The story writes itself: weeks of enforced grieving cast a grey spell across Britain that is broken – could only be broken – by the forces of Girl Power, in full returning cry. Pop is restored, joy is unconfined. And honestly the arrival of “Spice Up Your Life” did feel a bit like this. In just over a year the Spice Girls had become a touchstone in pop culture: Geri’s BRIT awards dress sealed that. There had been so many parodies, references and headlines that the group felt entirely familiar, looked on with the mix of fondness and complacency that gets people called “national treasures” in the long run. There would be a film, of course: nothing would seem more right and proper, except maybe the idea of their comeback single unseating Elton John and bringing the spark back to the charts. “Spice Up Your Life” enjoyed a tailwind of unusual goodwill.
Which was just as well, as it sounds to me now like the Spice Girls’ first big misstep. In a few months time, the group will publically sack their manager and take over operations themselves: a statement of on-message independence, but also a response to the fact that Simon Fuller was brutally overworking them. Yes, the Beatles had managed multiple albums and a film in a similar crunched timescale, but both moviemaking and the media demands on a globally successful group had changed since the early 60s. Trying to make Spiceworld (the film) and Spiceworld (the LP) at the same time was Fuller taking a gigantic risk in quality terms while being meanly, cynically cautious from a marketing perspective – nobody would care about the Girls in six months time, so get the product out while you can.
It’s on record that “Spice Up Your Life”, in particular, was scribbled between movie takes with the media clustered around, and the sloppiness shows: it’s hard to imagine “yellow man in Timbuktu / colour for both me and you” getting into a lyric if waving everything through wasn’t the norm. The germ of the song is the Spice Girls wanting to make a song “for the world”, which in practise means slipping into pastiche mode again and making a pantomime version of Latin pop, “Arriba!”s very much included. But that’s not all that’s going on – “Spice Up Your Life” has gleeful girl gang shouts, a chorus ending in a nonsense phrase (“Hi Ci Ya! Hold tight!”) and even plentiful talk of slamming. It’s an attempt to turn the quicksilver mess of “Wannabe” into a formula while cranking up the budget.
In doing so “Spice Up Your Life” misses a lot of what made the first few Spice Girls singles special. They stood out not just through being efferevescent, imaginative and noisy, but by situating pop’s usual relationship drama in a grounded perspective centred on their audience’s right to everyday autonomy: demand more of boys and boyfriends, and still sound like you’re having the best time on Earth doing it. To do this they also had to make it sound like being a Spice Girl was awesome, and this – not the autonomy – is what “Spice Up Your Life” jumps on by extending the band into a global, Spice-branded fun club. (From memory, the film it promoted does a much better job of bottling their appeal: a rewatch beckons!)
One problem with brands – and this is the first of four number ones in a row that are explicitly or implicitly about branding – is that if you’re in charge of them, you start seeing the rest of life through their lens, whether it’s appropriate or not. You reduce everyday life to a series of ‘touchpoints’ or ‘consumption opportunities’. As “Spice Up Your Life” falls into a series of mashups its music doesn’t have the wit to reflect – tribal spaceman, foxtrot the salsa, et al – it isn’t about relationships, or confidence, or even partying. If it’s about anything it’s about a vision of pop in which every subculture, every dance style, even every race is interchangeably Spicey. A world that’s only fun from a brand’s point of view, not a person’s.
So this is a massively successful British group coming back with an amped-up version of their sound, lower quality control, deliberately generic material and a lead single that’s a rallying cry for brand loyalty disguised as some vague call for unity. As the Spiceworld trailer put it, with unhappy aptness, “Blah blah blah, feminism…girl power.. d’you know what I mean?”. “Spice Up Your Life” is bouncier, catchier and thankfully briefer than Oasis, but grosser too, and freeing the charts of a dreadful song does not make its replacement better.