The Number Ones

February 22, 1997

The Number Ones: Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

In the late ’90s, I spent way too much time explaining to my friends that this “Britpop” thing that I loved was not the same thing as the Spice Girls. Their confusion made sense. There were maybe five people at my high school who shared my excitement about Pulp and Ash and Sleeper and whatever else. Everyone knew the Spice Girls. Furthermore, the Spice Girls were extremely British, and all the brash, loud accents and Union Jacks seemed designed to remind us of this. They were also extremely pop — probably the most pop thing happening at the time.

The Spice Girls arrived in America as a fully-formed phenomenon — five young women, all with distinct cartoon personas, who seemed completely comfortable in the international spotlight. We were told that they had absolutely conquered their homeland, which was true, but plenty of stuff that was huge in the UK never meant anything in America. The Spice Girls were different. They had big, bright earworm hooks for days and an infectiously giddy sense of camaraderie. They generated excitement, at least in part, because they were excited to be pop stars. That alone set them apart from most of the pop stars of mid-’90s America — the surly alt-rockers and guttural rappers and ultra-mature R&B singers. In that era, the only other pop star who radiated that same dizzy bliss was Shania Twain, and country music was so siloed off from the rest of pop that she seemed somehow removed from whatever “pop” was. The Spice Girls, though? The Spice Girls were full-on undiluted pop, and they never wanted to be anything else.

The American teenagers of the ’90s — at least the ones that I knew — picked up jaded cynicism at a young age. If anything didn’t emit jaded cynicism, then it was hard to take that thing seriously. But the Spice Girls weren’t chasing a teenage audience. They were aimed squarely and unambiguously at children, and that made them weirdly appealing, even to those of us who thought we knew better. Also, “Wannabe” the Spice Girls’ debut single and their first song to make landfall in America, is a full-on impossible-to-deny banger. That helped, too.

Part of the magic of the Spice Girls was that the group seemed anarchic and organic, even if they were neither of those things. The Spice Girls were assembled by managers, and they worked with pro songwriters and producers, but their fired-up one-for-all image was not a pose. The Spice Girls ditched multiple management teams, co-wrote all their songs, and made sure to always present themselves as a united front, with no member more important than any other member. They divided up their songwriting shares equally, rode into battle against their record label, and seemed to sincerely enjoy their time on top of the pop world. They were friends, and they were also cultural ambassadors for the idea of female friendship. That was the point of their Girl Power sloganeering, and it was also the point of “Wannabe.”

The managers who first assembled the Spice Girls were a father-and-son team, Bob and Chris Herbert. Bob had done some early work with Matt and Luke Goss, the twin brothers who would make up the core of the hugely popular late-’80s UK boy band Bros. Bob died in a car wreck a few years after the Spice Girls blew up. His son Chris, reportedly the main force behind the early Spice Girls years, went on to steward British teen-pop groups like Five. In the mid-’90s, when bland boy bands like Take That and East 17 ruled the UK charts, Chris had the idea to put together a girl group as counter-programming. The Herberts found financial backing and formed a firm called Heart Management. Early in 1994, they placed an ad in The Stage, a British show-business magazine. They were looking for girls between the ages of 18 and 23 who were “streetwise, outgoing, ambitious, and dedicated.”

Hundreds of girls auditioned for this new group, and the Herberts eventually whittled it down to a lineup of five. The Herberts then took those five girls, moved them all into a house together, and drilled them in singing and dancing. Initially, the group was called Touch — then, later, Spice, and finally the Spice Girls. They recorded demos of songs written by the Herberts’ pro-songwriter associates, and when they tried to add their own little rap breakdowns, the Herberts sent them to songwriting classes. Emma Bunton, the proverbial Baby Spice, joined up after the Herberts kicked out original Spice Girl Michelle Stephenson, who never even got a nickname.

