31
Jan 14

SPICE GIRLS – “2 Become 1”

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#755, 28th December 1996

2b1 The last Number One about sex and its uses was “Fastlove”, and at first that record and this one seem very different creatures. “2 Become 1”, with its gentle singing and its Vaseline production, is about closeness, or at least an ideal of it – the very thing “Fastlove” flinched from. But the songs have more in common than it appears. Both are about sex as a repairing force. Where on “Fastlove” casual sex was a sticking plaster for some awful loss, in “2 Become 1” the promise is that sex won’t just mend a relationship, it’s a stepping stone to something more profound. “Set your spirit free / It’s the only way to be.”

It’s very vague and very Spice, a Girl Power mingling of sex-positivity and self-improvement. And “2 Becomes 1” ticks all the boxes their other singles have: a specific situation, an empowered protagonist, a bit of advice for the boys, and a useful knack for giving the key role in the song to the best singer for the job: Emma, in this case.

The situation, first – an encounter in which the guy is hesitant, maybe feels guilty, and certainly is in need of reassurance. (I’m assuming it’s a guy because of the “put it on” safe sex line, though the group sensibly dropped Geri’s clumsy “Boys and girls do good together” line from the LP mix.) This is an unusual setup for pop as we’ve encountered it: men present themselves as vulnerable, but its rarer to see that from a woman’s perspective. Refreshing, too: as with “Say You’ll Be There”, the Spice Girls have taken a classic pop premise and tweaked it to give themselves a lot more autonomy. The soft-focus strings and Tinkerbell keyboard twinkles code this firmly as “slushy romantic ballad” – and it is – but it’s one in which the woman is unwaveringly in control of the situation, and just trying to get her partner to come to the same conclusion she has about what’s going to happen next. It’s a ballad with no tension, just anticipation.

If the production makes it generic, and the songwriting makes that deceptive, it’s Emma Bunton who really makes “2 Beyond 1” live. The other Spice Girls can’t quite get the balance right between soothing and sexy, and end up landing on the former, Mel C sounding like she’s trying to calm a startled colt. Emma gets the toughest lines – the ones which have to sell the song as a seduction, not just a cuddle – and carries them off wickedly and playfully. Her “get it on” and “put it on” are the song’s most intimate moments, all the more so for being sung with a slight smile. It’s not difficult to make pop music about people who want each other – but often a harder trick to make you feel they like each other too.

“2 Become 1” is the Spice Girls’ third single, third Number One, and the first of three years at which they top the charts at Christmas. They don’t dominate pop music – for one thing, they still have no credible imitators at this point, and won’t through all of 1997. But they are the biggest game in a chaotic singles charts now, and this run of singles makes a good case they’re also the best.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 31 Jan 2014 #

    The role Geri plays in the film is (un)surprisingly subtle and complex:
    i: she’s one the who reads book and uses long words (some of which don’t really exist) and always has an opinion
    ii: the others affectionately tease her about this, bcz she kind of assumes she is better informed and capable then she mostly is (the scene i remember encapsulating this is when their friend — who had to not be a spicer bcz she was pregnant — goes into labour, geri is the one giving instructions, as she reads from a thick hardback book)
    iii: she is kind of the mumsy one (role shared with mel b, who approaches it very differently)
    iv: she is basically ALWAYS gung-ho — the others manifest reserve or reservations, tho in very different ways

    So Geri kind of becomes the designated spokesperson, if only bcz she jumps in with both feet (often into her own mouth).

    I ***love*** the film, if this isn’t obvious: and gave it a thumbs-up review in UK cinema’s journal of record Sight and Sound. I won’t say more as it’s presumably semi-bunnied.

  2. 27
    James BC on 31 Jan 2014 #

    I agree that this song is a good showcase for the softer side of Mel C’s voice. She’s best known as the belter of the group, but she does coy and playfully romantic very well here. Maybe not quite as well as Emma, though.

