It’s been 15 years since the Spice Girls’ heyday, and a lot has changed in the music industry and society. In the 1990s we were criticised for wearing crop tops. We wanted to look nice, but today’s pop stars are about looking sexy. They could do well to listen to Ivy Benson’s story. I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of her until recently, which is incredible considering what a trailblazer she was. It was Ivy’s passion and talent that paved the way for the Spice Girls. We might be the band most closely associated with “girl power,” but Ivy pioneered it.
In 1939, Ivy, a 26-year-old musician’s daughter from Leeds, decided that she was fed up with men dominating the music industry and formed an all-girl swing group. In 1943, they became one of the BBC’s resident bands. Her male contemporaries were outraged – one even tried to sabotage their performances.
But Ivy was relentless. Her expertly directed band enjoyed success across Europe right up until the 80s. Just ten years later, the Spice Girls were born.
We were always very single-minded and knew we were going to be successful. But we had obstacles to overcome. Certain music magazines wouldn’t have us on the cover. TV shows weren’t interested in letting us perform. They wanted male groups who could be relied on to appeal to female fans. It was ridiculous but it lit the fire in our bellies. We weren’t interested in pleasing men and decided to make positive music that was empowering – for us and the girls who listened to it.
It didn’t get off to a good start. Our (male) management made us sing generic pop songs. Disillusioned, we decided to go it alone. So many girl bands have had their material written by men, but we knew that we had to dictate the message of our songs. Our lyrics were about female solidarity and enjoying yourself.
My five-year-old daughter loves Rihanna. But she has no idea what her idol looks like, because there is little footage of Rihanna that I’m happy for her to see. It’s a shame that a talented, successful woman expresses herself in such an overtly sexual way. Not that we can boil the problem down to one female singer baring her flesh. We need to have a bigger conversation about society’s obsession with celebrity. It’s vulgar and narcissistic and I worry about how it affects young girls.
There are things that the music industry can do to help. Some labels are trialling age ratings on music videos. Beyond that, we need female artists to be authentic. Of course, a 20-something woman has feelings and experiences that she wants to express, but you also have to be mindful of your responsibility to young fans. We took that very seriously. Not that we didn’t get up to mischief – it just happened behind closed doors!
I wonder what Ivy would make of today’s crop of female popstars. I imagine she’d have mixed feelings, much like me. We’ve come on leaps and bounds and there are some great artists out there. But sometimes we could just do with a bit more dignity.
Ivy Benson: Original Girl Power is on Saturday 18 October at 10:30am on Radio 4