‘Wannabe’ Turns 20: Why ‘Zig-A-Zig-Ah’ Is The ‘Fetch’ Of Pop Music

An investigation into the nonsensical British slang at the heart of a classic ’90s hit

On July 8, 1996, the world changed forever: "Wannabe," the first single by The Spice Girls, dropped and became, in an instant, the de facto anthem of Britpop-themed Girl Power.

And what a single it was! With lyrics preaching the prioritization of friendship over romance, Scary (Mel B), Sporty (Mel C), Posh (Victoria), Baby (Emma), and Ginger (Geri) used the jam to warn that "If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends." (Which is fair.) The song was accompanied by a video of the Femme Fab Five running through an upscale London eatery, and it boasted the type of choreography you could (and would) recreate in the backyard while pretending you were whichever Spice you liked the most. There was only one problem: "zig-a-zig-ah."

Here’s the thing about zig-a-zig-ah: two decades later, we still don’t know what it means.

In 2015, an "insider" claimed the phrase was originally "shit and cigars," which was apparently a nickname the group gave a man they used to share a small recording space with. But then Mel C also claimed it was just an impromptu exclamation.

"You know when you’re in a gang and you’re having a laugh and you make up a silly word?" she said, as though this were the most reasonable scenario in the world. "We were having a giggle when we made it up: zig-a-zig-ah."

That still doesn’t help me. Especially not 20 years after having to try to explain to parents and teachers that it’s not a curse word — I swear — and especially because in no friend circle has anyone ever just thrown down a random made-up four-syllable word out of nowhere because they were "having a giggle." The 2015 "revelation" that the phrase evolved from a terrible nickname is even less satisfying, mainly because now we have the mental picture of Girl Power being birthed from a dude who smoked cigars on the toilet and stunk up the place.

All of which means that now, more than ever, it's time to admit that "zig-a-zig-ah" is pop music’s own "fetch."

Meaning: It’s never going to happen.

And you know what? It never did. Despite the catchiness of "Wannabe" and the corresponding choreography (you moved your knees during "zig-a-zig-ah," and you fucking meant it), outside the realm of the single, the Girls’ questionable slang laid dormant.

I mean, don’t get me wrong — we all tried. Whether at recess or in gym class or at school dances, many of us valiantly marched into the great unknown, dropping the word at what we hoped was the right time, waiting in vain for the spark to ignite.

It obviously didn't. Cries of "zig-a-zig-ah!" were met with concerned faces by parents. Nonchalant mid-convo declarations earned side-eyes from cool kids. And that’s because a word that can mean anything tends to mean absolutely nothing. It was, like Gretchen Weiners’s own attempt, literal slang from England. And it was empty when compared to "Girl Power," a slogan that earned traction because of what it meant.

"Zig-a-zig-ah" was a cast-off lyric that worked in one context and one context only. Outside of those four glorious minutes, it was only slightly better than "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," which was at least the name of a song. The world had no place for 1996’s version of "fetch."

Yet, ironically, on the 20th anniversary of the most important debut to ever occur (according to me, a person with flawless taste), I'm forced to admit that "Wannabe" would’ve sounded a lot different without that absurd nonsense phrase. "Zig-a-zig-ah" broke up the verses, accompanied a dance move that was easy to execute, and taught us all that, should we need to make up a ridiculous word in order to keep a song or conversation flowing, it was at least theoretically possible.

The catch? You can never remove the word from its place of origin without sounding desperate to make it "happen." Or worse: like a total "Wannabe." (Damn.) Especially since we now know it was either randomly created with little to no actual thought, or in reference to a complete freak of nature. Tough break.

Zig-a-zig-ah, indeed.