("2 Become 1" and "Say You'll Be There"), their first album, Spice, has sold 19 million copies worldwide.

Those impressive statistics notwithstanding, the barrage of negativity surrounding this flimsy group is out of proportion to their place in the scheme of things. After all, the world abounds with pop bands that are purely prefab studio creations--TLC, SWV, the Jacksons, Color Me Badd, Bel Biv Devoe and the New Kids on the Block.

But with the exception of the New Kids, who were equally reviled, despite a much less prominent radio presence, these other groups had one quality that saved them from the critical massacre endured by the Spice Girls: they were black, a circumstance that seems to give automatic credibility. (One Spice Girl, Melanie B., is black, but overall, the group's presence is overwhelmingly white.)

This is a suspect point of view, since it implies that critics think that black artists aren't supposed to write their own songs anyway and that black women are supposed to precision dance and shake their groove thing.

CRITICISM of the Spice Girls is particularly disturbing given the tradition that says all such artists will eventually be ripped off by management. The Spice Girls are decried for having no "creative control," but nobody says "Ooh, they're so contrived" about TLC. And conversely, nobody's gonna cry for the Spice Girls when their people eventually take the money and run--as happened with TLC, which filed for bankruptcy soon after the release of its first platinum album.

In any case, lack of creative control is a very weak peg on which to base one's derision, since no one really knows what goes on behind studio doors. The Spice Girls are called talentless, but it's not unknown for members of this kind of troupe to go on to better things.

Michael Jackson is a prime example--so too Bobby Brown and Diana Ross. Even New Kid Donny Wahlberg is no longer considered the hopeless twit he once was, which is why, although the Spice Girls are clearly a studio creation, it would behoove the press to judge them for what they are, rather than for what they are not.

Besides, for all the talk of crass commercialization and omnipresence, what really makes the Spice Girls sound insipid to Americans is not their girlyness, but their Englishness. What they play is perfect Europop--previously the province of acts like Abba, Roxette, Milli Vanilli and M People. Europop will always sound empty to American ears, but it has its own charms and traditions, and within this context, the Spice Girls are perfectly at ease.

Judged on these terms, the group's second record, Spiceworld (Virgin), is an irresistibly infectious G-rated number. Songs like "Spice Up Your Life," "Never Give Up on the Good Times" and "Do It" are relentlessly upbeat; the ballads, "Viva Forever" and "Too Much," are blander but still appealing.

Admittedly, the stuff is pretty vapid, but no more so than the music of Tony Braxton or Mariah Carey, and there's something about the sweet blend of the Spice Girls' voices on songs such as "Denying" and "Saturday Night Divas" that approximates a more Beatlesy, bandlike, atmosphere. Both songs also express a mild bit of self-reliance and empowerment: "You think you're quick / but I'd like to see you keep up with me," they sing on one. And: "I'm not alone / and you're not in my mind ... boy, you were a fool / to treat me that way." The sentiments are not very Brenda Lee--or even very Sheryl Crow.

The Spice Girls' unity also adds a touch of roughage to an otherwise overproduced genre: the group has an undeniable personality, even if that personality is at times as obnoxious as a two-year-old's birthday party.

As for the charge of anti-feminism: I don't believe anyone "pretends" to be feminist. You either are or you aren't. In the old days--back when Madonna was considered radical and a "man-hater"--it was the kiss of death to say you were. If it's trendy now, that's a good thing, not a bad one--a sign of progress.

Everyone knows how men hold suspect things they can't understand, but I, for one, can't be mad at the Spice Girls for being pretty, funny, loud and self-assured. All I can do is hum their songs, regard them with awe and wish them the very best of luck.

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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