  3. 28
    ciaran on 31 Jan 2014 #

    My favourite Spice Girls single.Similar to Billy Hicks above it’s a close call between this and the 1998 bunny (if we’re thinking of the same one!)

    I liked this the most of the 3 Spice Girls Number 1′s by a distance when it was released as unlike the first 2 it wasnt as brash and loud and was easy to enjoy. A less is more approach working well.

    Sneaked into the end of the ‘Heroes and Villains’ episode of Only Fools And Horses late that year aswell.

    This is the girls at the very top of their game for me.8

    There’s a few nods to christmas with the ice rick and that but done differently it could have been the Spice Girls own ‘Stay Another Day’. Given the marketing and promotion behind it it seems like they missed a trick in not making a more festive video. Maybe they should have went all out videowise like S Club 7′s ‘Never Had A Dream Come True’ from 2000.

  4. 29
    anto on 31 Jan 2014 #

    Because of it’s time of release this song is often heard again around Christmas time despite having no real festive connection. It’s one song I always like to be re-aquainted with simply because I’m very keen on it – It’s a pretty song with a light production and attractive vocals. Well done to all involved.

    - The front cover – by the looks of things the two Mels and Victoria used up all the eye make-up at this photshoot.

    - The fourth act to go to number 1 with their first three singles. All four acts have had a connection with either Merseyside or Yorkshire and in this case both. We’re a determined lot up North ya know.

  5. 30
    thefatgit on 31 Jan 2014 #

    Re: the cover photo, is Victoria rocking the proto-Winehouse look here?

  6. 31
    @biondino on 31 Jan 2014 #

    If you’ve liked music any time over the last 60 years but don’t read @tomewing’s awesome Popular series, rectify! http://t.co/VMqBBFILE0

  7. 32
    anto on 31 Jan 2014 #

    #12 – The least interesting part of the Morrissey book is the part about The Smiths which like so many of the other books written about them becomes bogged down in the boring details of their messy business affairs. As for the account of the high court case, a good arguement for putting a fast-forward switch on Kindles.
    The early part of the book describing his upbringing I found evocative, thoughtful and affectionate -Morrissey back to something like his best. There are some curious but somehow fascinating digressions as well, such as when he goes on for a page-and-a-half about the acting styles on ‘Lost In Space’.
    Actually considering it’s a muscicians autobiography a lot of the stories about famous encounters in it seem to involve thespians rather than pop stars.

  8. 33
    Tom on 31 Jan 2014 #

    I reviewed the Moz book http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/150-morrissey-autobiography/ – not sure I ever hyped this on FT so here it is.

  9. 34
    23 Daves on 31 Jan 2014 #

    #2 The way the chorus resolves itself (or rather doesn’t) isn’t something I’ve ever been able to quite deal with, to be honest. The slight instrumental meandering after the final line “It’s the only way to be” feels like a fudge, as if nobody could think of how to resolve the ending and get back to the verse so let it hang in the air instead. This has been bugging me for years so it’s interesting that one of the first comments on the single is how well that aspect works! It’s interesting how people will hear the same device in very, very different ways.

    Other than that, this is perfectly OK. I always preferred hearing it on the radio without seeing Emma performing it as (purely from memory) she did put a slightly twee, coy edge on her TV performances which suggested something the music and lyrics didn’t appear to agree with.

    As for Geri, she was always the most visually striking one, I’d say, and had an advantage over the others in that respect as well as being generally gobbier.

  10. 35
    Jon (@octojon) on 31 Jan 2014 #

    This is an 11/10 moment for me. Great write-up. RT @tomewing: Daytime repost for the “2 Become 1″ Popular entry http://t.co/tv4rGOyIMU

  11. 36
    Mark M on 31 Jan 2014 #

    My favourite Spice Girls song, too. I think Tom is spot-on about why it works.
    A half-thought: I actually fall in the category of people (blokes) who tend not to like ballads by pop acts (whereas I love country weepies, old soul ballads, Yo La Tengo slow songs, etc), but this is a supple and light and charming, rather than a belted-out pseudo-Broadway showstopper or an Irish boyband sleeping cure.

