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Mar 14

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. 1
    taDOW on 30 Mar 2014 #

    otm w/ the oasis comparison though i’m more fond of this (and ‘dyou know whuh imean’ for that matter) than you. spice girls play like an updated sex pistols in my head so i wonder if the extent to which both acts were comet like phenomenon was due to mclaren/cowell creating their ephemerality or merely recognizing it and exploiting it (i’m not sure which option flatters them more). the pastiche element of the big spice world hits (w/ one exception, bunnied but by far my fave from spice world for reasons i’ll go into when that time comes) is of such a different kind then what similar effects were there w/ spice’s singles (cf ‘spice up yr life’ vs the faux g-funk of ‘say you’ll be there’), easy obvious templates laying around to make up for a lack of time and inspiration to devote to the effort. it hurt them in america as well: their three previous singles hitting the top five, this barely cracked the top twenty, a similar fate hitting a subsequent pastiche single. their last top ten would be the bunnied single mentioned above. 6 for me, almost purely on charisma.

  2. 2
    Billy Hicks on 30 Mar 2014 #

    Here’s a photograph, taken around the time of the release of this single, with the Girls cheerily posing around a – as of 1997 – mostly-loved cheesy glam icon of the early 1970s. While you can’t blame them given as yet unknown future information, it’s astonishing for all the wrong reasons.

    http://images.fok.nl/upload/051120_272_garyglitter-spice.jpg

    New album, same old folded-arms and tutting from young me and – as with every Spice song releases so far – only exists for random nostalgic purposes now. My only main memory of this is a playground routine where the lyric “Colours of the world!” would see us display the peace sign, and “Every boy and every girl!” saw it flip around into the V sign. Amusing at the time until the teachers stopped us from doing it.

  3. 3
    Izzy on 30 Mar 2014 #

    This is quite hooky and backing track is okay if a tad overpowering. But the vocals are rubbish – both for the reasons in Tom’s review, and because it’s another example of Mel C’s horrible singing filling in all the gaps.

    Marked up one for having the good sense to be gone before the three-minute mark. But it’s all rather tiring. (4)

  4. 4
    anto on 30 Mar 2014 #

    I’m instantly put off this one by those tumbley keyboards. I’m not that keen on Latin music and it was about to become a frequent presence in the late nineties charts so this was curiously ahead of an upcoming trend even while being tethered to a previous one that was fast losing its charm.
    I genuinely can’t remember the last time I watched Channel 5.

  5. 5
    Chelovek na lune on 30 Mar 2014 #

    I can’t really substantially disagree with very much in this review. OK, SUYL has a appealing vivacious energy, which does to my mind make it preferable to the record it displaced.

    But….in all, it is a classic case of an act, having proved their worth and appeal, in those fabulous first three singles, having some of what precisely made them worthwhile and appealing wrung or crushed out of them by their management and/or record company. As in numerous prior cases, production values gain, but at the expense of inspiration and raw, less polished, talent. This is still rather good fun, and in its way, also quite out of the ordinary: but it precisely lacks the (to coin a phrase) the X factor – and the individuality, the sense of character and purpose – that had thrust the Spice Girls so into the limelight in the first place. From me (5)

  6. 6
    Kinitawowi on 30 Mar 2014 #

    I’ve said before that I prefer the Spices’ ballads, and this is part of why. Spice Up Your Life is terrible. A lot of my lad mates thought this was their first decent song; I hated it from the second I first heard it. I was hoping Tom would continue his 9-8-7-6-? sequence for the Spicey Ones, but alas – this is too terrible to even get a five.

    2.

  7. 7
    AMZ1981 on 30 Mar 2014 #

    Interestingly this is the Spice Girls’ most in your face single but arguably their last girl power record as what follows is rather anaemic (three ballads and an obvious pastiche follow). It’s worth noting that they delayed the release of this record by a week to gift Elton John an extra week (or equally possibly to ensure themselves a clear run – in the event they would have been okay).

  8. 8
    wichitalineman on 30 Mar 2014 #

    On the negative side: some solidly will-this-do lyrics (the Timbuktu line I missed at the time); a truly awful middle eight of global stereotype whooping; brand-enhancing vid (Spice coffee in the Starbucks logo).

