Wannabe makes it last forever

Halifax really, really wants the Spice Girls tribute band, girl-powering into the Marquee this weekend. But the throwbacks don’t stop there: What’s the deal with the nostalgia blitz?

click to enlarge TIANXIAO ZHANG
Tianxiao Zhang

Wannabe: The Spice Girls Tribute Band
Saturday, November 25, 8pm
The Marquee Ballroom 2037 Gottingen Street

There's a scene in Spice World—the 1997 musical that would come to be the high water mark in the Spice Girls' saturation of pop culture—where Sporty, Ginger, Scary, Posh and Baby crowd at a forest's edge, watching a silver UFO descend into a clearing in a cloud of smoke. Four small ET rejects disembark, asking for autographs, photos and tickets to the Spice Girls' upcoming Albert Hall gig. "We're so sorry, it's sold out," Baby replies, making the now-disappointed aliens take off for outer space again. 

The snippet is weird and campy. The fab five are remarkably out of their depth, acting-wise—a perfect metaphor for the Spice Girls themselves. For a time in the mid-'90s, it felt that the Spice Girls were that popular, that those on Mars might be dancing along to "Stop Right Now." While they were far from the first girl group—and far from the first group to be packaged by a record label as a sonic Happy Meal—they were one of the first groups to hinge on a set of stock characters. The Spice Girls also feel, in a lot of ways, like the last: The last group to have an iconic Pepsi ad showing their star power had reached megawatt status, the last to create a visual narrative through costume-studded music videos—and, hopefully, the last to create a cringe-worthy trope that sees the lone Black member yelling in animal prints while being called "Scary."

"There's nothing like the Spice Girls. There was nothing like them before and there'll be nothing like them after," says Barbara Johnston. "They were like The Beatles meets superheroes meets Sex and the City." As Ginger Spice in Wannabe, a Toronto-based Spice Girls tribute band, Johnston's life is living proof that while the group left the mainstream, Sporty, Scary and co. still hold a place in fans' hearts.

"People are so into the Spice Girls and the message of the Spice Girls. Every year I'm like 'This is gonna slow down' and then it doesn't slow down," Johnston says, adding Wannabe has been performing for nearly six years. Fresh back from a string of shows in Qatar, she and the rest of Wannabe are packing their megawatt singing voices (and British accents), spot-on choreography, platform sneakers and patterned tube dresses for Halifax, playing The Marquee on Saturday November 25.

"We ended up selling out around the block. The curtain opened and we were in our opening pose and it was just a sea of people and lights and energy."

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"We booked this show and expected to sell 100 tickets, and then the week of our show, the Toronto Star caught wind of it and we were the centre page of the entertainment section," says Johnston of the group's first show in 2011. "We ended up selling out around the block. The curtain opened and we were in our opening pose and it was just a sea of people and lights and energy. I've been performing my whole life and I've never had a crowd like this. The whole show was a whirlwind and we couldn't even hear ourselves above the singing."

While tribute shows themselves aren't an oddity for Halifax or even for The Marquee—The Last Waltz played to a sold-out crowd last weekend—from the time the Wannabe show was announced it felt slightly different, slightly tilted (much like the Spice Girls themselves): Announced in June, sold out of advance tickets on September 18—an anomaly in a wait-and-see city that often buys tickets day-of. (Which you can, in limited quantities, at 5pm Saturday.) An announcement by The Marquee on the event's Facebook page that tickets were scarce lead to a flurry of desperate comments: "The site crashed while I was trying to ring through my tickets," wannabe-Wannabe showgoers wrote. "I'll buy tickets off anyone not going."

What other show would sell out like this? Big names land at The Marquee, an 800-capacity room, all the time, but the venue's only other show in 2017 that saw such scrambling for tickets was Wintersleep's January 14 concert. My ticket burns hot in my wallet. It felt sweet that a space for and about women-focused music was going to be one of the biggest nights out of the year. And yet, it was sad no local outfit seemed able to generate this amount of buzz. Why, exactly, was this show such a big deal?

"Almost any child could look at the Spice Girls and find someone to identify with within the group, and that's kind of remarkable," says Jacqueline Warwick, professor of music and gender and women's studies at Dalhousie University, leaning forward on the grey sofa in her office. "The opportunity to hear a work that is very meaningful to you performed live is very special. I bet a lot of people at this show won't have seen the Spice Girls live, so it's a great chance to relive that moment."