The Herberts didn’t have the Spice Girls under contract, and after one showcase gig went well, the Herberts tried to change that. The Spice Girls, acting together, refused to sign. Legend has it that they also stole the master tapes of their demos from the Herberts, and they struck out on their own. One of those demos was the original version of “Wannabe.” Just before splitting from the Herberts, the Spice Girls had done a demo session with Richard “Biff” Stannard and Matt Rowe, a songwriting/production who’d had some UK success with East 17. “Wannabe” came out of those sessions. The girls in the group came up with little call-and-response bits, and Stannard and Rowe helped them bang their ideas into some kind of pop-song structure. Stannard later said that the track took a half-hour to record, and you can hear a lot of that dizzy, urgent, almost slapdash energy in the track itself.

Once they left the Herberts behind, the Spice Girls signed with manager Simon Fuller. (Fuller later co-created American Idol, so he’ll come up in this column again.) Fuller turned the Spice Girls into a marketing juggernaut, landing all sorts of crass commercial partnerships for the group. He also got them signed to Virgin, a label that didn’t exactly have a ton of history with straight-up pop music. When they worked on their debut album Spice, the Spice Girls made sure to co-write every song, and they only worked with production teams who were able to accommodate that. No matter which Girls worked on which songs, they were credited as a unit. (Victoria Beckham, “Posh Spice,” wasn’t in the room for the “Wannabe” songwriting session, which is why she’s the only member with no solo parts on the track.)

The Spice Girls finished recording Spice at the beginning of 1996, but it didn’t come out for months, since Fuller wanted to use the time to market them as loudly as he could. The Spice Girls got their nicknames in a story in Top Of The Pops magazine, and those nicknames stuck, which was both fortunate and unfortunate. Those nicknames helped establish that the five members of the group all had their own styles and personalities, but it also made them into one-dimensional cartoons. It’s pretty fucked-up that Melanie Brown, the one Black member of the group, became Scary Spice. She’s not scary at all! She seems very nice!

Virgin pushed the Spice Girls hard, but the label and Simon Fuller also determined that the group’s song “Say You’ll Be There” should be their first single. Like a lot of the tracks on Spice, “Say You’ll Be There” mostly sounds like a slightly more energetic take on dancey American R&B — a bit like something that TLC might’ve recorded. The Spice Girls themselves were adamant that “Wannabe” should be the single. “Wannabe” didn’t sound like anyone else. The group knew that this first single should be an anthem, a statement of intent. They won. “Wannabe” became the single. (“Say You’ll Be There” eventually peaked at #3 in the US. It’s a 6.)

The Spice Girls might’ve been an expertly marketed pop product, but “Wannabe” is not an especially slick song. That’s its charm. The Spice Girls were dedicated to the fine art of pop-music gibberish, and “Wannabe” has plenty of that. There have been all sorts of theories about the meaning of the phrase “I really really really wanna zig-a-zig-ah,” but the real correct interpretation is that it’s just some goofy, fun shit to say. There’s plenty of non sequitur in the “Wannabe” lyrics. The Spice Girls all howl out to slam your body down and wind it all around, and the line comes out so fast and garbled that it sounds like they’re talking about bodies all around. There’s also a fun little bit in the quasi-rap verse where Melanie Brown and Melanie “Sporty Spice” Chisholm indulge in the great British tradition of cheekily referencing ecstasy in pop songs: “We got G, like MC, who likes it on an…” (They cut themselves off before saying “E” — just barely avoiding admitting that both Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell and Chisholm like sex on MDMA.)

But the naughtiness was beside the point. In my high school, everyone made jokes about how the “Wannabe” hook — “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends” — was about some kind of reverse-gangbang situation. Maybe the Spice Girls left that implication in there intentionally, but the implication wasn’t the point. The point was that the Spice Girls held their own friendship up above all, that no Spice Girl would date anyone who didn’t get along with the other four Spice Girls. In pop music, that might even qualify as a message. “Wannabe” is a fun, chaotic, all-over-the-place piece of music, but it’s also a statement of female solidarity.

