The greatest Britpop album of them all?
That’s not a serious question is it?
Nobody really thinks that there was a better album by a British pop group than this in the nineties do they?
Only “We Are Shampoo” by Shampoo (released two years earlier) comes close…and even that is some distance away.
Scary had more attitude than a bucket hat full of Liam Gallaghers.
Sporty was funnier than Jarvis.
Ginger did the Union Flag thing with more grace than Noel.
Posh was better dressed than Brett.
Baby was a glorious postmodern deconstruction of the male gaze.
In short, they were perfect.
They looked like the coolest gang in the world.
There is a reason why a certain type of music “fan” gets bent out of shape when you point out that Spice Girls were the Britpoppiest Britpop band of them all and it is this…they know that none of the bands they have placed on a pedestal ever released a single as glorious as “Wannabe”.
My own record collection is top heavy with Blur, Pulp, Suede, Elastica, Sleeper, Echobelly, Flamingoes, Strangelove, David Devant and his Spirit Wife, Pimlico, Soda, Flamingoes and even some Oasis, but I am capable of acknowledging the brilliance of “Wannabe”. Just compare it to the singles that duked it out for the Battle of Britpop…are you seriously going to try and tell me that “Country House” and “Roll With It” can hold a candle to it?
It is a perfect moment in pop history.
A statement of intent from a band who knew that they were going to be the biggest band on the planet…it swaggers and struts around the room, giving it the big “I am”, while all the other records stare at the floor and shuffle out of the way. It was also the first public outing for the manifesto of Girl Power, it celebrates the bonds between women, the notion of female empowerment and the power of friendship. It is a fiercely political song, a feminist anthem.
There was a point when fans of “real” music, the sort of music Oasis made, would point and laugh at Spice Girls, bellowing something about guitars and, crucially, the fact that “real” bands write their own songs. Fortunately, the enormous success of Liam Gallagher and their continued adoration of him has put that particular argument in the bin where it always belonged. Liam is closing in on album number three and, so far, he was “co-written” some of the lyrics and played exactly zero instruments on any of them. I wonder why the boys didn’t cut the girls the same slack…answers on a postcard to Rampant Sexism at the usual address.
Multi-Platinum in 27 countries…ten times Platinum here in the UK.
Platinum in 14 countries.
Gold in three countries.
It sold nineteen million copies in a little over a year from its release date and has sold over twenty three million copies in total.
It’s an astonishing set of numbers, but it isn’t the numbers what matters…it’s the music.
“Spice” is a glorious fusion of pop, soul, R ’n’ B and hip-hop…with producers Matt Rowe, Richard Stannard and Absolute drawing on a range of influences that combined to produce something startlingly original and unique. When one considers how interchangeable a lot of the sounds of the Britpop era could be and how narrow the range of influences seemed to be (at least for the Noel rockers) it is even more infuriating that “real” music fans didn’t embrace it.
While “Wannabe” is the “Common People” of the piece, the big hit, the song that landed them in the public consciousness and pushed them into the big time, the beating heart of the album and the song that confirms that we are dealing with performers/writers/producers who are operating on a different level to any of their peers is “Mama”. A song about the relationship between daughter and mother, a hymn to the often fraught journey from girl to woman, a letter of love from one generation to another. It is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, song. It is their “Tender”…but with more soul. When one considers the toxic nature of lad culture at the time of “Spice” being released there is something very powerful in the fact that these five women were prepared not to present themselves as objects to be looked at (Laura Mulvey called this “to-be-looked-at-ness”) or to sing trite “love” songs. Instead, at the very centre of their debut album, they placed female relationships.
“Didn’t sing trite love songs? Have you heard “2 Become 1”?”
I’ve done better than that, I’ve actually listened to it…not just looked at the title. “2 Become 1” isn’t a love song, it’s a sex song. A sex song being driven by female desire. No male voice telling a woman how good he is going to MAKE her feel, no grunting and groaning, no I wanna SEX you up. Here the woman is at the heart of the affair…
I need some love…take it or leave it…wanna make love to you baby…
It’s a similar trick to the one pulled by Salt-n-Pepa with “Push It”, although because Spice Girls were English it just wasn’t possible for them to sing some thing like “Can’t you hear the musics pumpin’ hard, like I wish you would.” What would the Vicar say? But the sentiment is exactly the same…female desire, female needs. No coercive “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” nonsense here.
Back in 1993 the Riot Grrrl movement had been making noise in the UK and the USA. Famously, Britain’s best known members of the scene, Huggy Bear, appeared on The Word making the sort of gloriously distorted and disturbing racket that would have parents reaching for the off switch but which left people like slack jawed with wonder. This was a radical feminism that challenged the toxic masculinity of the music industry decades before anyone knew what toxic masculinity was. Within two years of the classic “Taking The Rough With the Smooch” compilation dropping, a new generation of female artists were being subjected to all the delights of “lad culture”. Artists like Louise Wener (Sleeper) were brought onto television chat shows in order that the hosts could make a series of vulgar, sexist, lecherous comments in the name of entertainment. That was “just the way it is”.
Critics of Spice Girls will argue that they were puppets, a carefully constructed pop experiment with shadowy figures in the background pulling the strings. That is, to be blunt, bullshit. Worse, it is just another form of the misogyny that infects the music scene and industry. What those people are really saying is that “These women couldn’t possibly be “real” people with their own personalities and opinions, there must be a man involved somewhere.” Maybe there was…but the Spice Girls were using the power and influence of those figures to push their own form of radical feminism. They were just as radical as the likes of Huggy Bear, or Bikini Kill in the States, and people like Kathleen Hanna would have seen them as kindred spirits…or maybe not, after all “Girl Power” was Kathleen’s idea. There may be flaws in the Spice Girls brand of feminism, writer Jenny Stevens in an article for Vice (How The Spice Girls Ripped Girl Power From It’s Radical Roots) discussed the fact that “girl power” as presented by the Spice Girls presented the notion that girls could have it all…but then flung them into a world where, in fact, they couldn’t. But, the very existence of a group of women who looked like Spice Girls and who said and did the things they did was some sort of victory, surely?
This may not be something that I can really add anything to. You figure it out.
What really matters right now is the music. There are moments here that are as good as anything that the decades other big girl group managed. I’m talking about TLC who, with 1994’s “CrazySexyCool” delivered one of the most important and immaculate records of the nineties. It includes two singles that hold joint top spot for record of the decade in my list, “Creep” and “Waterfalls”. “Spice” includes tracks that could sit comfortably alongside both of those, “Last Time Lover” has the same groove and flow as both “Something Kinda Funny” could have been from the same sessions as “CrazySexyCool”. For a British band to take on the Americans in this way, with their own styles and genres, was brave beyond belief. This wasn’t an attempt to tap into the American love affair with The Beatles or the Stones, this was five young British women prepared to go toe-to-toe on the dance floor with the heavyweights of American r’n’b.
Maybe it all comes back to “Wannabe”. Is there a debut single in all of music history that so perfectly captures the spirit of the artists responsible? It is confident, smooth, funny, sassy, strident and puts the girls front and centre. It’s a clarion call, the planting of the flag, an ensign around which their supporters could rally. It is also hilarious…”zig-a-zig-aaaaah”. It isn’t silly or a comedy record and it isn’t an attempt at being ironic like “Country House”, for example, it is just funny, warm and friendly. It is also a floor filler, what a certain type of person likes to call…a banger. God, I hate that word. Mainly because it is normally used to describe the sort of lumpen rock sans roll so beloved of a certain type of “lad” or “geezer”. But when “Wannabe” starts people smile, head for the dance floor and start singing along. Little kids, even now, teenagers, parents and grandparents…everyone knows it, and everyone loves it. You should be suspicious of people who claim anything to the contrary.
If you have Britpop memories then they have to include “Spice”. Unlike so many of the bands and albums hailed as classics of the era, this wasn’t a rehashing of the music of the past, it didn’t bend the knee to “Let it Bleed” or “Let it Be”, it was an utterly modern, gloriously outward looking and yet defiantly British album. Just like the Beatles and the Stones they turned to the States for inspiration and then did their own thing with what they heard.
It’s going to be very easy to dismiss this all as the ramblings of a madman or an attempt to rile up “real” music fans. That’s not it. Well, I can’t convince you of my sanity. But, for me, a big part of what happened in the nineties was the sense of joy and optimism that seemed to grip the whole country…everything seemed possible. The questions about “what if” were replaced with “why not”. Things happened. It was exciting and exhilarating. And yes, the Renaissance in indie music, the cultural coup of the outsiders grabbing control, if only for a little while, of the inside and the replacement of a despised Government with one that seemed to offer something better was all crucial to the era. But if Britpop meant anything it meant living and laughing.
Nobody did either thing better, or with more style, than Spice Girls.