  12. 37
    Alan not logged in on 31 Jan 2014 #

    I love this, it’s not quite a 10, but it still sounds slick. I liked most of their stuff, and ‘bought in’ at wannabe, but later detached re-listening of the spice-ouevre reveals lots of bits that are awkward in a flat way, not awkward in a ‘put it on’ way. Moral: sod to listening detachedly.

  13. 38
    glue_factory on 31 Jan 2014 #

    Re:34, I’ve also always liked the way the strings kind of meander after the last line. To me they sound like something from some distant AOR hit (Wichita Lineman, for example) playing on AM radio. I appreciate that almost no-one else will hear them like that.

  14. 39
    AMZ1981 on 31 Jan 2014 #

    #29 The fifth (Gerry and the Pacemakers, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Jive Bunny, Robson and Jerome).

    When 2 Become 1 shot its chart bolt it dropped to number six, becoming the first chart topper to fall straight out of the top five since Iron Maiden almost six years before. A further five records would go on to do this during 1997.

  15. 40
    Tom on 31 Jan 2014 #

    #39 that’s weird – it was #1 for 3 weeks (longer than most) – presumably an ultra-soft start of year masking sales declines.

  16. 41
    Weej on 31 Jan 2014 #

    Just about my favourite SG track, for the reasons laid out above. Emma’s performance is wonderful, so much nuance in every syllable, that drift from ‘put it on’ to ‘tonight’ in particular gives me occasional goosebumps. The others ae good too, but suffer from the comparison.

    Another plus is the outro, love the way those melancholy / seductive stabs of strings keep coming in, very dramatic – a film could make good use of a long mix of that section.

  17. 42
    Cumbrian on 31 Jan 2014 #

    41: Yes – a film. Now you mention that, it reminds me of the string stabs that you sometimes found on moodier bits of the incidental soundtrack (as opposed to the song based soundtrack CDs that did the rounds) of the pre-Nolan Batman movies.

  18. 43
    thefatgit on 31 Jan 2014 #

    As we’re delving into the production of “2 Become 1″, let’s give credit where it’s due to Biffco (chiefly Richard Stannard), who will for good and ill, loom large on the Popular horizon. They got the production and writing credits for “Wannabe” (2 Ivor Novello Awards) as well. They don’t get as many mentions as Xenomania in critical circles, but they’re probably just as prolific.

  19. 44
    iconoclast on 31 Jan 2014 #

    Contrary to the opinions of Tom’s indie-snob acquaintances, there’s nothing wrong with a slushy romantic ballad if it’s done well, and The Spice Girls’third single is very nearly that; indeed, if it had been released ten years earlier, it would no doubt have soundtracked hundreds of slow dances at school discos across the country.

    A dead cert for the Christmas Number One, it’s mostly a very pretty and well-made record, complete with tasteful acoustic guitar solo, even if the rhythmic backing is overfussy and some of the string section’s interjections are a bit obtrusive. The effect is however spoiled by the jarringly unconvincing “wanna make love to you baby” in the chorus, which surely constitute some of the least erotic invitations to coition ever recorded. It’s unclear, too, given the average age of their intended market, quite why there wasn’t an outcry to BAN THIS FILTH over the lyrics. All in all, though, it’s definitely the best of their first three singles, and it was decent of them to hold its release back to let Dunblane have its say. A high SEVEN.

    The video, by the way, fits very well with the song, but look closely at the blonde one at 2:38, shortly before she gestures the title with her fingers – does she check the lyrics off camera for a moment? And, even in 1996, were there no complaints about the same-sex couple who appear briefly in the guitar break?

  20. 45
    Kinitawowi on 31 Jan 2014 #

    Somehow falling between two Now! albums (their next bunny spans two of them), this is a peculiar absence in my collection. Peculiar, because it’s awesome.

