The Spice Girls’ performance at the BRIT Awards is not all about the Union Jack dress, I swear.
If you grew up in the ’90s, you know how big the Spice Girls were. If you didn’t, think BTS but thrice as big, without the aid of social media or even the Internet. While “Wannabe” was an era-defining smash hit that screamed “one-hit wonder,” calling the Spice Girls that is false. Their first two albums Spice and Spiceworld, released within 18 months of each other, sold 37 million copies worldwide. In the UK, they were the first music act to have their first six singles peak at #1. In the US, they scored four Top 10 singles, with Wannabe hitting #1.
The Spice Girls were undeniable pop culture icons, a dominant force at the tail-end of the 20th century that rivaled Beatlemania. With their frothy but emotionally astute pop songs and distinct but cohesive personalities, Emma, Mel B, Mel C, Victoria, and Geri brought women empowerment and British pride to the masses, cracking through language and cultural barriers with randy chaos and unbridled joy.
It was easy to sneer at: a bunch of girls lip syncing “zig-a-zig-ah” and preaching “Girl Power” in silly outfits? Seriously? Those critiques missed the point. The Spice Girls never took themselves too seriously as a pop act, because pop is ridiculous. As Victoria explained in a 2007 documentary, “[the Spice Girls] were about a vibe…about five girls.” The music was better than they were given credit for, but the group was about the package first and foremost. The package was shamelessly camp, and inside was a message of strength, fearlessness, self-awareness, and, most of all, fun.
Everything the Spice Girls were and what they meant is summed up in their legendary performance at the 1997 BRIT Awards. At that point in time, the girls were truly on top of the music world. “Wannabe” had just reached number-one in America, officially cracking a market that is famously difficult for international acts. Their debut album Spice was close to selling 10 million copies worldwide, an insane count for a group labeled as a novelty from the beginning. There was no denying their immense power. The question was, how long would it last?
That night at the BRITs, no one seemed to care about the Spice Girls’ long-term prospects. All that mattered was that moment, where they opened the show with “Who Do You Think Are,” their latest UK single at the time. The girls shimmied through the song’s introduction, as if they were filling their reserves to unleash a torrent of something. What they unleash, once those horns crash through the sound system and they kick off their choreography, is power.
That power comes from them knowing that they have the world in the palms of their hands. Not only did the match the dominance of Take That, Oasis and other male-dominated bands of the time, they surpassed them. Returning home from a wildly successful US promotional tour, more popular than ever, they had nothing to prove.
You can feel that freedom and abandon throughout their performance, as Emma and Geri stomp through their shared first verse with a fierce playfulness. When they reunite with the other girls for the chorus, you sense a challenge in the air. It’s as if they’re asking their naysayers, in the audience and beyond, what their deal is. The Spice Girls are the biggest act in the world, period; who do you think you are resisting them?
But it’s not a threat, because the girls at that point had nothing to prove. Instead, they’re having a laugh, dancing, smiling, and posing through what would become another #1 hit. (The song wasn’t released in the US to make room for “Spice Up Your Life” and Spiceworld.) Yes, they’re lip syncing, but who cares? Sure, their dance moves aren’t always in sync (particularly Geri), and what about it? They’re having an absolute blast on stage with every hip thrust. That sparkling energy paired with one of their most rambunctious songs ever makes for an infectious and downright irresistible performance.
Of course, any discussion of the 1997 BRITs without the Union Jack dress is incomplete. Geri’s decision to sew a British flag tea towel onto a plain black mini-dress solidified them as more than a hugely successful pop act. Pictures of Geri in that dress went across the globe. Even if you didn’t see their performance live, you saw Geri in that dress. The girls weren’t hiding their Britishness at all before, but that dress fused it with their identity. As the girls traveled North America, Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia, Great Britain went with them. That dress became a physical manifestation of “Cool Britannia” and transformed the girls overnight into British cultural ambassadors, comparable to Princess Diana. (Months later, when Diana died in a car accident, the girls dedicated their award at the MTV VMAs to her.)
So maybe quite a bit of it has to do with the Union Jack dress. But the Spice Girls’ 1997 BRIT Awards performance also encapsulates everything that made them so insanely popular in the late ’90s. That performance presented the group at the peak of their power, a full-blown celebration of their womanhood, their Britishness, and their wholehearted embrace of fun and camp. Would that be sustainable? No: Geri left the group 15 months later and hastened the end of Spicemania. But the future and the past didn’t matter that night. All that mattered was that moment, and at that moment, the Spice Girls ruled the world.