The Spice Girls, as you doubtless already know, had a name for that female solidarity. They called it “Girl Power,” and they made it a key part of their whole image. The Spice Girls didn’t invent Girl Power, and the phrase had its roots in music a lot more anarchic than “Wannabe.” The great American punk band Bikini Kill used “girl power” in multiple song lyrics, and Geri Halliwell first encountered the phrase when the UK duo Shampoo used “Girl Power” as the title of a 1996 single. The Spice Girls made it into a mantra, and they used Girl Power to sell a whole lot of stuff. But those commercial implications didn’t make Girl Power any less potent to the kids who needed to hear about the concept.

I’m a little hesitant to speak on Girl Power as a phenomenon because I have never been a girl, but it’s pretty clear that Girl Power mattered to a lot of people. I forget who, but someone has pointed out that the Spice Girls offered up an idealized version of young adulthood to the little kids who bought their records. They made it seem like all this romantic business might not be so scary if you went into it with your friends supporting you. The Spice Girls didn’t exactly sing about sex or drugs, and they didn’t exactly deny the appeal of sex or drugs, either. For them, friendship was the greatest state that anyone could achieve. Everything else was secondary.

Friendship is on full display in the “Wannabe” video, which is a total blast. The Spice Girls filmed the clip with Johan Camitz, a Swedish TV-commercial director who’d never made a music video. Camitz staged the clip to look like a single tracking shot, though it was really two shots spliced together. In the clip, the Spice Girls bum-rush their way into an upper-class party at a fancy hotel. They drink. They sing. They scandalize some of the older society folk and delight others. Sporty Spice does a handspring on a tabletop. Posh Spice seems like she’d ordinarily hang out at parties like this, but even she seems ecstatically out-of-place. We get a few synchronized dance steps on the staircase, but mostly, the Spice Girls work as a hurricane of happy disorder. Then, just as the cops are showing up, they flee, jumping on a bus and cackling together. The video shows exactly who the different girls are. None of them emerge as clear stars. The real star is the camaraderie that the five of them share.

Camitz, incidentally, only made one more music video: Eagle Eye Cherry’s clip for his 1997 single “Say Tonight,” which is also made to look like one long take. (“Say Tonight” peaked at #5. It’s a 5.) In 2000, Camitz was killed when a speeding SUV hit him while he was crossing a street in New York. The SUV’s driver had just been shot, and he was speeding away from his attackers. The driver died, too.

“Wannabe” came out in the UK in the summer of 1996, and it was an immediate smash. The Spice Girls’ first four singles all went straight to #1 in the UK, and they were the first act ever to pull off that chart feat. When Spice came out in the UK, the album sold millions of copies, even though the UK is small enough that selling millions of records is very difficult. A British pop phenomenon might’ve been a hard sell in the US at the time, but the Spice Girls got a big push here, too. “Wannabe” got its US release in January of 1997, and it debuted at #11, jumping all the way to the top a few weeks later. For a few months, I heard it all over the place.

The crudeness of “Wannabe” is not a drawback. Before the girls even start singing, we get Melanie Brown and Geri Halliwell yelling about what they really really want over a hyper-compressed synth that sounds like a guitar. That riff genuinely rocks, and it always reminded me a bit of Elastica’s “Connection,” so maybe the Spice Girls really were Britpop. Once they hit the chorus, the sweetness comes in, but the propulsion never disappears. As singers, none of the Spice Girls are gifted enough to compete with the American R&B stars who were their pop-chart competitors, but their sheer adrenalized charge is more than enough to overcome that. It never even occurred to me that the rap part was a rap part; it just always sounded like different Spice Girls happily yelling at each other. That was fine with me. It was fun to hear them yell at each other.

“Wannabe” was never supposed to exist in isolation. It’s simply a vehicle for the whole Spice Girls machine. The machine worked. The Spice Girls never managed another American chart-topper after “Wannabe,” but three different singles from Spice did barnstorm their way into the top five. After “Wannabe” and “Say You’ll Be There,” there was also the almost-ballad “2 Become 1,” which peaked at #4. (It’s a 5.) Spice sold seven million copies in the US, and it was the biggest-selling album of 1997.

