The girl group medium is in the midst of a bumpy, but seemingly effective revival thanks to Little Mix and Fifth Harmony. Sexy and coiffed, Little Mix and Fifth Harmony are the perfect packages ― except that their music is nondescript. That extra attention to their look, smacking of magazine-gleaned glamour homogeneity too, could have been better spent toward their tunes.
Good music, the kind that appreciates over time without effort, is what makes an artist immortal. It’s only now in the absence of musicality within the current girl group structure that one can look back over 20 years to see what cynics missed out on the first time with the Spice Girls.
Say what you will about their ability market themselves, but the records didn’t lie. In fact, the hits have not only lasted, but the obscure works have piled up, resulting in a rich pop discography that will likely never be matched.
Consider that in the early-to-mid 1990s, America had become the seat of the girl group dynamic; specifically in the R&B market TLC, En Vogue, and SWV managed to appeal to white pop patrons without losing their foothold with African-American listeners. Their appeal did not go unnoticed as their sound (and look) became the new format to follow across the Atlantic in England.
Granted, Bananarama, the still reigning “longest recording girl group / duo” were hanging tough ― notably with Pop Life (1991) and Please Yourself (1993) ― but the commercial climate had changed. The female group scene in the U.K. was stagnant and while Eternal and Shampoo were attempts to reestablish influence, they lacked the presence / sound to project themselves over the din of U.K. lad groups, notably Take That.
In 1994, three of the five Spice Girls convened through an ad in a magazine looking for pre-fab pop grouping; later, the line-up that became the Spice Girls solidified the same year. Victoria Beckham, Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm, and Geri Halliwell holed away, wrote their songs and practiced, practiced, practiced. Knowing they had something, they debunked their father / son overseers and decided to go it alone. Through their own pluck and raw talent, they rounded up soon-to-be manager Simon Fuller and inked a deal with Virgin Records.
Their first record, Spice (1996), at a glance held the same stance that Shampoo and Eternal did ― looking toward the R&B and Riot Grrrl trends that America was espousing. But, due to a heady mixture of personality and lyricism courtesy of the Spice Girls themselves (a rarity in the girl group field, genres and eras aside), the Spice Girls’ timely urban pop hybrid sound was irrepressible.
Often, the Spice Girls have had their music erroneously lumped in with the Max Martin soundprint of Britney Spears and her ilk, followers incidentally tied to them. Not to dismiss the pleasantries of Martin’s textbook touch, but the Girls’ approach was shapely and broad in its exploration of musical appetites and moods.
To prove this point, the Spice Girls’ second LP, issued at the apogee of their pop culture mania, Spiceworld (1997) sounded like nothing on the radio at the time. The urban bounce of Spice was largely exchanged for disco, Latin, and Pointer Sisters-esque (That’s a Plenty era) “widescreen” flavors. However, the R&B element still reared its head but with varying vintage and post-modern textures. It was a creative coup; even the firing of their manager Fuller in late 1997 couldn’t dull this victory.
Disaster struck with Halliwell’s exit from the group in May 1998, but out of that adversity the Spice Girls saga took on more depth and range to stretch well past the end of the 1990s through to today.
Horner – she married last year – immediately took up with a lyrically charged pop style that drew on everything from Madonna to Tin Pan Alley. From 1999 through 2005 she released three albums, racking up requisite hits that were smart, playful and sonically engaging. Scream If You Wanna Go Faster (2001), her sophomore affair, remains her most diverse LP as evinced by its singles: a brazen rendition of “It’s Raining Men,” a paean to California pop rock on the titular cut, and “Calling,” a slice of European balladry. Horner is currently flirting with a return to music.
Chisholm threw her lot in with AOR and adult contemporary tones, as her solo debut Northern Star (1999) became the first (conventional) critically acclaimed Spice-related recording; it featured collaborations with Rick Rubin, William Orbit and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes, to name a few. Chisholm’s solo discography has run six records deep, four on her own label Red Girl Records. She is reportedly tasking away on her seventh LP, possibly due sometime at year’s end. It comes on the heels of Stages (2012), her sixth album, an ambitious covers project dedicated to music featured or reinvented in stage musicals.