    I said last time that I always preferred the Spice’s ballads, and it’s the way it goes with a lot of these sorts of acts – the songs I always tend to prefer are the ones where we actually get to notice how good some of the artists actually are as vocalists, rather than as products. We’re a few Popular years away from this really starting to hurt my head (hint: the Mickey Mouse Club have yet to break out), but for now this is as good as it gets. Everyone gets a go here; while it’s clearly Emma’s flirty playfulness that wins out, she doesn’t blow everybody else away. There are later bunnies, both for the Spices and one of the aforementioned Mouseketeers, where that will be a problem, but for the time being they remain a group keen to play to each other’s strengths.

    The video was odder; the Spice Girls were basically inescapable and even aloof sixteen year old boys had to have “the one they fancied”, and the vid for this does Victoria no favours whatsoever.

    8.

  21. 46
    thefatgit on 31 Jan 2014 #

    #44 Emma’s look away and back to camera is an affectation that suggests coyness rather than checking an autocue. In answer to your 2nd question, we’ve already had the Gary Barlow video in 1996 (lest we forget The Communards, Culture Club, FGTH and Dead Or Alive covered by this very blog when we were recalling the 1980s) and the closeted George Michael recalled by Tom in his review above. It’s widely regarded as a positive thing that same sex relationships can be promoted by mainstream pop acts with very few feathers being ruffled. I don’t recall many feathers being ruffled in 1996. Why should it be an issue?

  22. 47
    Andrew Farrell on 1 Feb 2014 #

    I’m not sure that those four score highly on “no complaints”, and as you say, George was firmly in the closet by this stage. The great finding of the Gary Barlow song IIRC is that no-one at all could remember it all – perhaps there were a few Angry of Tumbridge Wells who found themselves poised, pen in hands, certain that they sat down to complain about something…

  23. 48
    Andrew Farrell on 1 Feb 2014 #

    (Though I’m more struck by Emma and Geri cooing over each other at 2:54)

  24. 49
    JLucas on 1 Feb 2014 #

    For me this is the first of the three Spice Girls hits that I regard as completely perfect pop records. Suffice to say the other two are bunnies, so all I’ll say for now is that they’re all ballads.

    I cannot fault this song. Emma’s lead vocal is perfectly pitched – and as I mentioned in an earlier thread it isn’t just her lines in the verses – if you listen to the chorus this is her record through and through, with only Mel B challenging her with her lovely post-chorus lines.

    The instrumental is beautiful, like a mini-pop symphony. Thanks to the removal of Geri’s terribly-sung lines from the album version, I genuinely can’t think of a single thing wrong with it. An unimpeachable single from the greatest pop group of the era.

  25. 50
    Dano on 1 Feb 2014 #

    #15 The glorious (real) string coda is arranged by composer Craig Armstrong who had previously worked with Massive Attack and subsequently scored many movies (notably for Baz Luhrman).
    I remember being particularly surprised by his involvement and impressed by the use of real strings here – it showed a producer’s care and attention to detail missing from other pop hits at the time.
    Armstrong’s The Space Between Us album from ’98 has some great orchestrations of Protection-era MA tracks.
    I love the b-side Orchestral Version here (even less Geri!) but it could do with being longer.
    Gorgeous track – a 9 for me.

  26. 51
    Kinitawowi on 2 Feb 2014 #

    @50: I accidentally picked up a Craig Armstrong piece from the soundtrack to Layer Cake while looking for another song. It wasn’t a disappointment – Ruthless Gravity was brilliant (and also string-laden).

    The song I was actually looking for, Hayling by FC Kahuna (the one that plays over a load of the opening monologue from the film) was still a bit better, though.

  27. 52
    taDOW on 2 Feb 2014 #

    ha! i was going to write that this might be the closest popular got to trip-hop instead of ‘ready or not’ but i wasn’t able to listen to it again at the moment to see if that was a bridge too far, never would’ve guessed there was a direct connection to massive attack.

