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Close Encounters

The Spice Girls don't do a lot of talking onstage, but about 20 minutes into the second half of their August 22 show at Desert Sky Pavilion, Emma Bunton, known to the world as Baby Spice, looked like she had something important to say.

"We all know about Girl Power," she said. "But what I wanna know is, is there any Boy Power in the house?"

A few male toddlers perched on their dads' shoulders halfheartedly started to wave their green glowsticks in the air, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the sound of boos. It was a male-bashing moment more extreme than anything you'd hear at Lilith Fair, but there was a crucial difference between this crowd and Lilith's cappuccino-sipping fan base. In this case, the unison swell of female lung power came largely from females who had yet to reach their 10th birthday.

You knew that this was the first concert experience for most of the crowd when deafening squeals erupted intermittently before the show, at the slightest indication of someone taking the stage. Every paunchy, grunged-out technician who came out to move a mike cable was greeted with enough adulation to make Leonardo DiCaprio emerald-green with envy.

While Baby Spice's question may have met with a surprisingly negative response, the question itself said a lot about the group's intentions. Rarely has any concert experience so carefully worked so many marketing angles at once.

For one thing, the Spice Girls have managed to carve out a niche as a pop group that even moms can love, and they offered just enough nostalgia to keep beleaguered parents happy. When Baby Spice embarked on a solo version of The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go," or when the group launched into a spirited take on the Annie Lennox-Aretha Franklin duet "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," you could see the mothers in the crowd jump up in appreciation. The group pushed this connection more explicitly on the sentimental ballad "Mama," which they performed while sitting on the steps above the stage, with three huge video screens projecting childhood photos of the group members. Mothers and daughters screamed together, locked in a moment of solidarity.

Showing characteristic shrewdness, the members of the group kept their hints of sexuality tame enough not to alienate their core female audience, but with their nudity-tease performance of the slow, sultry "Naked," they offered just enough raunch to placate those raging male hormones in the house. At the end of the song, they also threw a bone to teenage girls by letting four hunky male dancers--dubbed the Spice Boys--take their places.

All of this calculation would be for naught, however, if not for one critical fact: Like that other manufactured pop sensation, The Monkees, the Spice Girls look like they're having fun. It doesn't matter that they were put together through cattle-call auditions by a British Svengali, and it doesn't matter whether their much-hyped closeness is all an act. Like The Monkees, the Spice Girls make their fans want to believe that they all live in the same house (a notion both perpetuated and parodied in their Spice World film), share each other's clothes, and spend all their free time together. The 6-year-olds dressed in red-white-and-blue tube tops, miniskirts and knee-high boots aren't just paying tribute to the departed Ginger Spice; on some level, they're fantasizing that they can take her place.

The group's stage entrance masterfully exploited its fan base's desire to join together with the band. As purple light bathed the stage, the deep, portentous voice of William Shatner (yet another celebrity co-opted by the Spice phenomenon) declared, "Spice: the Final Frontier." The video screen at the rear of the stage revealed a CD-shaped spaceship hurtling through the galaxy adorned with hologram images of the individual Spices.

The screen revealed the spaceship's landing, and the Spice Girls took the stage looking every bit like visiting space aliens. It was a hokey conceit lifted from Michael Jackson's "Captain Eo" period, but it worked like gangbusters. The clear implication throughout was that these visitors from Spice World just might take the audience with them on their trip back home.

Opening with "If U Can't Dance," the quartet quickly plunged into the super-infectious "Who Do You Think You Are," one of the many guilty pleasures in a song catalogue that's easy to dismiss but equally hard to get out of your brain. For instance, only a complete curmudgeon could have denied the Motownish charms of "Stop," or the salsa-flavored "Spice Up Your Life."

In a live setting, Baby's voice is the most effortlessly appealing--in an Olivia Newton-John sort of way--but the group's real appeal is that their voices are so generic and interchangeable that they can finish each other's phrases with hardly anyone noticing the difference. When they lock into four-part unison vocalizing, they convey a giddy sense of unity that Bananarama could only begin to approach.

Much as the show delivered what it promised, there were some strange notes along the way. For instance, the group's inclusion of its Pepsi ad song, complete with rampant, near-subliminal Pepsi imagery on the video screen, seemed a tad too mercenary for even this ultracommercial setting. Likewise, the group's use of a half-hour intermission (only 40 minutes into the set, for God's sake) seemed primarily about selling time to companies like Revlon, which occupied the video screen with one commercial after another. The group also unwittingly took some of the sting out of their second set by blaring the recording of "Spice Up Your Life" during the intermission, before they had performed it.

But such missteps barely qualified as pebbles in Posh's pumps. For if ever there was a Teflon pop phenomenon, the Spice Girls are it. They survived a swift media backlash in England, even adopting the derisive nicknames of Scary, Sporty, Ginger, Baby and Posh for themselves. They survived the mediocre feature film Spice World, which failed to satisfy all but their most diehard fans, yet hardly lost them an ounce of good will. Now, they seem to be riding out the fallout of Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell's abrupt departure before this tour began.

Playing the part of the naughty-but-protective older sister, Halliwell had established herself as arguably the best-loved Spice. Every young girl I spoke to at Desert Sky named Ginger as her favorite group member, yet none seemed too distraught that she was no longer with the group. At intermission, one girl expressed the hope that Ginger might actually come out and join the band in the second half of the show.

For their part, the Spice Girls got as much mileage out of Ginger's memory as they could, with video footage of her that consistently drew roars from the crowd, and her prominent inclusion in the tour program, which presumably could not be altered in time for the tour.

The latest hurdles facing the Spice Girls are the concurrent pregnancies of Posh and Scary. Though Posh moved somewhat cautiously (but that's why they call her Posh, isn't it?), she was still sleek in her tiny gold dresses, and Scary didn't shy away from her usual midriff-baring ensembles.

If the group's most likable quality is its ability to shirk off contemptuous critics (the latest of which is Boy George, who recently branded them "awful"), its most annoying trait is an insistence on claiming that a few dance-pop hits and a fondness for clogs add up to Girl Power, an implied feminism with no coherent manifesto. When they tried to attach themselves to Princess Di only days after her death by claiming that she was the ultimate symbol of Girl Power, it was a bit too much to stomach.

But whatever Girl Power means, it's a pretty potent force to this group's preteen army. Near the end of the show, the group--in matching white suits--locked arms for the unity anthem "Viva Forever." Near the end of the song, the relentlessly ebullient Sporty broke into a high vamp, singing, "Spice Girls forever."

The crowd went nuts, their every Girl Power fantasy confirmed. Moments later, the quartet walked up the steps to their "spaceship" and disappeared into the hot desert night. A few young girls could be heard shouting, "Come back, come back." It wasn't that they wanted an encore, per se. They just wanted the Spice Girls to take them along for the ride.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia