Pop column, Mail on Sunday, December 9 2007

Spice Girls
HP Pavilion, San Jose, California
THREE STARS

We've heard all about early-onset puberty, and now here comes early-onset nostalgia. Take That's spectacular comeback has shown that even teenagers will flock to see the stars they once worshipped. Now the Spice Girls have returned too, eight years on. They warily announced one night at Londonís O2, this coming Friday, and it sold so fast that they soon added 16 more.

When they played the fast-growing hi-tech city of San Jose, about 17,000 Californians, nearly all women of 16-25, went to see them, waving placards, wearing party dresses or spangly hotpants, taking a million pictures, and pediodically screaming. The screams had a knowing tinge, such as you find when this generation's mums go and see David Cassidy. Itís controlled hysteria.

The Spice Girls are on by 8.15 and gone by 10. With seven kids between them, they need their sleep. An introductory video shows five little proto-Spices opening presents and gazing at butterflies, suggesting dreams taking flight. Old headlines spin onto the screens, and then here they are: five expertly made-up women, with outfits exactly matching their foundation. What once was a riot of colour is now a riot of Ö beige. No wonder there have reportedly been rows about Roberto Cavalli's costume designs.

Back in 1996, the Spice Girls were scruffy, cheeky, vivaciously ordinary,
so that even if they were manipulated Ė by a ruthless manager, Simon Fuller Ė they felt real. This time, returning as veteran celebrities, they are polished and buffed. Their impact has long switched from making a splash to being a soap, stuffed with storylines: spats, splits, difficulties with boys, fading solo careers and competing autobiographies, plus the odd eating disorder, paternity suit and suggestion of plastic surgery.

But some things havenít changed, such as their media-savviness. Ten years ago they had their own magazine, along with umpteen picture books. Their comeback single, which has flopped, is entitled Headlines. Here, they give the critics front-row seats, which is unheard-of. I actually have to move back to get a better view.

The show swiftly establishes itself as a feast for the eyes and a fast
for the ears. The music is negligible Ė bass-heavy versions of formula-pop hits, ground out by a male band who are squished into two boxes. The vocals are mostly so watery that one thing is certain: they can't be miming. If they were, the sound would be better. They have only one voice between them, and it belongs to Melanie C.

Music, however, was only a small part of this phenomenon. After Wannabe, the hits were just a vehicle for the five personalities. We know them well now, and itís intriguing to see the pieces fit back into the jigsaw.

If you were nicknaming them again now, Posh might be Pouty, Ginger would be Flirty and Baby would be Cuddly. Scary would be Sporty Ė fresh from almost becoming the dancing queen of American reality television Ė and Sporty would be Cheery. Mel C looks relaxed and natural, whereas Victoria Beckham always seems to be arranging her face for the fansí cameras.

As solo acts, they might stuggle to fill a small club, but together, they add up to more than you think. To that extent, they really are a group. They put on a show that is buzzy and varied. Not only is there a Busby Berkeley number, which is commonplace, but a Bridget Riley one, as the stage is taken over by black-and-white op-art. Itís random but effective.

There are certain recurring themes: tinsel, dressing-up, fantasy. The mikes are sprayed with glitter and the show is so tinselly, it could go flat after January 6. All those little girls may have grown up, but their values still hold sway.

They change costumes six times, and the hi-tech stage incorporates a lengthy catwalk. Victoria, especially, comes alive when she totters down it. Maybe, just as many sportsmen yearn to wield guitars, what female pop stars really, really wanna be is models. The clothes, once the beige nightmare ends, are sharp and entertaining, co-ordinated but never identical, as befits a band who have buried their sartorial differences.

Girl power is less of a theme. Itís implicit in the treatment of the session men and in some things the male dancers have to do, like playing dogs on leads, which gets a big laugh. But they donít push it Ė wisely, since the little girls they were addressing have largely used their freedom to go shopping, read gossip rags, and get botoxed.

Wannabe, as ever, is much the best song, but even the duds are warmly received. The Spice Girls have proved that, live at least, they are still big. They may have to stay together.