Is it a coincidence that 2020, a year of chaos and upheaval, has also been the year of so much new music by 1990s pop music icons? For many queer millennials who came of age in the 1990s, it was artists like Fiona Apple, the Chicks and Alanis Morissette who provided guidance and comfort during the most challenging, difficult moments of our young lives. Somehow, as if by magic, they seemed to know that even though we’re all grown up, we need them now more than ever. And perhaps the most surprising and thrilling comeback of the bunch is that of Melanie C—yes, that Mel C, Sporty Spice.
At 46 years old, Melanie C is crafting the best music of her career with celebratory defiance. Starting with 2019’s “High Heels,” she has released a string of thumping, uplifting dance floor anthems, including “Blame It On Me,” “In And Out Of Love” and the just-released “Fearless,” which features the brilliant, up-and-coming Nadia Rose.
The standout is the glorious “Who I Am,” which I discovered in March during a particularly low, fearful moment at the beginning of the first wave of COVID-19. The first time I listened to it, I felt a wave of euphoria I haven’t felt from a song since Kylie Minogue’s “All The Lovers.” I cried as I danced along, feeling the lyrics resonate deeply:
The song’s message of radical self-acceptance caught me completely off guard. Of all the unexpected things this year has brought, a tear-jerker/dancefloor killer from Melanie C is up there.
Outside of the Spice Girls fandom and the radars of queer pop lovers, the new Melanie C songs—all of which will be featured on her new self-titled album—have gone criminally unnoticed by the general public. Unfortunately, it’s a situation that is all too familiar for female artists over 40. In the 60-year history of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, only five women over 40 have ever scored a number one hit. The last time a solo female artist over 40 managed to reach number one was Madonna with “Music.” And that was 20 years ago!
In addition to rampant ageism/sexism within the music industry, there’s also a general notion that pop is disposable. Indie darlings like Fiona Apple, whose searing album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, has been called a masterpiece, are praised for their in-your-face, radical authenticity—a kind of authenticity that is easily detectable and believable because the music is “raw” and “unbound.” I love Fiona Apple, but why should Melanie C be thought of as any less authentic just because she doesn’t have dogs barking on her record? Why does a sparkly, pulsing dance beat connote to some critics a lack of depth? Melanie C’s new music is compelling and powerful because she marries confessional lyrics with an electro dance sound; through dance, the act of bearing your soul becomes a physical one, too.
All the best pop/dance acts—Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, Janet Jackson, Lady Gaga and Robyn to name but a few—understand the power of a dance beat to communicate emotional truth. The Spice Girls understood it and mastered it, too. They were just too commercial, too pop or too female to ever be taken seriously. But behind the gloss and merchandising, the Spice Girls stood for something real: inclusivity and self-love. While their girl power message might have been naive in its utopian approach, it was genuine. And judging by the 80,000 people who attended each night of their Spice World 2019 stadium tour, it’s a message that their long-time fans hold onto.
More than any of the other Spice Girls, Melanie C has become the guardian of that message. The Spice Girls ethos of inclusivity and self-love is one that she’s remained dedicated to throughout her solo career. She’s also remained committed to music in a way the other girls simply haven’t, releasing seven solo albums in the last 20 years. These days, Victoria Beckham is uniquely concerned with her fashion empire and didn’t even join the girls on the 2019 tour. Melanie B and Emma Bunton have focused on presenting and judging reality TV series and hosting radio shows. And if you scroll through Geri Halliwell’s Instagram, you’ll see that since marrying some boring, conservative multimillionaire, she now only wears cream-coloured clothes and hangs out with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Last year, while Geri was horseback riding, Melanie C was carrying the Spice torch as she toured Pride festivals across Europe with the LGBTQ collective Sink The Pink. I confess that as a child, Melanie C was my least favourite Spice Girl. I hated sports and track pants (and still do) and that automatically made me uninterested in Sporty Spice. For so long, I thought Geri was the heart and soul of the group, but now I see the error of my ways: Melanie C so clearly was (and is) the heart, soul and backbone of the Spice Girls. Let’s also not forget that she carried the whole operation vocally.
Despite the glamour of being a Spice Girl, the road to self-acceptance hasn’t been an easy one for Melanie C. In the revealing and riveting 2007 documentary, Giving You Everything, she speaks openly about her eating disorders, the crushing pressures of success and fame and the times she felt bullied and diminished by her bandmates. In the video for “Who I Am,” she confronts versions of her past selves, which now exist as pieces of art in a museum.
In embracing and owning the highs and lows of her life, Melanie C has become an emblem of female survival in an industry that is known to prey on its young female stars. For so many queer kids in the ’90s, the Spice Girls represented possibility: the possibility of self-acceptance, of deep friendship and community, of girl empowerment. And even now, as a dancefloor queen in all her glory, Melanie C continues to represent new possibilities: the possibility of making peace with our past and healing our trauma. As she sings in “Who I Am,”: