ARTIST OF THE MONTH: SPICE GIRLS | SPICEWORLD (1997)
Victoria Beckham, Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm and Geri Horner (née Halliwell) had already conquered their native homeland, England—and most of the globe — with "Spice" in 1996. Once their first album stepped onto American shores, it was just another territory to be taken by the quintet. And so it was. Looking back now, in the era of Blur, Björk and Bad Boy, the Spice Girls were a funky, approachable and fresh alternative. They were also well studied. Their research encompassed the musical urbanity of their American predecessors, En Vogue and TLC, and the DIY model of their British foremothers, Bananarama. Pairing that education with their own musical and visual disposition, the Spice Girls were peerless upon arrival.
But, it wasn’t enough for the Spice Girls to be musically formidable; they scaled the business world too. Of course, the pundits, primarily men, fumed. They attempted, through harsh critique, written or otherwise, to obstruct the Spice Girls. It was to no avail. Multiple endorsement deals—from Pepsi-Cola to Chupa-Chups—kept their brand omnipresent. Additionally, they began work on their feature film, a satirical, "A Hard Days Night" inspired project. Filming started in the summer of 1997 with a Christmas reveal posited for the same year. As the media dubbed “Spice Mania” reached peak hysteria in mid-1997, the group went to work writing and recording their sophomore set, "Spiceworld." Aligned with their principal co-writers and producers from "Spice" Richard Stannard, Matt Rowe, Paul Wilson and Andy Watkins—the Spice Girls shut out the madness with attention to detail and focused on content. "Spice," at its heart, was a British rewrite of R&B Americana aesthetics in a pop context. "Spiceworld" sought to maintain that artistic standard but open its sound. This was partially achieved by switching out Spice's contemporary rhythm and blues for archetypal black music hallmarks for use on their second LP: jazz, doo-wop, Motown and disco. These facets of R&B had become so integrated into the general frame of pop music in years past that, to many listeners, they’d become staple instruments of the pop genre toolbox itself.
The categories of jazz (“The Lady is a Vamp”), doo-wop (“Too Much”), Motown (“Stop”) and disco (“Never Give Up on the Good Times”) were evocatively constructed pastiches on these different forms of R&B now mainly seen as “pop.” This, of course, is what the pop genre excels at its best: good pastiche. There were exceptions to this vintage methodology, though. Cuts like “Saturday Night Divas,” “Denying,” and “Outer Space Girls”—B-side to the album’s second single, “Too Much”—graciously nodded to the 1980s rhythm and blues variants of synth-funk, New Jack Swing and freestyle. However, Spiceworld was about opening the Spice Girls' sound to other musical cravings. From the lush Spanish folk and orchestral aural ballet of “Viva Forever” to the reggae boogie-bump of “Walk of Life” (the second B-side to “Too Much”), these songs reinforced that the Girls weren’t just R&B junkies. But “Spice Up Your Life” was the LP’s creative behemoth. An infectious slice of Latin groove, it was one of their most demonstrative evolutionary jumps, sonically speaking. Central to the function of these (musical) components were the girls, lyrical and vocal entities conscious of their respective strengths. Two, three, four and five-part harmonic blends and shared leads boasted five distinctive voices. A contralto (Horner), two sopranos (Beckham, Bunton) and two mezzo-sopranos (Brown, Chisholm) made the rocky sugar rush of “Move Over” a fine example of their chemistry.
"Spiceworld" hit shelves in the United Kingdom on November 3, 1997; it followed suit stateside the next day. The record was received sensationally and has moved over 20 million units worldwide as of this writing. Four singles were lifted from the LP from October 1997 to July 1998: “Spice Up Your Life” (UK# 1, US #18), “Too Much” (UK #1, US #9), “Stop” (UK #2, US #16), and “Viva Forever” (UK#1). Critically, tastemakers of the day lazily tried to lump the Spice Girls into an incidental wave of homogenous pre-fab pop that came after their rise. The music on "Spiceworld" has beaten back the criticism in the years since, proving that the Spice Girls were not merely “a product.” One of the most exciting albums of 1997, their second LP facilitated even stronger turns in their future recording career, collectively and individually. Twenty years removed from its release, "Spiceworld" is as bold, colourful and musical as pop gets, and it doesn’t get any better.