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Spice Girls - Spice Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the sleek pop, British nationalism, and commercial girl power of the Spice Girls’ debut.

During a frantic television interview in 1997, the Spice Girls, at the very height of their global fame, are laughing raucously and slapping one another on the arms. They have a magnetic energy, half engaging the interviewer's questions, half conspiratorially chattering their own side-conversations. The host asks a question about whether the band feels that they are risking over-saturation in the media. Geri Halliwell says: “If you wanna call it over-exposure, or just mass media attention, I think that’s just the way society is: When you like strawberry ice cream, you eat loads of it.”


The Spice Girls had materialized suddenly, seemingly fully formed, with their debut single “Wannabe” in June of 1996. It remains the biggest-selling single ever released by an all-female group in the UK. Complete with a one-take video in which they raised hell in a fancy London hotel, the song was bratty, with a ridiculous strutting drum track and a made-up refrain of “zig-ah-zig ahh.” It caught like wildfire.

A succession of No. 1s followed, quickly leading to the September release of the debut album Spice, which sold two million copies in its first two weeks, and went on to go multi-platinum in 27 countries. Not only did the Spice Girls' numbers dwarf the blockbuster releases of the modern era, they introduced a new model of pop success. They dispelled the tired mythology that people weren’t interested in all-women pop groups; they pioneered shameless musician-brand partnerships; they made music and videos that directly targeted children—Melody Maker labeled them a “teenypop act”—and, launching their music in Asia first, they always set their sights on going global.

It’s generally believed that the Spice Girls were the product of a master plan by their manager, Simon Fuller. It would be more accurate to describe them as the result of a plan that went completely wrong. The group was in fact created by a talent management agency, but it wasn’t Fuller—it was father-and-son team Bob and Chris Herbert, otherwise known as Heart Management. They were the ones who placed an ad in showbiz magazine The Stage in early 1994, looking for “streetwise, outgoing, ambitious and dedicated” under-23 women for an “all-female pop act.” Through rigorous auditions, the hundreds of applicants were narrowed down to Halliwell, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm, Melanie Brown, and Victoria Adams. Later, the UK press would rename them Ginger, Baby, Sporty, Scary, and Posh.

Unfortunately, the Herberts chose too well, and the five young women (aged between 18 and 22) turned out to have more ambition than their management. In David Sinclair’s whirlwind biography of the group, Wannabe, he tells the story of their heist: After becoming frustrated with a protracted development period and no contract with Heart Management, Geri, Mel C, and Mel B paid a visit to Heart’s offices, where they absconded with the master recordings of demos they had written so far (including “Wannabe”), met up with the rest of the Spice Girls at the side of a road, and drove up north.

From there, the five booked their own sessions with songwriters and negotiated a new management deal with Fuller. It’s true that Fuller was crucial to the success that came next: He assisted them in auditioning for every major label in the UK and Los Angeles, eventually signing with Virgin. Spice was completed in early 1996, long before “Wannabe” was released, so that the Girls could dedicate their time 100 percent to promotion when they launched.

Having the privilege to record an entire debut album before anyone has even heard your name is all but unimaginable in today’s music industry, where viral success usually precedes the record deal. But creating Spice this way meant that by the time “Wannabe” was an international hit, the group already had a cache of pop songs ready to go. The record can be broadly split into two modes: Its backbone is the brassy, attitude-filled, Northern soul-styled singles like “Wannabe,” “Say You’ll Be There,” and the madcap disco of “Who Do You Think You Are.” Then, there’s the softer-edged R&B-influenced ballads like “Mama,” “2 Become 1,” and “Naked.”

The album was a meticulously crafted pop product, front-loaded with surefire radio hits, a genre pastiche to suit every taste. But their gimmick also spoke to what made the Spice Girls so likeable, their infectious “have a go” ethos. Five women in a band together, sharing songwriting credit and vocal duties equally, was a new concept in British pop in 1996; the Spice Girls were all about making everyone feel included, even if that resulted in Geri awkwardly rapping in a coquettish faux-American accent on “Last Time Lover,” or the paper-thin verses that aim for a register that’s just slightly out of reach on the sentimental “Mama.”

Reviewing a Spice Girls song was like trying to review a can of Pepsi. In a music landscape saturated by Oasis on one side of the ocean and Alanis Morrisette on the other, “authentic singer-songwriter” was the dominant archetype of the day—by comparison, the jingle-like “Wannabe” was a freakishly polished commodity. And like brands that become too ubiquitous, subsumed into language and separated from their identity, the Spice Girls seemed to be taken less seriously the more successful they became. (Rolling Stone panned Spice, saying the Spice Girls had commercialized the riot grrrl movement, and their lyrics “made Alanis Morissette’s sound like Patti Smith’s.”) But Spice is endearingly unrefined. Even if nobody else was taking the music seriously, they were: Auto-Tune wouldn’t be introduced to pop for another two years (with Cher’s “Believe”), and the Girls—none of them trained musicians—spent hours in the booth trying to nail their takes. Just as you see Halliwell wobbling on her gargantuan heels in “Wannabe,” you can occasionally hear the straining and goofing in the voices on the album.

