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SPICE GIRLS – “Spice Up Your Life”

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#775, 25th October 1997

spiceup 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.

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Comments

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  1. 76
    Kinitawowi on 9 Apr 2014 #

    Eurovision failures Love City Groove.

    Bentley’s Gonna Sort You Out!, by Bentley Rhythm Ace, from every single Channel 4 100 Hundred Greatest List Shows.

    Surprisingly few, but a couple, from the Simpsons albums.

  2. 77
    swanstep on 9 Apr 2014 #

    Korn’s ‘Children of the Korn’ (their best track by a country mile IMHO) combines branding with ‘shaping the artist-audience relationship’ which SUYL also has.

    Q. Gaga talks both about herself and to her fans a lot in her songs, but I’m not aware of any (partly) self-titled songs: Can anyone confirm this? And if so, what are the odds of an eventual, e.g., ‘Gaga’s ode to the Little Monsters’?

  3. 78
    lartsaegis on 9 Apr 2014 #

    All I can think of right now is Royksopp’s Royksopp Forever and Jamie Lidell’s You Know My Name. And on the note of the latter, any artist with a “self-titled” album comes into play. Oh, and Daft Punk’s Daftendirekt and WDPK 83.7 FM.

  4. 79
    nixon on 9 Apr 2014 #

    It’s A Fast Driving Rave Up With The Dandy Warhols Sixteen Minutes

    Are You Jimmy Ray?

    Louis XIV

    It probably shouldn’t count, but the ultimate effort might be the PSB cover of We’re The Pet Shop Boys.

  5. 80
    Kinitawowi on 9 Apr 2014 #

    Still waiting for Coldplay to do their own cover of Everything Sounds Like Coldplay Now.

  6. 81
    Chelovek na lune on 9 Apr 2014 #

    House of Love – Shine On, if we’re referencing lyrics. “In a garden in the house of love, sitting lonely on a plastic chair”, and all that.

  7. 82
    Mark M on 9 Apr 2014 #

    Lots more hip-hop, as assorted people have said – just to pick a few: the excellent Still D.R.E. (although of course Snoop walks off with the glory), the Jungle Brothers’ Jungle Brother (True Blue) and Biz Markie’s Nobody Beats The Biz. Plus ‘check out my DJ’ tracks like Go Cut Creator Go, bringing us to The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel.

    Back in the world of guitars, the by-then-imploding Clash also did We Are The Clash. The Cramps weighed in with I’m Cramped…

  8. 83
    Cumbrian on 9 Apr 2014 #

    Uh-huh, it was the Manfreds – from a track later covered by Spice Girls.

  9. 84
    Izzy on 9 Apr 2014 #

    St Etienne kicked off with my favourite tune of theirs, the manifestoesque ‘This Is Radio Etienne’. Then a little later there was the Cola Boy classic ‘He Is Cola’.

  10. 85
    Tommy Mack on 9 Apr 2014 #

    Beastie Boys (before rap and before they were famous and indeed before they were all boys)
    Joboxers – The Boxer Beat
    Brassy BRASSY
    Chemical Bros Chemical Beats
    That Fatboy Slim track that goes ‘what we’re doing when the fat boy’s trippin’”

  11. 86
    Chelovek na lune on 9 Apr 2014 #

    #85 Derek B’s a bad young brother (oh yeah, Derek B)

  12. 87

    some notes on why the spice-h8az are MISTAKEN — about this song and the film and EVERYTHING ELSE NATURALLY :)

  13. 88
    wichitalineman on 16 Apr 2014 #

    NOW! watch:

    Surprisingly relegated to Track 2 on the first disc of Now 38. A very upbeat summery disc, with much in-vogue Euro flavouring, and arguably Boyzone’s best single (granted, the competition is thin). Disc 2, as mentioned on the Verve thread, was an incredibly dour affair.

    Chumbawamba : “Tubthumping”
    Spice Girls : “Spice Up Your Life”
    Hanson : “Where’s the Love”
    Boyzone : “Picture of You”
    Backstreet Boys : “As Long As You Love Me”
    Eternal : “Angel of Mine”
    Lighthouse Family : “Raincloud”
    Janet Jackson : “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”
    The Brand New Heavies : “You’ve Got A Friend”
    All Saints : “I Know Where It’s At”
    Louise : “Arms Around the World”
    Gala : “Freed from Desire”
    Sash! featuring La Trec : “Stay”
    Dario G : “Sunchyme”
    Tina Moore : “Never Gonna Let You Go”
    Hot Chocolate : “You Sexy Thing”
    N-Trance featuring Rod Stewart : “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”
    LL Cool J : “Phenomenon”
    911 : “Party People…Friday Night”
    Ricky Martin : “Maria”
    Bellini : “Samba De Janeiro”
    DJ Quicksilver : “Free”

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