When Geri Halliwell quit the Spice Girls in 1998, pop fans were more than usually curious as to what her next move might be. She had muscled her way to the front of the group, then discarded them, deliberately giving the casual observer the impression that she had been their most important member all along. The obvious comparison point was Robbie Williams, a mercurial presence in a colossally popular band, who – hindsight and Robbie himself sagely agreed – had found his true talents as an entertainer stifled while part of them. On paper, Geri Halliwell could have been the biggest female star Britain had ever produced.
And on paper, in fact, she was – until a couple of weeks ago, when Cheryl overtook her as the British woman with the most solo Number Ones. But Geri’s four come in a burst at a point when the chart was notoriously easily gamed. She has never stopped being famous, but public interest in actually hearing music by her waned very rapidly. And the public are, in this case, no fools. Geri Halliwell’s solo career died away because Geri Halliwell’s solo records are, on the whole, quite bad. It’s the way they’re bad that’s more interesting.
To get a handle on Geri’s solo work, it’s worth going back to her most notorious interview – the “Thatcher was a Spice Girl” one – and consider the idea of Geri Halliwell as a Thatcherite. Not in the sense of being a Tory – like Rupert Murdoch, she was one of Tony Blair’s PR captures and endorsed Labour in 2001 – but in relation to that quintessential Thatcherite figure: the entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurialism and pop already have close links. There’s a line of argument which – partly for ironic effect – points out how post-punk and indie’s small labels and DIY principles were in closer alignment than they might have liked to the Thatcherite ideal of the small enterprise. The comparison seems even stronger when you look at Richard Branson, label boss turned business darling. Branson was the essence of entrepreneurialism, and the entrepreneur was the hero figure of the Thatcher years – buccaneering, driven, energetic, creative – the motor, so we were told, of Britain’s post-industrial economy.
This entrepreneur of heroic legend was, in theory, driven by their brilliant ideas and inventive mind – like the small label boss or indie musician, they chased their individual dream. But this idea of the business visionary was a fantasy. If Thatcherism saw virtue in entrepreneurialism it was nothing to do with its dreams and great ideas – if something made money, it didn’t matter if it was a great idea or not. In fact, if something didn’t make money, that proved it wasn’t a great idea.
When Thatcherites praised entrepreneurialism as an innate good, it was because it showcased hard work and drive. It was energy and competitiveness themselves that mattered, not what that energy was put towards. Their true hero figure isn’t the person who doggedly pursues a vision, it’s the serial entrepreneur – the Alan Sugar types who constantly cash in old visions and glom onto new ones, and do everything with a maximum of determination and a minimum of sleep. Look behind the big handshakes and smiles and you often found a mess of unpaid bills, ripped-off staff and cut corners everywhere.
And it seems to me this is a way to get a handle both on why Geri Halliwell succeeded so much and why she failed so quickly. She is an entrepreneurial star, with enormous energy, working extremely hard, impatiently picking up and discarding ideas at a one-per-single rate. But she seems completely uninterested in taking those ideas and building anything with them: everything sounds first-draft and slapdash. “Mi Chico Latino” is Geri Halliwell doing a Latin pop song, and it sounds like she imagines that’s enough. In the Spice Girls, the workrate and drive were a huge advantage, and any disadvantages could be covered up by the group. Solo, they are more exposed.
The exception to this is, of course, the song we don’t get to properly discuss: the ravenous “Look At Me”, Geri’s debut and her one really bold move – release a lightning-rod single for every bit of criticism and bitchiness she knows she’s going to get anyway. As an entertaining bit of pop music it’s not her best single – this one is, probably – but as a statement of defiant intent it’s exactly as brazen as it needs to be.
Even more grievous then, that after such a snarling arrival her other hits are so bland. Halliwell has Spanish roots, and the bit of “Mi Chico Latino” where I had the most fun is her playfully urgent spoken-word interlude, the kind of corn a record that’s trying to be a simulated holiday smash really needs. But the rest feels unimaginative – easy options, like the castanets and the lost love theme, ruthlessly taken – or just a bit sloppy. Dropping a bit of Italian – “my dolce vita” – into the chorus, for instance, when everything else is Spanish.
That’s not to say “Mi Chico Latino” is terrible – it hangs together, Geri grabs onto it with gusto, and even shoddy Latin pop has a novel appeal here. It is, you might say, the Minimum Viable Product of a Latin-flavoured pop single. But here’s the difference between Geri and Robbie, her regular point of comparison. Both are restless characters. Robbie is constantly in flight, itchy with every settled role he finds himself placed into – which makes, now and then, for intriguingly wonky records. Geri, on the other hand, comes over as hungry for stardom, but impatient with the detail. Like many an entrepreneur, she’s better at the pitch than the product.