Spice has its dorky and amateurish moments, but if nothing else, that should prove that the Girls had a claim to authenticity themselves. Rather than just a savvy way to get a cut of publishing royalties, the Girls had a songwriting credit on every song on Spice because Stannard & Rowe and Absolute—the two production teams responsible for the majority of the record—worked closely with them to craft each one. Andy Watkins, one half of Absolute, told Sinclair: “None of them are musicians... But the thing about all of them at that point was they worked so incredibly hard at it. They knew their shortcomings. And the drive—it was unreal."

This was at odds with a press and public who largely characterized the group as a product to whom the music was secondary (a 1997 Guardian review of their second album began: “Anyone idealistic enough to think the Spice Girls are in it for the Girl Power, or even the music…”). On the nascent internet, surrealist, hate-filled webpages sprang up to accuse the Girls of being, as the Miami New Times put it, “talentless hacks.” Despite the vitriol, there are real moments of weird magic in the production: most notably the cocktail party chatter that sits underneath the G-funk-inspired melody of “Say You’ll Be There,” the synth squeals throughout “Who Do You Think You Are,” and the sample of Digital Underground on “If U Can’t Dance.” But the heart of the record is in the relentless optimism and tight friendship of the five voices at its core. It’s an album designed for karaoke with your best friends: silly, easily memorable chants like "swing it, shake it, move it, make it" sit alongside repeated cries that romantic love is no comparison to having a best mate.

That optimism was the tip of a cultural iceberg at that time in the UK. It was a year before Tony Blair would stride into Downing Street to a soundtrack of D:ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better.” Blair led the left-wing Labour party to its first victory in nearly two decades, representing a mood of political hope that Britain hasn’t felt since. Simultaneously, with Oasis and Blur flooding the international music market, Newsweek declared the mid-’90s the era of “Cool Britannia”—a label that was sealed in pop history when Halliwell performed at the 1997 BRIT Awards in an instantly iconic Union Jack dress. Writing in The Independent in 1996, Emma Forrest claimed that the Spice Girls “could only have come about after 17 years of Tory rule... The message is ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And then pull everyone else up with you.’ Spice Girls are New Labour.”

The Spice Girls themselves didn’t subscribe to this analogy. In an infamous interview with the right-wing Spectator magazine shortly after the release of Spice, when asked about Conservative ex-prime minister and evil incarnate Margaret Thatcher, Ginger proudly announced: “We Spice Girls are true Thatcherites.” Posh chipped in: “We met Tony Blair... His hair’s all right, but we don’t agree with his tax policies.” (While much was made of the Spice Girls being Tories at the time, it should be mentioned that Baby’s only contribution to the interview was to ask who Conservative magnate Sir James Goldsmith was, and Sporty later clarified in a different interview: “I think Thatcher is a complete prick.”)

The Spice Girls were emblems of a time when—in mainstream culture at least—it was cool to be proud to be British. It’s bittersweet to reflect on this now, as they return for a reunion tour (without Posh) in the same year that Britain is staring down the barrel of the greatest political crisis it has faced in the 21st century. Now a decade into cruel Conservative austerity which has slashed public services, we’re waiting to see what further damage Brexit will do to our economy. In pop culture, our biggest stars have a much more scathing approach to the establishment than they did in the ’90s. Northampton rapper slowthai just released his debut album Nothing Great About Britain, and MC Stormzy made the most impactful BRITs performance since Halliwell’s dress when he used the stage to ask Prime Minister Theresa May why the government had so spectacularly failed to help the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire.

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But while the Spice Girls’ nationalist tendencies look garish in a more divided, pessimistic UK, there was nevertheless a keen sense of social mobility to their success. Outside of rap and grime, in the mainstream UK music industry today, you’ll struggle to find a rising artist who didn’t attend either private school or the BRIT school. As poet and novelist Kathy Acker put it when she interviewed the Spice Girls for the Guardian in 1997, “The Spice Girls, and girls like them, and the girls who like them, resemble their American counterparts in two ways: they are sexually curious, certainly pro-sex, and they do not feel that they are stupid or that they should not be heard because they did not attend the right universities.”

This praise was valuable, at a time when the divide between highbrow and lowbrow culture was much starker than it is now. In today’s critical landscape, we have gone some way further towards recognizing the agency of female pop songwriters, and in the melting pot of the internet, memes sit in conversation with masterpieces. We would—hopefully—recognize detractions of the loud, rude, young working-class women who made up the Spice Girls as something perhaps rooted in snobbery. Their own brand of “girl power” was based on some flimsy feminist ideas, but Spice remains an audacious achievement. Like the "Wannabe" video, it snuck five Girls who were not on the guest list inside the establishment, causing chaos for a brief, surreal moment.


View my Flipboard Magazine.

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