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Two children of ambiguous gender wander through a field. A group of fairies emerge from a plastic container. One of the boys is coaxed into a Rubik’s Cube, shrunk, and thrown backwards into a gumball machine. The boy is never to be seen again.

No, I’m not describing an avant-garde short film made circa 1992, but a pop video for one of the biggest girl bands of all time.

The music video for Viva Forever by the Spice Girls has unnerved me for the last 20 years. As a child, constantly transfixed by music videos, Viva Forever stood out amongst the bubbly pop, and frankly terrified me. Yes, it was a Spice Girls video, and yes it was at a time when pop music videos were being churned out as necessarily creations in the pop production line. And yet, something about this video stuck – and has stuck with me ever since. It smacks of loss and death and was deeply uncanny: a surreal piece about separation encased in something familiar – like a pop song aimed at young children.

Twenty years have now passed since the song was released, and we are still no closer to the truth. Talk to fans of the band and you’ll be met with a similar feeling of confusion. The Spice Girl’s FanWiki page seems to share this morbid analysis, also citing death as a possible meaning, as the “video can be interpreted as one about coming to terms with the loss of a friend.” The lyrics further this idea: it is in one part a summer love song, another a morose hit about trying to “live forever.” Destabilising such interpretations is the dated, almost tacky aesthetic, undermining any sense that the video means anything at all.

After two decades searching for meaning, I contacted the director of the video Steve Box. Box was working at Aardman Animations at the time, the animation studio behind Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, when the Spice Girls got in touch. Too busy to film something live, the singers opted for an animation with a quick turnaround.

The video’s strangeness emerged as a result of – rather than in spite of – restrictive industry demands. “At that time videos were primarily aimed at a programme called The Chart Show,” explained Box. “They would tell us that you’d hear the first verse and the first chorus and that was all that they were going to show on the programme. So we put all the energy, the most polished piece of animation, into that area.” This gave Box space to experiment. “I just didn’t want to do something too direct. I thought it would be a good chance to do something really unusual, that was unexpected.”

The video, it turns out, does touch on loss, but not exactly the loss of life. Instead, Box explains, it’s actually about the loss of youth. “It’s like the sadness of the song is leaving your childhood behind. Pop music is all about sex and love, so becoming interested in that, you suddenly put the toys away, you start to grow up in a different way.”

“Pop music is all about sex and love, so becoming interested in that, you suddenly put the toys away, you start to grow up in a different way”

This loss of innocence, Box explains, was something he felt the Spice Girls represented at the time. But they were part of a larger identikit pop music scene, with massed produced hits similar to toys. “I came up with this idea for the girls to be tin toy fairies that were like lost toys, which was a little bit of a comment on that modern pop: you buy it, you put your money in, you get your music and then shortly afterwards it will disappear.”

Furthermore, with full creative freedom Box ultimately wanted to evoke images he had encountered, as a father of young children, in children’s annuals. “At the time, I was reading a lot of the old Rupert the Bear ones from the 1940s and 50s. Often Rupert comes across some weird living toy in the woods or some secret doorway in a tree. They’re quite surreal stories, quite magical.”

But why does the boy disappear into a machine in a graveyard of plastic containers?” “They’re toys, just images of youth – that’s all. It’s supposed to be a bit metaphorical,” he explains. But what about the Rubik’s Cube going backwards! Never to be seen again! He laughs – “That doesn’t really make sense does it.”

“That’s where it becomes very metaphorical. It becomes more like a David Lynch film.”

It’s this Rupert the Bear nostalgia and offbeat imagery that gives off the undertone of death, but it seems that both the Spice Girls FanWiki and I were off the mark. I broached Box with my theory on the video, on what had been unsettling me since I was seven.

Turns out, I wasn’t that far from the truth.

“Ooh,” he exclaimed. “I like yours better than mine. Let’s go with yours.”