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Four Dates With the Spice Girls

book cover

These pieces appeared in Spin, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and the Village Voice. They were written in July, July, September, and December 1998. The published versions may be slightly different.

I went to see the Spice Girls for the drugs, and I did not score. Since concentrated doses of first-crop estrogen will turn any household into a tilt-a-whirl, it figured that in ambient collective form this uncontrolled substance would make Madison Square Garden levitate. How could I miss an event that seemed sure to attract 10,000 12-year-old females to the Basketball Court of Broken Dreams?

But as it turned out, my 13-year-old date, who rates the Spice Girls 7 on a scale where the Backstreet Boys represent 9.5, was one of the rare attendees targeted by the zit-strip, leg-razor, and lip-wetter ads that filled the video screens all during the preshow. The modal age may have been 10, but there were more fans under than over. The standard configuration was a mother shepherding several little girls, and minors unaccompanied by adults were just about nonexistent.

What we have here, in greatly accelerated form, is the Michael Jackson Slide: the tendency of all pop phenomena to lose teen cachet as younger kids catch on. Which is yet another reason it's so shallow for the rock hipoisie to pump the Spice Girls as pure pop. I mean, do TV aesthetes compare Barney to Pee-wee Herman? Get real. I'm certainly not claiming they're awful. "Wannabe" is a classic, there's a winning sweetness to the necking guideline "Stop" ("I need somebody with the human touch"), and such prefab butt-twitchers as "Spice Up Your Life" and the concert-opening "If You Can't Dance" are crafty enough for anyone but alternadrones and 16-year-old boys. But Michael Jackson the Spice Girls are not--post-Bad Michael Jackson the Spice Girls are not.

At least not as musicians, dancers, or writers. Icons, maybe. But the Slide isn't helping--I bet Ginger quit because she wanted no part of a kiddie ghetto that teen advisories like "Stop" address as inaccurately as a tampon commercial. The concert was fun. The very integrated six-man (you expected six-girl?) band whomped, the very integrated Spice Boys dance troupe leapt, and the Girls/Boys race-mixing was hearteningly thorough, as was inevitable with the Boys split three black, two white, one Asian. Baby covered "Baby Love" with her nice warm burr; Scary and Sporty covered "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" with their nice tough rock. And "Naked" was performed naked, straddling turned-around chairs whose triangular backs hid bathing-suit parts.

But for this audience, the Spice Girls weren't models of female adolescent autonomy. They were teen dreams for children whose mothers were looking over their shoulders. Which may be why they closed by topping "Wannabe" and "Spice Up Your Life" with, what a stroke, "Mama," as snapshots and home movies of the Girls as girls looped behind them. I would have found it even more moving if I was my date's mama, and the encored "Viva Forever" and "Never Give Up on the Good Times" were letdowns. But the true show-closer, "We Are Family," wasn't. All over the arena, sisters little and big were singing it for themselves.

Spin, July 1998

There is a sound that looms large in rock mythology from Elvis and Beatles documentaries, yet is seldom heard live. It's the sound of thousands of barely pubescent females screaming for their heroes, their white knights, their dreamboats. The finest thing one can say about the Backstreet Boys is that--unlike their forerunners, the New Kids on the Block--they are worthy of this ecstatic, not-quite-knowing, supernally high sound.

The Backstreet Boys are five ambitious Tampa lads who after four years of hard work are world-famous. Now 18 to 26, they can actually sing and dance even if they ain't Boyz II Men, and their quadruple-platinum U.S. debut is lit up by at least two pop classics: "Quit Playin' Games (With My Heart)," the most lissome of their many vulnerable ballads, and the uptempo summer smash "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)." The former was deployed to prove that they can too play their own instruments, albeit less smoothly than their predictably expert and integrated band. Brian, the guilefully sincere one with the heart condition and the good voice, manned percussion and sang lead.

Unlike Boyz II Men, the Backstreets rarely flaunt their crotches, relegating occasional bump-and-grind gestures to punky-rappy rebels AJ and Howie B. Wimpy, sure, but also age-appropriate for a pre-explicit core audience. That's one reason the climax is so exciting. It's encore time, "Everybody"'s rockin', and the girls know what's coming: dreamboat Nick, 18 and blondly handsome, will ask his world, "Am I sexual?" Close your eyes and love it--there's that sound again. Yes, yes, five thousand times yes.

