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POP MUSIC REVIEW

21st century zest

The Spice Girls update their look but not their sound at Staples, where spectacle and merchandise easily overshadow the music.

December 08, 2007|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

It's 2007. Do you know where your Girl Power is?

Riding a wave of nostalgia with a new greatest-hits CD and fresh product endorsements, the Spice Girls have come back into the spotlight with surprising vengeance. In 1996, their sex-sells marketing version of female empowerment made them a sort of mirror image of what the culture expected from women (that is, be tough but cute). A decade later these grown-up girls, thinner and more plastic than ever, reflect how that notion has been taken to the 21st century extremes of nip, tuck and Botox for everyone.

The return of the Spice Girls and their rallying cry of "Girl Power!" was a spectacle both on and off stage at Staples Center on Wednesday at the first of two sold-out nights (also Friday) for the '90s superstars of "Wannabe" and "Say You'll Be There" fame. Indeed, the show was even more elaborate and pyro- technic than the British pop group's 1998 L.A. debut at the Forum.

At least Girl Power still appears to be a fun, nostalgic fantasy for fans. On Wednesday before the doors opened, cameramen buzzed about capturing those who'd taken this opportunity to play dress-up a la their idols, Baby (Emma Bunton), Scary (Melanie Brown), Sporty (Melanie Chisholm), Posh (Victoria Beckham) and Ginger (Geri Halliwell).

Some sported homemade matching Spice Girls T-shirts scrawled in rainbow colors or dusted with pink glitter. One quintet of young women wore matching sleeveless Union Jack tunics, each accessorized differently to show their individuality (just like their heroines). Another more glam quartet tottered about in impossibly high platforms, teased hairdos and short-short outfits in British flag patterns and leopard print. Young lads showed off "Spice Boy" T-shirts and brightly dyed hair, while a sprinkling of towering drag queens swanned about in sequins.

Back in 1998, much of the Forum audience consisted of moms with young daughters; on Wednesday the now-twentysomething daughters attended in giggling girlfriend gaggles. But older fans also represented, and parents still brought their children, some too young to have existed in the Spice Girls' heyday.

The Spices' combination of sass and sex scored them two multi-platinum albums, a movie and international superstardom. But by the time of that Forum show, Ginger had already left the group to go solo, and by 2000 the group had effectively ended.

On Wednesday they were all in again, strutting and posing on the enormous catwalk stage amid ever-shifting video-screen backdrops, moving staircases, rising platforms and throngs of spinning, tumbling, break-dancing Spice Boys. Yet Girl Power was barely an afterthought during the hour-and-45-minute show. Early on, Baby briefly engaged the crowd with the slogan, raising her fist and then twirling sweetly, a perfect encapsulation of their feminism-lite message.

The '98 concert was a ridiculous mishmash of slick dance grooves and half-naked chair dances, but the Spices charmed with their happy-girls-at-a-slumber-party vibe. The Staples show played more like a Broadway production surveying their career, a clockwork affair devoid of spontaneity or genuine emotion.

On came the hits and favorites: "Wannabe," "Say You'll Be There," "2 Become 1," "Too Much," "Spice Up Your Life," "Mama." Amid the dizzying array of scenarios (each requiring a costume change) was a speak-easy set for the jazzy "Lady Is a Vamp," and a thundering video storm as backdrop for Ginger's solo hit "It's Raining Men." (In turn, the other four offered the post-Ginger number "Holler.") They also performed the new single, "Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)," from the hits collection, currently available only through a popular lingerie chain store, but scheduled for wider release next week.

The teasing, dominant sexuality of their non-threatening empowerment stance was represented by the requisite striptease and a flirtation with pole dancing that went thankfully unconsummated. There was a brief threat of whip play from Scary, who, during her solo turn on Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way," had a hapless audience member strapped into a frame. But they were so busy hitting their marks and moving on that no real frisson materialized. Scary mostly ignored her prisoner, and it was really just hilarious when the group later jerked their on-all-fours dancers down the catwalk on sparkly bondage chains.

Although the audience sang heartily along, the songs were rather beside the point. After all, the merchandise booths offered Spice Girls T-shirts, hoodies, knickers, tote bags, barbecue aprons, coffee mugs, baby items, posters, glow sticks and more. But there was nary a CD to be found.

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