Wednesday, November 15, 2000

On the Spice Girls...

Unlike most discerning listeners I've talked to, I don't hate "Holler"; how can you hate a song you can't even remember while it's playing? Perhaps Mel B can hook the girls up with a doctor who can give it a chorus transplant? "Let Love Lead The Way" is better, if only because it's classic Spice material, but it's too stiff to have an impact or be memorable. And I'm not surprised by reliable reports that the album is utterly awful.

I feel a bit sorry for the girls really (well, not Mel B or Mel C, who both clearly need to be bitchslapped), especially because in their haste to crucify them, most of the media have forgotten that this unlikely gaggle offered us some of the best pop songs in ages. "Say You'll Be There", "2 Become 1" and "Who Do You Think You Are" in particular formed a flawless trilogy of pop thrills. Actually "2 Become 1" came on the radio the other day at work. I hadn't heard it in about two years and I think I got all misty eyed. And there was "Goodbye" as well, which I really liked at the time, but of course that was pre-Skykicking, so instead I'm writing about it now as a tribute to what was, what might have been.

Listening to "Goodbye", with its stirring strings, springy synth bassline, gently swishing hi-hats and quietly bizarre snare hits played backwards, the Girls' subsequent choice to employ Rodney Jerkins to produce their comeback seems all the more tragic. Sure, "It's Not Right But It's Okay" and "Say My Name" are excellent examples of modern R&B, but let's not forget such pop travesties as "He Wasn't Man Enough For Me" and "If You Had My Love". More importantly, it suggests a cynical position taken by the Girls or their record label that at any given time only one style of pop-production should be acceptable - the biggest-grossing, quite obviously. Audiences prove the lie to this, happily chewing on the Max Martin school of crunch-dynamics, the judder-scapes of She'kspere and Timbaland, N'Sync's combination of the two and, in the UK at least, the r&b-garage fusion of The Artful Dodger and Craig David, not to mention Westlife-style blandouts. Ronan Keating's "Life Is A Rollercoaster", helmed by the guy from The New Radicals, suggests yet another popular formula, and I'm keenly looking forward to hearing the guy's work for Texas.

Anyway, what I was getting around to is that the Spice Girls had a perfectly valid and not unimpressive niche - surprisingly cluttered, dynamic arrangements and buzzy bass grooves for the dance tracks, and Phil Spector sleighbell production plus strings for the ballads. Combine that with excellent choruses and the ability to work well with limited vocal talent, as well as an eye for the bizarre (check that harmonica solo in the otherwise sleeker-than-thou "Say You'll Be There") and the Spice writing/production had a formidable equation. It has a place within our conceptions of pop, and a prominent one at that. This end of pop shouldn't be left to also-rans like Girl Thing - they clearly can't do it justice.

Furthermore, the original Spice formula is not one that should necessarily be jettisoned in favour of sharp beats and harpsichords merely because the latter formula is slightly fresher. Something like "It's Not Right But It's Okay" only gained its sense of freshness in contrast to everything else on radio at the time, and in the wake of "Holler" and other examples of Jerkins's media-whoring, that freshness has seriously diminished. Already I'm starting to demand more from R&B - to merely be futuristic doesn't cut it when every day three new songs come out that are futuristic in exactly the same way.

Still, there's "Goodbye", with that understated but nonetheless heavenly chorus. "You'll always be someone's baby" a nicer Mel B sang, and I know it's a corny, meaningless sentiment, but it still does what every great pop song is supposed to do. Maybe the Spice Girls really do want to make me holler, but I liked them better when they made me smile.


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