  28. 53
    E on 2 Feb 2014 #

    #44 – First of all, anyone who would have cried “BAN THIS FILTH” was crying it way before “2 Become 1″ came out — the complaints about the Spice Girls being bad role models were based on what they wore, and how they behaved, and started as soon as “Wannabe” was released. At this point, anyone who was going to be offended by them was already offended by them. Second of all, the general “sex is special, do it safely with someone you love” message of the song was IMPORTANT to their intended audience — I was twelve when this song came out, and I remember talking with both my friends and my parents about how much it mattered to me that the Spice Girls were promoting safe sex and went out of their way to include same-sex couples in the song and the video. (And no, I don’t remember anyone being bothered by the same-sex couple in the video. I remember the opposite — as others have mentioned, there was enough grumbling about the “boys and girls feel good together” line on the album version that they changed it for the single.)

    I mean, I get that, given your name, you’re supposed to be a rebel or something, but maybe cool it with the affectations about how above-it-all you are. “The blonde one”‘s name was mentioned three times in Tom’s writeup and seven more in the thread before you commented — and if you haven’t managed to absorb enough about this band to know the blonde one’s name, consider that perhaps you haven’t managed to absorb enough about this band to have a good idea of what anyone thought about them at the time, either.

  29. 54
    iconoclast on 2 Feb 2014 #

    #53: Ouch! I’m perfectly happy to stand corrected; thank you for your elucidation. Those were musings-out-loud which in retrospect I should have been more decisive about editing out. The same thing happened with “the blond one” (sorry Emma): so as not to be influenced by anyone else’s opinions, I write my reviews before Tom’s go up, and her name inexplicably slipped my mind for some reason and I never got around to fixing it. I’ll try to be more careful in future :-(

    As for “supposed to be a rebel or something”: my choice of name merely reflects the fact that I approach these things from an idiosyncratic perspective which sometimes results in very non-congregational opinions. To be perfectly honest, I’m unsure to what extent these opinions are actually worth making public here, especially since I haven’t undergone the same sort of pop-cultural conditioning which everyone else has, and I’d be happy to shut up and stop spoiling someone else’s blog if I’m rocking the boat too much. Sorry if I caused any upset.

  30. 55
    Kat but logged out innit on 2 Feb 2014 #

    I think I finally realised that the Spice Girls weren’t going to go away during our (compulsory) Religious Education GCSE class, where poor old Miss Harris was trying to explain the concept of the sanctity of life according to the Roman Catholic faith to a class of unengaged teenagers, in her strong Welsh accent. “Come on, we did this last week. Two become wen? You know, like the Spice Gels? Wheredya think they got that line from in the first place, eh?”

  31. 56
    Izzy on 2 Feb 2014 #

    54: hey! Not upsetting at all!

    I’m not sure there’s really much in the way of pop cultural conditioning, though I do get suspicious if everyone agrees with Tom so dissenting views are very necessary imo. Even (almost especially) if they’re from a position of little knowledge – because then the assenters have to reëxplain basic things that might otherwise be taken for granted, which might make interesting gaps open up.

    In short: keep posting.

  32. 57
    Rory on 5 Feb 2014 #

    The third Spice Girls single is the second I barely recall having heard before, so I spent a bit of time with it before committing to a mark. My first listen and viewing of the video last week left me relatively indifferent – the instinctive balladophobia of a ’90s indie fan, no doubt – but I could tell there was more going on, and gave it a chance to rise from a 5. The second, with the video hidden, sounded much better, the lush orchestral backing and interplay of voices working well for me now, taking it to a 6. But that’s where I’m stuck a week later. I watched the video again to see if it would add more, but something about the five of them hanging out together in a New York street feels at odds with the intimate message of the song. (Why don’t we d-d-do it in the road?) Not that I would rather the video showed them hanging out in a bedroom. There were five in the bed, and the Baby Spice said…

  33. 58

    […] In the introduction my list of best singles of 1997, published in my college paper, I praised “2 Become 1″ as the best of the three top five Spice Girls singles. Then and now I prefer uptempo numbers except when they’re as good as this. I’m happy Tom Ewing agrees: […]

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