Thursday, November 4, 2010

Spice Girls "Forever": 10 Years Later

At the dawn of the last decade, the Spice Girls were the biggest female group in the world. Launching out of Britain in 1996, they used an irresistible brew of personality, music, and marketing savvy to pierce the global consciousness in a way few acts could or would.

Surviving the untimely exodus of member Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell in the late spring of 1998, the remaining four Spice Girls (Melanie's Brown & Chisholm, Victoria Beckham, Emma Bunton) blazed through the American leg of their Spice World tour. They'd also sew the grains of maturation that came to term on their third, final, and unsung long player Forever (2000).

The History
After Halliwell's departure, the Spice Girls began a visual, musical shift into an adult refinement. The closing of their first tour birthed "Goodbye," their eighth U.K. #1 hit. "Goodbye" had their talents in fine form as songwriters and singers. As 1999 began, each member branched into solo projects. Also during this hectic period, the Girls embarked on a U.K. only Christmas in Spice World tour. That tour showcased the material from their upcoming junior effort, due in first year of the millennium.

The Record
The initial sessions for Forever began in the summer of 1998 with producers Richard Stannard and Matt Rowe, whom they'd partnered with on Spice (1996) and Spiceworld (1997). While Forever's first single was "Goodbye," the actual album wouldn't materialize until the fall of 2000, totaling two years since an album of original work had been released.

Additional collaborators included Elliot Kennedy, the co-writer of "Say You'll Be There," Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins and his cartel, plus Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Songs like "W.O.M.A.N.," "Right Back At Ya," and "Holler Holler" (later to become "Holler") eyed a sleek, sexy, sophisticated edge that drew on both dance and R&B. Neither style was alien to the Girls, R&B had been the driving pulse on their debut recording Spice. One listen to Spice tracks "Last Time Lover," "Naked," and "If U Can't Dance" suggested the Girls had an ear for just a bit of grit to be cut with their shimmer.

"If U Can't Dance" in particular substantiated their taste for grooves in its usage of an iconic sample loop composite of Sly & the Family Stone ("Sing a Simple Song") and Parliament Funkadelic ("Theme From the Black Hole"). The sample became famous on the Digital Underground classic "The Humpty Dance." The fact that the Spice Girls rode that sample as superbly as the Digital Underground attested they weren't pop dollies.

As recording continued, Rowe and Stannard's work ("W.O.M.A.N") were cast aside as the Girls began exclusively working with Jerkins, Jam, and Lewis. Both productions units had a knack for bridging the gaps between the realms of pop and R&B. Jerkins résumé included soul ingenue Brandy and Jennifer Lopez, among others. He and his Darkchild imprint piloted eight of Forever's tracks.

Jam and Lewis had the best understanding of melding the melodies of pop with the larger beats of R&B music. Starting off in Minneapolis, Minnesota alongside Prince and The Time, they went on to produce some of the hottest black acts of the '80's. Jam and Lewis shaped a post-modern black dance phonic later known as "The Minneapolis Sound." Their work with Janet Jackson, at this time a fellow label mate with the Spice Girls, indicated their knowledge and credibility. They produced two sides on Forever.

The Spice Girls stayed true to their songwriting credentials amid the talented gentleman driving Forever's sound. The opener "Holler" was cool and crisp, done up in Britain's fashionable two-step R&B. Vocally dexterous after two years of touring, each member had a moment on a section of the verses before drawing together for the slippery chorus.

Beckham of the four had a noticeable improvement, setting the stage for her eponymous debut that followed a year later. Farther on, the keyboard boldness in "Get Down With Me," the swank showered "Wasting My Time," and the Girl Power kiss off "Weekend Love" saw the Girls working their musical muscles in their sassy dance and R&B motifs.

The call-to-arms riot of "Right Back At Ya," co-written with the mentioned Elliot Kennedy was more explicit and harder than his slight urban flirtation the Girls showcased during their Christmas in Spice World shows. Kennedy reportedly felt that Darkchild's productions had turned the cut into a "boring, plodding R&B song." A sour comment considering the song had that sonic stance before Darkchild pumped it up. Either way, this song would have shined during the Girls 2007/2008 reunion if it had been reworked.

