A funny thing happened on the way out of "Spice World" -- I realized I was a Spice Girls fan.
Lord knows, it wasn't what I had expected. Back in November, when the "Spice World" album came out, I was distinctly unimpressed, finding little merit in the crass commerciality of the Pepsi jingle "Generation Next" or the musical ambition of a semi-show-tune like "Lady Is a Vamp." It was as if the Spice Girls had begun to believe their success was in some way connected to having actual musical ability.
That sort of hubris usually means trouble for a pop group -- particularly one as unabashedly inconsequential as this. So as I settled into my seat at the movieplex, I braced myself for more of the same.
It never came. Instead, what "Spice World" delivered was frivolous, frothy fun. There was no underlying message or overweening ambition cluttering up the screen, just songs, silliness and Spice. Much to my amazement, I found myself falling for the group.
That's not to say I immediately went home and filled out an application to join the Spice Army (or whatever the group's fan club is called). Nor have I papered my walls with Spice Girls posters or revised my opinion of their current album. Compared with the average 12-year-old, I'm barely a fan at all.
But by rock critic standards, I'm a zealot. Because whenever colleagues attack the Girls as talentless, unmusical and a blight on popular culture, my immediate instinct is to leap to their defense.
It helps that some of the jibes have been outright ridiculous. Take, for instance, the oft-repeated complaint that "they just can't sing." Wrong. Sure, when compared with the likes of Whitney Houston or Celine Dion, Scary, Sporty, Baby, Ginger and Posh could hardly be described as great vocalists. Then again, neither could Janet Jackson, Sheryl Crow or Fiona Apple. That doesn't mean they can't sing.
There's a world of difference between being a vocal virtuoso and being able to carry a tune, and while the Spices may not be the former, they're more than capable of the latter. Not only do they deliver unison lines with impressive clarity (a task far more difficult than most people realize), but they have a genuine gift for interplay and counterpoint. So even if their vocal ability ranks them well behind the divas of En Vogue, the Spice Girls are still leagues ahead of the likes of Bananarama.
Mention this to a Spice-basher, though, and they'll sneer that it's all just studio trickery. After all, aren't the Spice Girls just a contrivance, anyway?
This really irks me. So what if the Spice Girls don't play their own instruments or write all their songs (though they do share writing credits on some tunes)? Neither did the Supremes or the Temptations, and you don't hear people dismissing those old Motown classics as "contrived."
Granted, the Spice Girls owe a lot to the input and imagination of their producers, Absolute and the team of Richard Stannard and Matt Rowe. It was Stannard and Rowe who concocted "Wannabe," "2 Become 1" and "Spice Up Your Life," while Absolute gave us "Say You'll Be There" and "Too Much." In a sense, they're the ones who deserve credit for the consistent catchiness of the Spice Girls' singles.
But that hardly makes the group five little puppets dancing at the end of a string. No one would dare suggest that Janet Jackson is a studio construct, even though her sound virtually wouldn't exist without producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Likewise, a large part of Def Leppard's sound and success was actually the work of producer Robert John "Mutt" Lang, but you never heard that band derided as metal marionettes.
Still, what won me over there in the multiplex had less to do with music than with character. Although the plot of "Spice World" seems to have the five Spices playing themselves, it would probably be more accurate to say they're playing cartoons of themselves.
It isn't just that they have a flair for comedy; they're also more than willing to treat themselves as part of the punch line.
That, frankly, was the most appealing thing about them and what keeps "Spice World" from becoming a bad imitation of "A Hard Day's Night." Where "A Hard Day's Night" found the Beatles laughing at the absurdities that swirled around them, "Spice World" shows the Spice Girls laughing at themselves. And it's hard not to love them when they do.
Why? Because in an odd way, that willingness to play the fool demonstrates a confidence far more impressive than any amount of "girl power" rhetoric. It says the Spice Girls are comfortable being who they are, aren't bothered by what their critics say, and genuinely enjoy entertaining people.
Isn't that what pop stars are supposed to do?
Pub Date: 1/29/98