The Spice Girls Kick In The Door Of ‘Popology’

They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That’s why we bring you “Popology,” the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, catch up with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson here.

In this week’s installment, the Spice Girls storm the barricade.

Though every musical movement tends to have a key moment, those events are generally overblown and defined retroactively. Everybody talks about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ushering in the grunge era, but it’s not like the video premiered on MTV and everybody suddenly stopped liking Warrant. All of music didn’t suddenly shift the first time Johnny Rotten snarled “God Save the Queen.”

In fact, the closest anybody has come to an instant revolution was when the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” first showed up on pop radio in 1997. It was an instant smash that shot directly to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and distilled just about everything American audiences were hungry for in the late ’90s. It was a positive pro-girl message (as opposed to Alanis Morissette’s unfiltered anger), it blurred the line between pop and hip-hop (it’s no coincidence that Diddy’s brand of sample-happy pop rap crested the same year), it presented five distinct personalities working together (as though they were Power Rangers or a professional wrestling stable) and even presented a half-assed dance to go with it (that whole “Slam your body down and wind it all around” thing). It did all of that under three minutes, and it did it on a massive scale.

A group of five girls singing in harmony sounds business-as-usual today, but in ’97, there was literally nothing like the Spice Girls on the radio. The aforementioned rise of radio-friendly hip-hop, the dying gasps of the alternative rock era and novelty larks like “The Macarena” clogged stations across the country. When the Spice Girls came around, they represented both the past and the future, as they were a throwback girl group who used modern technology and individual gender roles. It had never been seen before, and opened the floodgates for the likes of Destiny’s Child, All Saints, the Pussycat Dolls and even the slate of boy bands that followed. For all intents and purposes, the Spice Girls were Nirvana, and “Wannabe” was the ’97 version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

But as always, we have to ask the question: Is “Wannabe” — and the rest of the Spice Girls’ debut album Spice — any good?

“Wannabe” is an instant classic, a staggeringly great blend of dance pop styles that would be completely perfect if it weren’t for that awkward rap in the middle of it. (Actually, all of Spice is littered with horrendous rapping, but we’ll get to that later.) One thing that really jumps out is the production, which is surprisingly loose and ragged for a pre-fabricated pop album. Put up next to something like …Baby One More Time, Spice sounds like punk rock (still furthering the Nirvana analogy).

Like many of the albums covered in “Popology,” Spice is profoundly top-loaded. “Wannabe” leads right into “Say You’ll Be There,” another huge single for the group (it peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100). Another funky, uptempo dance track, “Say You’ll Be There” is another positive energy groove that finds the ladies putting more stipulations on their relationships (in “Wannabe,” you had to get with their friends, while “Say You’ll Be There” demands that you can have “all that joy can bring” as long as you promise to hang around). The weirdest part of “Say You’ll Be There” has to be the harmonica solo, which is simultaneously jarring and totally reasonable. After all, Blues Traveler managed to get on the radio with a little harmonica — why not the Spice Girls?

“2 Become 1″ is their first foray into ballad territory, and it’s a sexy candlelit slow jam that is pretty explicit about why losing your virginity is awesome. The lyric “Set your spirit free/ It’s the only way to be” is a nightmare for abstinence-only educators, though they do make vague allusions to condom use towards the end of the tune. How conscientious!

With the singles out of the way, Spice settles into a pretty familiar groove. “Love Thing” is another bouncy uptempo track that sounds an awful lot like “Say You’ll Be There,” though “Last Time Lover” has the thud and smoke of CrazySexyCool-era TLC and sounds surprisingly stout.

However, it’s got another flat rap attached to it. As mentioned above, I had no idea there was so much rapping on this album, each one more uncomfortable than the last. It’s not that the ladies are bad MCs (though make no mistake, they are — it’s doubtful Lil Kim lost any sleep over them), but it’s just that the raps rarely seem to fit. Spice certainly is an album that borrows liberally from a lot of other genres and artists, but the foray into rapping seems especially crass. Borrowing hip-hop beats is one thing (after all, most of those are borrowed anyway), but actually throwing down verses is a whole different story.

Actually, the rapping is one of the few places where Spice falls off the rails. In fact, it’s probably the most consistently excellent album I’ve heard since I started writing these. Sure, “Mama” is a sappy tribute to motherhood (and another girl power message), but it has such a great melody and gospel-biting arrangement that it works in spite of itself. “Who Do You Think You Are” blends together Stevie Wonder funk and a thudding disco beat for a high-speed anthem, and “Something Kinda Funny” sports a remarkable rolling bass line and subtle but effective cyber strings. “Naked” is another great slow burner (though the spoken word bit at the beginning of the second verse is a bit of a misstep). The album closes with “If U Can’t Dance,” a sort of annoying groove that borrows some Tower of Power horns and Spanish guitar for a weirdly unhinged end-of-album posse track. (Side note: Why are the last songs on all these albums always so bizarre? There must be a science behind it that I’m just not getting.)

Spice doesn’t appear to have had the longevity that the debuts of Britney, Christina and Backstreet all had, though it doesn’t help that the group only released one two other albums and were essentially gone by the time the millennium arrived. Victoria Beckham ended up having the best post-Spice Girls career, if only because she married a famous soccer player. The other four each tried solo careers, though nobody ever really made a dent in the American market. But Spice holds up at least as good as anything else from 1997.

What do you think of the Spice Girls’ debut? Let us know in the comments!