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Spice Girls vs. U2

Thursday, April 10, 1997

This whole thing is about words and deeds. The Spice Girls have created a phenomenon by projecting an image of sexy misbehaviour and irreverence.  The attitude is their unique selling point, because the music itself is glitzy but essentially mundane. The lyrics mouthed by these advocates of girl power are actually simpering tributes to the values they denounce in their frequent public statements.

With the Spice Girls, the hype obscures the fact that they are at heart deeply conservative. Like a Shakespeare comedy, the exciting suggestion of chaos eventually gives way to the restoration of order: we are titillated by the thought of Ginger Spice’s antics while a ‘club dancer’ in Majorca, but end up buying the platitudinous ‘Mama’.  The music isn’t the message – the minidress is the message.

It’s scrupulously honest – everyone knows the image is at least as important as the music in pop (why else does Eric Clapton outsell Richard Thompson?), and the Girls have simply done away with the pretence that the music matters at all.

It’s a trope in the development of teen bands that there comes a time when they become ‘serious about their music’. Sporty Spice and her sisters should never fall into this trap, because that’s not what they’re about – the music is simply the hook to hang the product on.

U2 are, strangely enough, apparently following a similarly lightweight path at the moment. Their latest album, Pop, comes complete with a trashy po-mo image that has them dressing up as The Village People for the ‘Discotheque’ video, and hosting a launch event in a supermarket (Music’s a commodity?  You don’t say.). The live show is billed as a consumerist extravaganza, with Edge explaining, ‘it costs millions to be this trashy’, and everyone reflects on how the old earnest U2 are best forgotten.

Not taking yourself too seriously is crucial for mainstream success in the UK and Ireland at the moment – who’s to say if The Divine Comedy or The Lightning Seeds are laughing behind their hands? It’s especially important if you?re an established group with a track record like U2’s – honest emotion might have been fine for the late 80s but now no-one expects to find what they’re looking for.

In this environment, U2’s move shows they’re impressively light on their feet. Like the Spice Girls, the gloss surrounding the music is much more apparent than the music itself. Edge’s ‘Spun’ baseball cap on the sleeve of Zooropa was perfect – the band has spun itself in a way that would make Peter Mandelson blush.

However, let’s not start expecting the lads to change their names to Bald Spice, Hunk Spice, Weird Spice and God Spice. While the Girls are all spin and no substance, U2 are using this self-marketing guile to sell songs that are as substantial and earnest as they’ve ever been.

Wise to our current thirst for superficiality, they cunningly pretend to be as throwaway as Boyzone so they can sell bucketloads of an album that they genuinely mean. Genius. While the Spice Girls are honest about their lying, U2 are lying about their honesty.

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 10 April 1997)