"If You Wanna Have Some Fun," one of the two Jam-Lewis sides, sizzled. The track rode along a similar pathway that previous Spice stepping favorites "Who Do You Think You Are" and "Saturday Night Divas" had without sounding like a retread.The remaining Jam and Lewis side "Oxygen," was one of the four ballads that softened the uptempo flavors of Forever. Jam praised Bunton's voice as one of the best "instinctual" presences he'd worked with and she shone on "Oxygen." Forever was grounded in a way that their genre diverse opus Spiceworld wasn't, a risk for any pop group known for their chameleon tendencies.

The Impact
The climate in the United Kingdom, the Girls largest market, was still frenzied with Spice Girls electricity in 2000. Beaming from their BRIT Awards "Outstanding Achievement in Music" win months earlier, Forever seemed ready for commercial victory. On October 23rd, 2000 "Holler/Let Love Lead the Way," Forever's first single, scored the Spice Girls their ninth British number one. Now the Spice Girls sat in a pantheon of acts like The Beatles, ABBA, George Michael, etc. who had a large collection of number one singles in the British charts. Quickly moving silver units in England, it landed in the Top 10 reaches of the international charts (Canada, Asia, Australia, Spain, etc.). "Let Love Lead the Way" only had single status in Canada (#5) and England, elsewhere it remained the flipside to "Holler."

America had no commercial single released for either song and on airplay and import sales "Holler" reached #7 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart. The video for "Holler" was popular in the U.S., and thanks to MTV TRL (Total Request Live) it landed within the Top 5 of their video chart.

Forever was released on November 6th, 2000 in England and the remaining global sectors, America followed on November 7th. The record had immediate competition from British boy group Westlife and their Coast to Coast album. In a heated promotional battle, Coast to Coast stole the vaunted number one slot on the U.K. Album Chart, while Forever came in second. America saw Forever as the Spice Girls' first failure there, it lurched into #39 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Album Chart. There was little to no promotion Stateside for Forever. In England and Spain the record hit platinum, double platinum in Canada, and gold in Brazil, Germany, and several other countries. In total, the sales for Forever currently sit at five million copies worldwide.

"Holler" (Masters at Work Club Edit)
Directed by: Jake Nava

Forever was a soft seller, especially within their biggest arena the United Kingdom. America was easier to understand as the Girls really hadn't been a presence there since their single "Goodbye" in 1998. England had begun to hint at a Spice Girls burnout, they'd actively reigned in group or solo form since 1996. Critically, the Spice Girls split pundits.

The crew at Billboard Magazine wrote:
The set oozes with timely funk beats and the kind of well-crafted songs that No. 1 hits are made of.
Others were not so kind, like Rolling Stone's James Hunter, and stated as such:
It's been almost five years since England's Spice Girls had people smiling or sneering. Their third album, Forever, will probably provoke a reaction somewhere in the middle -- with one exception, it's just OK.
Despite its commercial lapse Forever had much life left to it. Virgin Records had promotional singles planned and pressed for "Weekend Love," "If You Wanna Have Some Fun," and "Tell Me Why." "Tell Me Why" received excellent remixing from the leading dance floor heavyweight of the day, Thunderpuss. Internal friction began tearing at the group, bringing an abrupt halt to the promotion of the record. The remaining singles never saw a mass release and are now regarded as collector items.

As 2001 dawned the Spice Girls quietly disbanded without issuing a formal statement, simply calling it a hiatus. The diminutive success of Forever stretched into the new year with three Spice Girls related solo projects marking their last year of assured U.K. dominance. The ensuing decade saw more solo recordings met with acclaim, creative wins, or indifference. The Spice Girls reunion in 2007 heralded their full circle with Forever's singles "Holler," "Let Love Lead the Way," and "Goodbye" sounding relevant. Fans remain divided passionately over Forever. It wasn't a patch on Spiceworld, the colossus of their discography, but it wasn't recycled leftovers either. Forever is the kind of pop record that can confuse if not heard properly. The Spice Girls were never strictly a British or European bound recording act. Their name itself implied a smattering mixture of influences and each album reflected that. Forever remains a bittersweet snapshot of a group still full of musical integrity and fire. Four and a half stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: Forever, like the rest of the Spice Girls work, is readily in print.-QH]

1 comment:

Diva Incarnate said...

I love this post - I think Forever was close to brilliance, but the press and lack of promotion were hard to overcome when the members seemed so detached from each other. If U Wanna Have Some Fun is deluxe Rn'B and Holler snappy and really did deserve to have been an American hit.