On Spiceworld, the Spice Girls take us deep into pop’s heart of lightness, a happy place filled not with music of good taste but with music that tastes good — at least to a substantial portion of the planet. Listen closely to Spiceworld and hear the sparkling if scary sound of a universal pop phenomenon in full bloom. Like it or not, the Spice Girls are 1997’s Fab Five, only this time there’s nothing but cheeky Cute Ones. Time will tell whether their upcoming feature film will prove to be A Hard Day’s Spice or a too-Vanilla Cool as Spice, but in the short run, it’s foolish to bet against them.
To get to the toppermost of the poppermost, the Spice Girls have traded shamelessly — which is not to say shamefully — on their much-vaunted Girl Power, selling themselves as feminist cheesecake. On Spiceworld, they’ve added a sexy new curve to the mix — a learning curve. The act behind the smash “Wannabe” sounded like wanna-be’s themselves on some of their hit-and-miss debut effort, Spice, an album that made Hanson’s weightier Middle of Nowhere look like Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers. Spiceworld is, relatively speaking, a masterful effort; at its best, it reaches creative heights that are downright Bananaramian.
Variety is the spice of Spiceworld. The LP seems less a song cycle than a series of aural production numbers. “Spice Up Your Life,” the first single, is a global call to arms and legs with a distinct carnivallike flavor and a message of Up With Spice People positivity. “Stop” is a retro, Supremes-lite confection that’s as undeniable as it is unoriginal. The big finish, “The Lady Is a Vamp,” is a vaudevillian track that name-checks Jackie O., Twiggy and Ziggy Marley among those who the Spice Girls apparently feel are “legends built to last.”
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The Spices and their producers borrow freely from legends of all stripes here. “Never Give Up” quotes Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Let’s Groove,” and “Do It” recalls Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” The production throughout is a cunning rehash of hip-hop and pop clichés — “Denying,” for instance, suggests Olivia Newton John produced by Dr. Dre. That’s better, certainly, than “Viva Forever,” a big ballad that is about as convincing as the Spices’ Spanish accents. Then there’s the fizzy “Move Over,” a nifty cross-promotion of a song that you might have heard first in the Spice Girls’ Pepsi-Cola ads.
Of course, one could accuse the group of selling out, but what would they be selling? Spiceworld is not an artistic statement for critics to autopsy — it’s well-made music to Stairmaster to, and by that standard the whole thing works rather well. One might have expected the Spices to call in hired guns like Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or David Foster to make the great pop leap forward, but almost movingly they’ve stayed with the guys who brought them to the pop prom: producers Richard Stannard, Matt Rowe and Absolute, all of whom collaborated with the Spices on their first album.
Now that they’ve achieved world domination, a change has come to the Spices. Now that the world is their spice rack, they’re no longer the multiracial British girls next door but iconic commodities, mass-marketed objects of desire, and an adorable cottage industry. “Too Much” finds them dealing with the relative troubles of “too much of something” and “too much of nothing,” and if we are to believe the lyrics on “Stop,” they still need to kick back and have “a human touch” just like mere mortals. In the great pop tradition, their message is this: Have a good time, believe in yourself, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to buy a lot of Spice Girls merchandise.
Yes, they make Oasis look like visionaries, and, yes, their performance on Saturday Night Live was a fleshy train wreck, but nonetheless it’s the Spice Girls’ world now, and aren’t the rest of us really, really lucky to live in it?