Fear and denial were my initial reactions when I was told by the boyfriend that we were going to see the Spice Girls Live! In Concert! Truthfully, I had my misgivings about losing the absolute last vestige of musical credibility — it’s kind of hard to bust out with Camera Obscura and Editors references when the ghostly after-image of a dancing Baby Spice trails in your brain — but then I came to my fogged senses and realized grown men knocking on 40 really shouldn’t have much cred left to begin with, so what the hell. Off to the Staples Center in Los Angeles we went, surrounded by a predictable mix of young tween girls, older, not so tween women who were girls the first time Spice-mania hit, and gay men. Lots and lots of really gay men.

Unconcerned the least in even pretending to present a shred of artistic probity or profundity, The Return of the Spice Girls (as it was billed) wasted no time in addressing its true mission statement — a celebration of all things truly Spice, consisting of clothes, rudimentary but entertaining dance sequences, clothes, “friendship,” clothes, big, fluttery butterflies on large projection screens, “togetherness,” and more clothes. There may also have been some music, but honestly, did that really matter with all this spectacle? “Girl Power” was mentioned only once and even then as an afterthought: hazy, half-envisioned empowerment slogans were left to the ’90s, in their place a sharply honed sense of camp and excess, choreographed with extreme precision. Even the knowing winks seemed rehearsed.

Nothing was spared, no white space left uncluttered, no empty spots unfilled. Sick of watching Ginger vamp thru “The Lady is a Vamp” (I told you there was zero subtlety!)? No problem, just watch one of the eight(!) dancers onstage with her. Bored with the dancers? No problem, just watch the continually changing projection screen animation. Tired of the projection screen? No worries, just watch the band roll along the back of the stage on a constantly moving and shifting platform. Slow portions or lulls are simply not permitted during a Spice Girls show. The sold out crowd ate up every single Sonny & Cher inspired moment.

Stop right now, thank you very much.Stop right now, thank you very much.

Oh, the music, you say? Again purely beside the point, but the Girls ran down a laundry list of hits and near-hits, disappointing anyone hoping for deep album cuts or b-sides (I mean, really?). Each Girl got a solo spotlight where they performed a hit from their years exiled from Spice World, with the notable exception of Posh, who in lieu of performing a song from her surprisingly adequate yet shelved solo album simply took her alone time to walk down the stage catwalk in a fabulous gown while talking on her cell phone. It was the most honest assessment of a performer’s true talent I’ve ever had the fortune to witness, and the crowd absolutely ate it up. Maybe it’s because of her constant media exposure or the fact that Los Angeles is her new adopted hometown, but human clothes-hanger Victoria got the loudest and most consistent crowd reactions during the entire show. Add it to the list of mankind’s mysteries, right next to what killed the dinosaurs.

The show was structured as an almost chronological history of the Spice Girls as we barreled thru hit after hit until “Viva Forever,” the final single the group released as a quintet before Geri jumped ship. At that point in the show, Geri sank beneath the stage (quite literally via a slowly descending platform — I said zero subtlety!) and the remaining four warbled thru some songs from the ill-fated Forever album before heading into the aforementioned solo portion of the show. Then, lo, the heavens did part and Geri returned, proving that in fact friendship and a legally binding contract truly never ends. It was only after the final song did we get any stage banter, but the muddy mix made it difficult to understand, save for Geri yelling at Scary, “I told you to NEVER FUCKING SWEAR!.” Oh, you naughty scamps. Cue “Wannabe,” then out.

Despite the snide slant, I must say I have more respect for the Spice Girls now than before. There were no pretexts of musical artifice, no grand statements, no clumsy grasps for critical reappraisal, just an old-fashioned Vegas-style pop show. It reminded me of another bloated arena show I once saw back in 1987 — David Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour, a legendary flop in excess. The Spice Girls succeeded in every area that Bowie tour failed. Bowie had many of the same elements — backup dancers plucked from the Kids From Fame, rotating stage elements, projection screens constantly blaring visual drudge — but Bowie made the mistake of drowning it all in pretentious Art with a capital “A”, trying vainly to infuse deep meaning into, say, the onstage image of a girl dancing on a pair of skis, instead of just letting us laugh at the dumb-looking ski dancing girl. The Spice Girls invite, accept and on some level, appreciate our derision and that’s why we love them. They may sing “Who Do You Think You Are?,” but when faced with that question themselves, they know the answer inside and out.