    On the positive side: It’s a trailer for the film which does a very entertaining and compelling job – compare it to Men In Black, a single so literal it was no more than a 3 minute advert, dull and pointless if you hadn’t seen the movie. SUYL is closer to the Young Ones or Summer Holiday with its hollering redcoat pitch, but the million-mile-an-hour lyrical delivery is closer to Jailhouse Rock.

    It’s not Wannabe, for sure, but this piece of crazed, unfocussed exuberance was an absolute blessing, something to physically shake Britain out of its sombre grey mood. 6.

  9. 9
    23 Daves on 30 Mar 2014 #

    Actually, this is probably The Spice Girls single that reminds me most of Toto Coelo, but it’s not as good as “I Eat Cannibals”.

    I must admit to having lost patience with the whole juggernaut at this point. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that every advertising break seemed to have The Spice Girls in it, every magazine had an analysis of something they were doing somewhere in it, and even Clive James was supposedly forced to have them on his show against his wishes (http://youtu.be/oVn8OGH5eRQ) – I don’t handle inescapable hype well at the best of times, and this definitely wasn’t the best of times.

    The fact this single felt tossed off helped matters none, it almost felt mocking to me. “Ha ha! Not only are we constantly in your face, we’ve also released an irritating single, it’s going to go to number one and annoy you for ages, and there’s NOTHING you can do about it! We’re not even trying anymore!” Of course, a few months later it would become apparent through interviews that the Spice Girls were having doubts themselves, and the only one laughing like a loon was Fuller.

    That still doesn’t make me feel any more fondly disposed towards this single, though. 3.

  10. 10
    thefatgit on 30 Mar 2014 #

    Absolutely agree with Tom’s review. Anything upbeat following CITW97 would have been welcome, and the Spice Girls offer their comfort, or resetting of the status quo if you will, like a nice cup of tea or a Carry On movie. Fuller’s tactic, one supposes, was to make Spice Girls as recognisable a British brand as Tower Bridge or HP Sauce, but like Tower Bridge, like a symbol, Spicemania isn’t easily rolled out without being adapted to the market they’re being exported to. And unlike HP Sauce, the quality of Spice Girls’ product fluctuates with each new release. Fuller’s vision is flawed then? He’s no Epstein and the Spicies were no Beatles, but you can gauge the size of his ambition, and the amount of stardust he sprinkled on the girls. The pressure he put on the girls to become as big as, if not bigger than The Beatles was too much to bear, so he had to go. And some of that stardust went with him.

    SUYL is a pretty awful single in retrospect, but it’s better than a mawkish tribute to a dead princess.

  11. 11
    Keley Ann on 30 Mar 2014 #

    Not that it makes it much more meaningful, but it’s actually hai si ja (‘yes’ in Japanese, Spanish/Italian and German/many other languages) rather than just random noises.

  12. 12
    Rory on 30 Mar 2014 #

    Another first-listen-ever for this Spice neophyte, and I quite like it; but I fell for Latin noises around this time, via the late ’90s lounge music revival, so I can get onboard with a pastiche of them. Being primed by Keley Ann @11 to hear “hai, si, ja” rather than a nonsense phrase helped, I suspect, and like Izzy @3 I appreciate its three-minute running time, especially after our recent encounters with Oasis and the Verve. None of you have mentioned it yet, but that’s a nice Blade Runner spoof in the video, too. I could see giving this a 5 or even a 6.

    The visual joke about Starbucks is intriguing, as 1997 was the year before they had opened any stores in the UK, and I wonder how many UK viewers would have got the reference (a sign of the Spice Girls’ global target audience, I assume). My wife and I visited the west coast of the States a few times in 1997-99 and got a taste for Starbucks, which lingered for a while even after we realised that it was just a big chain, and I remember us laughing loudly at a joke in the second Austin Powers movie about Doctor Evil using Starbucks as a front – but being the only people in the cinema who did (Starbucks didn’t open any branches in Australia until after The Spy Who Shagged Me came out).

