Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
It’s hard to imagine now, but 15 years ago, there was no Britney Spears on the radio. Nor was there Christina Aguilera or Pink or Lady Gaga. Apart from the reigning divas at the time — that would be Madonna, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey — the pop landscape was filled with post-grunge rock chicks like Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love, and fresh R&B female acts like TLC, Mary J. Blige and Aaliyah. That’s when American Idol creator Simon Fuller, then known best for managing Annie Lennox, took a gamble that our lives could all use a little spicing up.
Outside of Asia, where the K-Pop movement is a force to be reckoned with, no other corner of the planet cranks out girl groups quite like the United Kingdom (see: Girls Aloud, Sugababes, The Saturdays and recent X Factor winners Little Mix). And British quintet Spice Girls pretty much set the template for all these ladies of song with their debut LP Spice, a brash blend of sugar-coated pop, smooth R&B grooves and, of course, GIRL POWER!
Spicemania kicked off stateside at Christmastime in 1996, when Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell, Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton, Melanie “Sporty Spice” Chisolm, Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown and Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham crashed into MTV’s daily video rotation with the loud, sing-along “Wannabe”, which had already been a massive hit across Europe earlier in the year.
Implicit in its “ladies first” mantra, “Wannabe” has the five taking a stand by telling the male object of their collective affection that he’s out the door if their friends don’t approve, and “if you really bug me then I’ll say goodbye.”
Of course, all this female empowerment came courtesy of a pack of carefully choreographed, cleavage- and midriff-baring girls in skintight outfits. (Welcome to the ’90s.)
Spice Girls — ”Wannabe”
America, which hadn’t seen a British girl group top the charts since Bananarama’s “Venus” was #1 in 1986, was clearly ready to experience the Spicequake. By late February of 1997, “Wannabe” had bumped Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” off the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and it stayed perched there for four weeks.
Meanwhile the Girls’ debut LP Spice — an album we once declared was as “infectious as ebola” — arrived on February 4, and along with it came the group’s in-your-face one-liners: “God help the mister that comes between me and my sisters” via “Love Thing”; “I’m choosy, not a floozy” in “Last Time Lover”; “she knows exactly what to do with men like you” from “Naked”.
The album also contained a string of global chart-dominating singles, including the perplexing “Say You’ll Be There”. Here the spicy pop sensations are “giving you everything”, but chiding that they’re having “far too much emotions” thrown back in return. Look, they just want to be friends — but, still, promise you’ll always be there, ok?
Spice Girls — “Say You’ll Be There”
Merchanspice such as lunchboxes, dolls and sticker books rolled out in the wake of the phenomenon. If UK acts like Blur, Oasis and Pulp were enforcing the music laws of Britpop, Spice Girls were riding Cool Britannia all the way to the bank.
But let’s not kid ourselves. These queens of England were hardly the masterminds of their own success. The collective of Geri, Emma, the two Melanies and Victoria was as manufactured as a Toyota. The girls were put together by father-and-son managers Chris and Bob Herbert in 1994, who had been looking to capitalize on the success of Manchester boy band Take That by creating a female equivalent. The family team placed an ad in showbiz trade publication The Stage, but things eventually soured between the Spices and the Herberts, and the relationship ended.
Through producer Eliot Kennedy, who would later go on to write “Say You’ll Be There”, Spice Girls were brought to the attention of, and signed with, manager Simon Fuller in 1995. What happened after was a zig-a-zig-ah blur of success and mania; the group propelled all five Spice singles to the top of the chart in their home country, including the ballad “2 Become 1″.
Spice Girls — ”2 Become 1″
Here in the States, early ’90s alternative music dominance began to chip away after the erosion of grunge, and the lethal pop combo Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys (who themselves first gained success in Europe by breaking through in the German market) brought a new wave of bubblegum to the airwaves in 1997. After all, how could we resist Geri in her hip-hugging Union Jack mini-dress?
Spice Girls’ success in the American market paved the way for several other UK-based girlie pop groups, such as All Saints (their funky “Never Ever” cracked the Top 10 in 1998) and B*Witched (“C’est La Vie” was a Hot 100 hit in 1999, leading to the Irish group’s opening slot on NSYNC’s first US tour). And then along came a little act out of Houston, Texas, called Destiny’s Child.
When all was said and done, 7 million copies of Spice flew off the shelves in 1997, and it wound up being the bestselling album that year in the States. Naturally, there was also the inevitable behind-the-scenes drama: Just as second album Spice World and its tie-in movie were rushed out later that year, the Girls gave manager Simon Fuller the axe. The following year, Geri Halliwell quit the group on the eve of their first North American tour.
But at least for that moment in time, 15 years ago when pop wasn’t quite as prevalent as it is right now, the masses told newcomers Ginger, Baby, Sporty, Scary and Posh what they wanted, what they really, really wanted. And the Spices, in turn, obliged.