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.