Emma Bunton’s solo start began with a spunky cover of Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” alongside Tin Tin Out in 1999. Her love of Motown, glimpsed first on the Spiceworld hit single “Stop” and portions of her debut LP laid groundwork for the lauded Free Me (2004) and Life in Mono (2006), her second and third albums, respectively. Only rivaled by fellow Britons Swing Out Sister in regard to mod pop revivalism, Bunton secured almost uniform creative, critical and commercial appeal (only Life in Mono disappointed commercially a decade ago). Bunton has currently moved into the field of radio broadcast in London.
Brown, the all-around entertainer of the group, maneuvered into the R&B field due to her husky vocal tone; it fueled some of the funkier moments across the three Spice Girls LPs (more on Forever shortly). The resulting string of late ’90s / early ’00s R&B singles from Brown ― “I Want You Back,” “Word Up!” (a cover of the Cameo staple), “Tell Me,” and “Feels So Good” ― managed to find footing within the U.K. Top 10 and Top 20 Singles chart, her inaugural independent step-out became the first “solo Spice single” to top the U.K. Singles chart.
Sadly, Brown’s first record (Hot, 2000) lacked focus and didn’t find an audience as its singles had. She returned with L.A. State of Mind in 2005. The set, though endearing, didn’t restore her commercially. Brown restyled herself as a top shelf entertainment personality / mentor in her ensuing post-music years, barring a return to the global dance charts with the spazzy “For Once in My Life” in 2013.
Victoria Beckham’s music career has been mistakenly rendered a footnote to her fashion empire; many have forgotten how well Beckham’s voice fit into the pop funk the Spice Girls were renowned for. When Beckham tried her hand at music alone, her crisp vocal approach synced to the garage music sneak attack of “Out of Your Mind,” a partnership with the dance production duo The Truesteppers in 2000. It has begrudgingly been acknowledged in recent years as a dance classic of its period. Her eponymous LP followed in 2001 and found that she had mostly refined her blend of urban pop.
Later, in a move most likely motivated by artistic uncertainty, Beckham recorded two LPs: one in a dance pop mode, the other in a harsher variation of the R&B pop her initial LP favored. Both records were shelved in 2006, with most of the tracks leaking online. The Come Together LP got the blogosphere buzzing in May of this year when its “completed form” debuted to non-Spice fans via another leak. But, as stated, many of the tracks of this mislabeled “hip-hop album” had already been in circulation among Spice diehards for years.
And what of Forever (2000)? The third (and thus far final) Spice Girls album held potential, but it fell victim to the dual faults of the group’s overexposure in England and anemic promotion.
The LP began earnestly taking shape in late 1998 and early 1999; it trekked further into the first half of 2000 before its eventual late fall release that year. The album borrowed from a mix of their established urbanized pop and classic-to-contemporary dance music textures. All of these elements had been rooted in solo Spice Girl singles during Forever’s birthing: “Never Be the Same Again” (Melanie C) and the discussed “Out of Your Mind” (Beckham). When “Holler” was put forth from Forever as a single, it completed a stylistic triumvirate of progressive pop with “Never Be the Same Again” and “Out of Your Mind.”
These three recordings platformed the evolution of the Spice Girls sound and where the Girls were willing to take it, as a unit and individually. Forever was of course written off by lazy critics as a trend-chasing soft seller, a narrative entirely untrue as the record continues to generate conversation with fans today.
This is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the musical ground these women have covered since “Wannabe” arrived to British ears on July 8, 1996. Hindsight, as it tends to, shows that the Spice Girls’ catalog of music (18 albums total, group and solo) is quite potent ― especially when compared to the lack of ambition exhibited by today’s crop of girl groups.[Harrison’s book, Record Redux: Spice Girls, a detailed observation of the group and solo recordings of the Spice Girls, is available for purchase July 8, 2016. Please see the book’s Facebook page or follow Harrison on Twitter for purchase / format information. Meanwhile don’t miss our exclusive interview with Harrison.]