Wednesday, November 7, 2012

16 Years of Spice: Looking Back At The Start of The Spice Girls

This month sees 16 (!) years since the Spice Girls relased their debut album in Europe (with a US release following a few months later in early 1997). Sure, 16 isn't your typical celebratory milestone for an album but in a year that's seen the Spices reunite at the Olympics and gear up to release a musical based on their songs it seems fitting to give their debut the once over.

The odd part of the Spice Girls success was how it was so very big very quickly (The Official Chart Company in the UK posted some mind-boggling stats about just how huge their first few singles were this week) but never really lasted that long. The success of Spice fever across the world between 1996-1998 gave the girls a run of huge hit singles and a worldwide obsession very few groups have come close to reaching since.

Marketing and merchandise became a key piece of the Spice juggernaut with the girl's faces being used to flog lollipops, cameras, deodorant and basically anything else they could think of. Big name endorsements and the celebrity as a brand is a common link amongst today's stars but there's no doubt that late 90s marketing machine behind the Spice Girls set a benchmark for the next near-20 years of pop stars. Their would-be feminist Girl Power slogan may have been partly a marketing man's dream come true but it was also a neat slogan, the sort of "You Can Do It Sista!" message that was reimagined by the Pussycat Dolls as something altogether more sultry nearly 10 years later and the sort of stuff that would become de-riguer once Firework / Born This Way/ We R Who We R all become chart topping "message" songs.

But the thing about the Spice Girls thta many forget is the songs were in fact, brilliant. There was no way that intense a fandom, that much success, could have worked the way it did if it weren't for the group's gaggle of perfectly formed singles. Indeed the batch from that debut were particularly strong, from the pop-rap stomp of Wannabe to the balladry of 2 Become 1.

With a band as big as the Spice Girls were, those bold, shiny hit singles threaten to overshadow the rest of the album. And it's obvious throughout that the strongest songs were picked to go to radio, have videos etc. But what makes the album such a treat is the R'n'B feel underpinning various key points.

Say You'll Be There feels like a bubblegum take on TLC's early work and elsewhere Love Thing, Last Time Lover and Something Kinda Funny play with a similar feel. People remember the cartoon personalities of each Spice (those nicknames: Baby, Sporty, Posh, Scary and Ginger were genius) and the cheesy pop underpinning their biggest moments but on songs like this they almost sound, wait for it, cool. There's a sense of something sassier and more knowing about tunes like this that give proceedings plenty of kick. The charm of the Spice Girls as group was the slightly rough-around-the-edges and energetic feel they had, less polished than your average group and all the better for it. Album cuts like this let that personality shine via song, dripping with the kind of good humour that typified their every TV appearance.

The underrated Mama is slight lyrically but is a rare chance for the group to show that they could sing and harmonise well as girl-group if not quite reaching the early 90s heights of En Vogue et al. Naked is  an odd, melodramatic mid-tempo moment  but a welcome trip into saucier territory with any real attempt at sensuality cut short by the unintentional hilarity of Geri's spoken word verses. The true gem though is If U Can't Dance which borrows it's rumbling hip-hop beat from 1990 rap hit The Humpty Dance, a cool kiss off to rhythm deficient boys that sounds poles apart from everything else on the album. It's another moment that completely jars with the bubblegum "buy a can of Pepsi with our faces on it!" image the girls curated after they became huge stars and a reminder of how well this album has aged 16 years later.

Indeed as a body of work Spice is lean, filler-free and utterly fun. The opening salvo of the three big singles puts their strongest hits up front but also tees up a jolly, carefree ride that is part bubblegum, part streetwise hip-hop pastiche with the still irresistible swing of disco-pop nugget Who Do You Think You Are being a mid-set highlight. It's interesting too that the swiftly released follow up Spiceworld garnered more hits but moved away from the R'n'B references that made their debut so charming (It was still a strong pop album but certainly more cartoon-y than it's predecessor).

As the group plug the musical and use the goodwill from this year's Olympics performance to enjoy renewed press attention it's fitting to look back on a short but to the point pop album. One that set in motion a machine that would make five girls very famous, spark the late 90s teen pop craze that gave us Britney and co. and sell lots and lots of merchandise. Spicemania might have been about more than just the music but that music still sounds pretty damn good to this day.

Viva Forever, the musical based on the Spice Girls' music opens in London on November 27th

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