  13. 13
    lonepilgrim on 30 Mar 2014 #

    everything from the pace of the song to its scrambled lyrics sounds rushed and thoughtless – and not in a good way. Whereas in the earlier number 1s you could distinguish the different singers here they sound as if they’ve been shoved in a blender on a latin setting. I notice that Ginger Spice is more upfront and centre in the video with the others pushed back more. Not a good sign.

  14. 14
    Tom on 30 Mar 2014 #

    #11 Thankyou! Never trust Internet lyric sites, I guess. I always heard them as “Backseat, ya!” to be honest.

    #13 Yeah… my suspicion is that Geri is the driving force here if any of the group is, but I don’t actually have grounds for this other than a sense that this sort of fusion-food vagueness is her ‘bag’ (and the extensive bunnied future evidence that she isn’t very good)

  15. 15
    mapman132 on 30 Mar 2014 #

    It’s amazing how quickly Spicemania came and went in America. “Wannabe” had been released in the US at the beginning of this very same year, but nine months later the backlash and subsequent fall was well underway. SUYL flopped in the US, only peaking at #18. I actually don’t mind the song too much (I’ll give it 5/10) but I agree with others, it was sounds hacked together compared to their previous hits. Then when Spice World the album was released, I remember thinking that if they were really the biggest group in the world since the Beatles, shouldn’t their new album be entering the chart higher than #3? And finally their movie was a critical and commercial failure.

    Apparently they would still have three US Top 40 hits to go, but they must’ve been in-and-out fanbase records since I don’t remember any of them. Oddly, I do remember their two remaining bunnies that didn’t chart in the US.

    The most interesting thing though – and it’s hard to determine how much Spice-backlash caused this, but it certainly contributed at least early on – is that this was the beginning of a historic slump by UK artists on the US charts. Who would’ve thought at the time that Sir Elton was racking up weeks atop the Hot 100 that he would be the last Brit to have a US #1 until 2006? And it wasn’t just at the top of the charts – I believe there was even a year that had only a single British song in the entire year-end top 100. Inconceivable for someone like me who grew up during the second British Invasion of the 80’s. Things weren’t much better on the album charts: there was the Beatles 1 album of course, and Radiohead managed a couple of fanbase #1’s. Eventually Coldplay would break through to the big time. But that was about it for nearly a decade. I’m sure the British Withdrawal had many causes, but between the collapse of Britpop discussed in the last Oasis thread and the end of the Spice Girls having major US hits, late 1997 is where it began.

  16. 16
    Ed on 30 Mar 2014 #

    Tom: “this is the first of four number ones in a row that are explicitly or implicitly about branding.”

    Er, the second of five in a row, surely?

  17. 17
    Kinitawowi on 30 Mar 2014 #

    #14: Hasn’t Geri got some Spanish ancestry? It’d explain a lot of the fusion.

  18. 18
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 30 Mar 2014 #

    yes, her mum’s spanish

  19. 19
    Ed on 31 Mar 2014 #

    A bit early to be coming out with the Spice Girls obituaries, I know, but the juxtaposition with Diana reminded me of another way in which they were quietly revolutionary: in their steadfast refusal to drop into any of the standard tragic arcs of division and decline traditionally imposed on women in pop. As far as you can tell, they all seem comfortable and contented with their lives, and never have a bad word to say about each other. Even Mel B, who has generated a few tabloid headlines down the years, seems happy. And her career is doing well enough for rival TV networks to be fighting over her contract. It’s all very good to see.

  20. 20
    JLucas on 31 Mar 2014 #

    If you’d asked me two years ago, I’d have said this was one of the Spice Girls weakest number ones and agreed with all of the above.

    However, this single has been hugely rehabilitated for me by its use in their Olympics closing ceremony performance. On that night it was transformed from slightly rushed, ephemeral ‘make hay while the sun shines’ single to a magnificent victory lap for everything they stood for. If the sight of them, after everything they’d been through as a group (breakup, failed solo careers, disappointing comeback…) taking centre stage at the biggest global event of that year screeching “SPICE UP YER LIFE, SPICE UP YER LIFE!” didn’t warm your heart, well, I just don’t think you really understand the visceral joy of pop music or the Spice Girls. They’d been down, but they were never out.

    The movie is what it is. For me it’s essentially cash-in fluff, but for all that far funnier than it has any right to be. Victoria walks away with it.