Johnston echoes this: "After the show people want photos, they want autographs. A lot of girls will bring their moms. We get a lot of bachelorette parties," she says. "We're amazed how much it means to people."

And while Johnston estimates a large part of the crowd to be in their late 20s and early 30s—placing them at the age to have idolized the Spice Girls when they were girls themselves, as Warwick states—part of the crowd skews much younger.

It was something I'd seen at That 90s Night, a throwback dance party at The Seahorse. The self-proclaimed "best '90s dance party in town" is a monthly event that routinely hits capacity, with a playlist spewing familiar favourites from Destiny's Child to Aqua (it's also the official Wannabe after-party). A friend and I had a very Carrie Bradshaw moment during a past That 90s Night, looking around the sunken dance floor and seeing, at 26, we were probably the oldest in the room by five years, while the space teemed with 19- and 20-year-olds brandishing their newly legal IDs and Kylie Jenner-inspired bodysuits. 

"Do you think for people younger than us it's like going back to the source, that they're tracing the genealogy of where their music comes from?" asks Craig Jennex, an instructor in women's studies and the school of the arts at McMaster University, with a laugh. 

In an age where we have unprecedented access to new music—where Spotify and Bandcamp mean we could be adding new artists to our iPhone queue on an hourly basis—why are we so intent on revisiting music of old? Why is That 90s Night part of an ever-growing crop of Halifax dance parties paying homage to everything from '70s disco to '90s R&B?

"I study music and I always feel anxious about not listening to enough or not knowing enough about new music," Jennex says. "I wonder if going back to the '90s, if returning to the past and thinking of it as settled, give us a bit of control over our participation in music."

"The innocence of the Spice Girls and the optimism about them is something people seem to really need right now because our culture is such a terrible mess."

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It's an idea echoed by Johnston, who thinks Wannabe—and the '90s craze that has kids everywhere discovering chokers and crushed velvet—can trace its success in part to the turbulence of recent times. "The Spice Girls and the '90s were right before 9/11. Everything changed at that time—maybe not only because of that, but right before that was the Spice Girls and Friends and everything seemed OK," she offers. "The innocence of the Spice Girls and the optimism about them is something people seem to really need right now because our culture is such a terrible mess."

"In some ways, the whole concept of nostalgia is longing for something you never actually had—it's this idea of a longing to be complete, it's not just for things you actually remember," Warwick says.

Were the '90s really a better time? The beating of Rodney King made police brutality part of the national consciousness. The Gulf War raged on. The Unabomber was arrested the same year Spice, the Spice Girls' debut album, was released. It was as complex an era as any other—something easily forgotten if you never lived in that time. 

When a cherry-picked retelling is handed down from parents or a backward-facing media (see: The 2014 National Geographic documentary The '90s: The Last Great Decade or the 2016 launch of MTV Classic, a channel replaying content from the '80s to the early 2000s) or even a president claiming to make America great again ("again" implying that the cultural epicentre of the English-language world was once exalted but somehow tumbled), it's little wonder you could end up pining for—or at the very least exploring—the decade. A grasp at the good ol' days that coincides with the West's position on the world stage shrinking feels beyond coincidence as China and India's historically recent economic growth continue showing the West might not always be the one who'll win.

"On some collective level, nostalgia is terrifying." That's nationalism. "But on a personal level, nostalgia is always dismissed as being very sentimental or silly. But there's something awesome about nostalgia when it comes to cover songs and tribute bands: Not only does the re-performance of this music validate our past, because it's music we have a stake in, it does it with other people," Jennex says. "When you go to that show it's going to be a phenomenal experience because the thing that makes you a collective is this music that you all adore and all know, so it connects you to all these people."

While Warwick is quick to say that digging through the past is itself nothing new ("a symphony orchestra's main work is in recreating works of the past"), the feverish intensity of our current case of the '90s shows how powerful nostalgia can be. 

"Can we really get lost anymore? We can pull out our phones and get an Uber or have maps tell us exactly where we are and figure out exactly where we're going," says Jennex. "So maybe instead of getting lost in physical space we're getting lost in time."

And if that time was never yours to begin with? Good luck getting back without a map.

Morgan Mullin is The Coast's listings editor and though her love for platform shoes rivals Geri Halliwell's, she's really more of a Posh Spice.

About The Author

Morgan Mullin

Morgan is the Arts & Entertainment Editor at The Coast, where she writes about everything from what to see and do around Halifax to profiles of the city’s creative class to larger cultural pieces. She’s been with The Coast since 2016.

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