Original release date: 3 November 1997
My memory is bad. My hippocampus has all the functionality of a classroom whiteboard. But as we know, music can have a freakish effect on the brain’s storage section; a blast of familiar music even has the power to “awaken”dementia patients otherwise lost to the world. So despite my brain fog, it’s no surprise that some of my clearest memories are precisely correlated with the music that was playing at the time.
Input stimulus: Spiceworld. Instant flashback: October 1997, a tiny hotel room in deepest Cornwall. It’s a brief memory, but pin-sharp: I turn on the alarm clock radio and it plays a song that I’m hearing for the first time. A Latin rhythm – which I couldn’t identify then, beyond the vague sense that this was exotic “carnival” music – and a call-and-response chorus that’s pure branding: “People of the world! Spice up your life!”
That was the first hit from the Spice Girls’ second album, Spiceworld, which arrived just 16 months after their debut single Wannabe. The phenomenal success of Wannabe and the other four hits from Spice had turned five loud-mouthed young women into the biggest British band since the Beatles, and the commercial machine behind this professional pop unit was working overtime: their global success would be compounded by the release of a hastily recorded second album – set to produce three more UK No.1s – and a movie starring Richard E. Grant. Total pop domination on a scale never before imagined. Why not?
Hearing the “Hai! Si! Ja!” of Spice Up Your Life in that little hotel room, though, all of that meant nothing. It was obvious to me. The best pop group in the world were also the biggest pop group in the world? Well, duh. What wasn’t so obvious, as a pigtailed superfan, was the narrative that the Spice Girls phenomenon was generating: how the high-kicks and platform boots and Girl Power got sucked into the media’s onanistic fantasy of “Cool Britannia”; the d(:)ream that “Things Can Only Get Better”; the ultimately empty promise of New Labour. Just as Tony Blair’s triangulation of traditional Labour values with neoliberal economics ended up cementing Thatcher’s dismal legacy, so the superficial feminism of Spice Girls (who were Tories anyway) was to be the thin end of the wedge that left us with Sex and the City and Sheryl Sandberg. Liberation through consumption.
But what did I care? I was barely aware of Blair’s victory. What almost no one bothers to mention about the legacy of Spiceworld – so often viewed in culturally symbolic terms – is the music. Surprise: when I return to the album, curious about how it stands up on its 20th anniversary, it all comes flooding back. Every lyric, every melody, every screeching Mel C ad-lib: it’s on the whiteboard, ready to go. I remember the movie, the lollipops and the limited edition Pepsi cans, but mostly I remember the core product: the tunes.
Out here in Spiceworld, every genre is fair game and nothing means anything: “We moonwalk the foxtrot, then polka the salsa – shake it, shake it, shake it, haka!” How else to sum up the pre-millennial mood of jubilation? It beats “things can only get better.”
With the exceptions of the mistletoe-baiting Too Much and the flamenco melodrama of Viva Forever, Spiceworld is frothy party tunes all the way: cutesy Motown on Stop, bubblegum RnB on Do It, and even William Orbit-esque grunge-hop on Move Over, a song literally written to sell Pepsi. I can’t think of a single reason to listen to it again – not until the 30th anniversary at least – but you know what? As a vehicle for total world domination, it crushed the competition. And I remember every minute of it.