    And Tom, it’s interesting that it Too Much is shaping up to be your Spice favourite. For me it’s the least essential of their golden era singles, and another bunny from this album outclasses it in absolutely every conceivable way. We’ll get to that one in due time, but I’m already worried you won’t rate it as highly as I do. God but it’s beautiful though…

  21. 21
    swanstep on 31 Mar 2014 #

    @2, Billy. Their Gary Glitter cover (‘Leader of The Gang’) in the Spice World movie (though not on Spiceworld album) was one of the best bits of the film. I’m not sure what the timing of the scandal was relative to shooting the scene for the film and then choosing pieces for the album, but I’m personally a little sad they never recorded the song properly or indeed headed more in that glam direction generally than they did. Signs from that scene in the film were promising.

  22. 22
    jim5et on 31 Mar 2014 #

    I’m much softer on this than you all are – I think it’s possibly my favourite Spice record, exactly because of its maximalist, everything-turned-up-to-11 vibe. It’s a blast 7

  23. 23
    Billy on 31 Mar 2014 #

    #15. Critical failure, yes, apart from a few dissenting voices. Commercial failure, no. Wiki states it made $77mil off a $25mil budget. In that respect Fuller was right to milk this cash cow as determinedly as he did.

    I always get this mixed up with the Garbage track which had a similar girl powered spaceship video.

  24. 24
    wichitalineman on 31 Mar 2014 #

    Definitely a bit early for the obits – my two favourite (bunnied) Spice singles are still to come.

    My main problems with them at this point were Geri’s loud and undignified claims to be their frontwoman.

  25. 25
    James BC on 31 Mar 2014 #

    I agree with Tom’s review – as someone who quite unfairly hated the Spice Girls at the time, this made the ill feeling a bit more deserved. Terrible lyrics.

    But I also agree with JLucas that it makes a good part of their legacy and works well as a signature tune for them. You couldn’t have a best-of-the-Spice-Girls playlist without it, and you might have it as the opening track.

  26. 26
    AMZ1981 on 31 Mar 2014 #

    #16 This could be seen as the second in a trilogy of number ones about manufactured females (in that Diana was originally presented to the world as a fairytale princess but the reality turned out to be very different).

    #21 Just checked – Gary Glitter originally featured in that scene but he was first arrested in November 1997 and his part was cut although the song remained.

  27. 27
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 31 Mar 2014 #

    yes, the scene was filmed with GG and had to be refilmed later in the shoot — with meat loaf as a last-minute replacement? (not so sure abt the latter)

  28. 28
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 31 Mar 2014 #

    (i.e. meat loaf isn’t actually in the revised GG scene, but his arrival as their driver was conceived as a consequence… but i may be wrong about this)

  29. 29
    Steve Mannion on 31 Mar 2014 #

    Maybe they tried for Billy Idol but alas he was busy doing The Wedding Singer.

  30. 30
    Cumbrian on 31 Mar 2014 #

    Never seen Spiceworld but the opening paragraph of the wikipedia plot synopsis seems like a pretty good set up, with some of it years ahead of the news (photographer dispatched to get photos and bug their conversations!). Reading on beyond that point, I see less to enthuse me but I guess it will all be in the execution – as I’ve never seen it, I’m not really in position to comment.

    I’ve spoilered myself and set up a play list for the next tranche of #1s. Whilst this isn’t great, there are some clunkers – and some that are a bit worse than I initially remembered – in the upcoming batch. SUYL, on the other hand, is a bit better than I remember (I thought it was horrendous at the time) but benefits mostly from the short run time. I was never really a Spice fan at the time but listening through as we’ve gone along, my inverse law of quality to Geri involvement seems to still hold true. It’s been interesting listening to which voices seem to dominate when they’re all singing together – it sounds to me like there is some studio work going on to emphasise particular singers on particular tracks, even when they’re in theory all singing at once, so Emma might stand out amongst the five of them sometimes, another time it might be Mel C. This, to my ear, sounds like they’re emphasising Geri – so again, points off I am afraid, as her voice just grates on my nerves. Musically, I think it’s better (certainly more interesting) than it is lyrically or vocally – clattering along with a load of different sounds mixed together. I’d say 5 personally and move along, I think.

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