For a couple of years, the whole Spice Girls circus was just relentless. At times, the music almost seemed secondary to the whole marketing juggernaut, the dolls and posters and Pepsi ads. Before 1997 was over, the Spice Girls starred in their own movie Spice World, which aimed for A Hard Day’s Night-style zeitgeist silliness and which is now remembered, half-fondly, as a deeply strange time capsule of late-’90s pop culture. There is, for instance, a scene where the girls meet some aliens who want their autographs.

Along with that movie, the Spice Girls also released their sophomore album Spiceworld at the end of 1997, and their single “Too Much,” which peaked at #9, became their last American top-10 hit. (It’s a 6.) The album also had singles like “Spice Up Your Life” and “Stop,” which were serious jams but which couldn’t quite make the top 10. (“Spice Up Your Life” peaked at #18, “Stop” at #16.) In 1998, while the group was in the midst of a global tour, Geri Halliwell announced her departure from the Spice Girls. She was dealing with personal issues, and the attention was a bit much. Spiceworld still went quadruple platinum in the US.

Geri Halliwell’s departure broke the spell. Without Halliwell, the Spice Girls followed Spiceworld with the 2000 album Forever. Their single “Goodbye” managed to reach #11 on the Hot 100, but the album only sold a tiny fraction of what the other two had done. A month after the LP’s release, the group announced an indefinite hiatus, and all the former Spice Girls went on to solo careers.

None of the solo Spice Girls became stars, though Victoria married David Beckham and turned herself into a big deal in the fashion world. All of the Spice Girls released solo albums, but none of them has ever made the Hot 100 as a solo artist. When they get back together, though, they’re still a huge draw. All five Spice Girls reunited for a hugely lucrative 2007 tour, and they also played the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. A lot of stars played that ceremony, but the Spice Girls were the unmistakable headliners.

In 2019, the Spice Girls once again reunited, and they once again filled stadiums and made a whole lot of money. Victoria Beckham sat that reunion out. In a Stereogum interview last year, Melanie Chisholm told my colleague Rachel Brodsky that she wanted to do more reunion shows, especially in America. I have very little doubt that it will happen. The Spice Girls are stronger together than they are apart.

As a chart phenomenon, the Spice Girls really only lasted about a year in America, but they were harbingers of change. The pop charts were about to get a whole lot brighter and more energetic. The kids buying records, kids younger than me, didn’t have much use for their older siblings’ favorite music. They wanted something else. That something else would be known as “teen-pop,” even though much of the target audience was decidedly preteen. We’ll see a whole lot more of that music in this column in the weeks ahead.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the short, snotty “Wannabe” cover that the British pop-punk band Snuff released in 1998:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Joe Dante’s 1998 film Small Soldiers where anthropomorphic action figures use “Wannabe” as “psychological warfare”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Portland rapper Aminé’s video for his 2017 single “Spice Girl,” which has a Melanie B cameo and which interpolates “Wannabe”:

(Aminé’s highest-charting single, 2016’s “Caroline,” peaked at #11.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Diplo and Herve Pagez’ 2019 single “Spicy” is basically a full-on “Wannabe” cover, with guest Charli XCX singing almost entire song. Here’s the video:

(As a solo artist, Diplo’s highest-charting single is the 2018 Ellie Goulding/Swae Lee collab “Close To Me,” which peaked at #24. Diplo’s group Major Lazer got to #2 with the 2016 Justin Bieber/MØ collab “Cold Water.” It’s a 5. As lead artist, Charli XCX’s highest-charting single is 2014’s “Boom Clap,” which peaked at #8. It’s an 8. As a guest and a songwriter, Charli XCX will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: “Wannabe” apparently plays during a 2019 episode of The Boys. That scene isn’t on YouTube, so here’s the scene where Karl Urban makes a whole speech where he uses the Spice Girls to make a point about the importance of working together as a group:

THE ASTERISK: The Cardigans’ flirtily needy hip-swivel “Lovefool” was never officially released as a single, and it never made the Hot 100. But while “Wannabe” was at #1 on the Hot 100, “Lovefool” made it to #2 on the Radio Songs chart. Perhaps “Lovefool” could’ve been a #1 hit. We’ll never know. (It’s a 7.)

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