Rolling Stone, July 1998

In perfect time to the Eurofunk thump of "Tears of Pearls"--not a hit, but with your album quadruple platinum no one cares--Savage Garden's Darren Hayes strode out at the Beacon last Tuesday dressed entirely in black: black shoes, black slacks, black body shirt, black shades, knee-length black leather coat, black hair lacquered to his rather flat skull. Before he'd begun "Love Can Move You," which isn't even on the album, he felt compelled to propel this choreographed snap higher by doffing his coat to reveal . . . the sleeves of his body shirt painted in red-and-orange flames. And before "To the Moon and Back," which was a hit, he pulled out another stop, doffing his shades to reveal . . . his true self.

I never saw Duran Duran or Roxette, and hear even Bauhaus are going for laughs now. So maybe I'm naive. But to me Hayes was Bryan Ferry's invented cabaret-rock dandy come to pop life, the long overdue heir to ABC's Martin Fry--outrageous, thrilling, hilarious. With arrangements by Brisbane keyb-partner Daniel Jones, Hayes applies his fruity electronic baritone and power-packed falsetto to slightly twisted, indubitably tuneful love songs that speak to slightly jaded late-teen females and their sometime boyfriends . . . without ever challenging them. Covering Madonna, Joan Osborne, Bonnie Raitt, interpolating "Here we are now, entertain us" and "Spice up your life," dangling a cluster of nine varisized mirrored balls to beam eccentrically over Hayes's domain, Savage Garden's show was a high-speed pageant of knowing poses.

One peak came with the sole costume change, Hayes in white Elton John drag and pastel specs contending campily for the spotlight with two female backup singers gotten up in white hooker miniskirts and knee-boots. That was topped by the official finale, the hit "I Want You." Which was topped in turn by the encore finale, the straight-over-the-top love paean and enormous hit "Truly Madly Deeply." Which could only be topped by Hayes flipping open his lacquered skull to reveal . . . a 10th mirrored ball! Dazzled, we filed out onto Broadway--happier, yet somehow no wiser.

Village Voice, Sept. 1998

'N Sync are five showbiz hotties who became a boy group in the leisure mecca of Orlando, Florida, and achieved commercial liftoff in Germany. The Backstreet Boys are five showbiz hotties who became a boy group in the leisure mecca of Orlando, Florida, and achieved commercial liftoff in Germany. There you have three current top-10 albums and the emptiest pop confluence since Gerry and the Pacemakers ferried 'cross the Mersey. I mean, before you launch that Epcot Center boycott, remember--Coke really is different from Pepsi.

And 'N Sync are Royal Crown. The Backstreet Boys won't take risk one till the hits stop, but only letches who believe 13-year-old girls were culturally deprived before Next waxed their erections and Total faked masturbation would deny the pleasure potential and developmental utility of age-appropriate fantasy. The problem with 'N Sync--whose founding members, genuine singer JC Chasez and designated heartthrob Justin Timberlake, met while working the Mickey Mouse Club--is that they're into safety for its own sake. At Newark's New Jersey Performing Arts Center last Friday, their median fan was a very early adolescent, a notch younger than the full-fledged teens who blew up Radio City for the Backstreet Boys and a notch older than the grade-schoolers who took sisterhood lessons from the Spice Girls at the Garden. And despite the sexual element--"Take It All Off," one sign dared--the shriek of hysteria 'N Sync elicited was more kiddie squeal than hormonal howl. That's the test. They failed it.

Does it matter that 'N Sync replaced the Backstreets' Boyz II Men tribute with a Bee Gees medley? That 'N Sync's big dance riff recycles the Backstreets' big dance riff? That 'N Sync's "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You" packs more ick than the entire Backstreets album? That instead of relegating crotch pumps to their bad boys 'N Sync abjure them altogether? That, actually, they don't have any bad boys? Yes--these things add up. But what really confused me is why they didn't promote their Christmas album for a song or two. Hasn't their accountant told them the name of this game is take the money and run? Hmm--maybe not.

Village Voice, Dec. 1998