“Bubblegum music to the world” was the title message of a late-’60s Buddah Records compilation that spoofed the horrified reactions of serious rock types who blanched at the label’s 1910 Fruitgum Co. and Ohio Express hits. Little did those astute marketers, who were soon to jump the next trains into Trendville (Neil Bogart, who was at the helm of the Kiss- and disco-happy Casablanca label by 1973) or oblivion (really, what did happen to the Kasenetz-Katz production team?), know just how prophetic their short-lived catch phrase was to prove.
By the mid-’70s, of course, the rest of the world was selling contrived and sometimes wonderful icky-pop back to the country that had blessed the planet with “Simon Says” and “1-2-3 Red Light.” ABBA, as its own PR flacks were glad to remind us, became Earth’s biggest product-movers, a lovely machine whose dominance has extended to the present, which has seen platinum sales for a 1993 set of greatest hits. The Bay City Rollers and Sweet are remembered fondly for their crunch, and Musical Youth perhaps not as fondly for switching Jamaican patois for ganja with “dutchie,” a word associated with cooking gear.
In the ’90s, dance-pop accounts for most of the bubblegum market, although No Doubt and Garbage have placed their flags in the gooey surface of the terra firma as well. The most interesting move the chewy stuff has made is to become often interchangeable with what the biz these days calls adult contemporary. Until ABBA got the nod from current camp rulemakers, the group’s most faithful U.S. constituency remained lite-FM stations. Give or take an Ol’ Dirty Bastard cameo on da remix tip, what are Mariah Carey’s uptempo hits but a rapprochement between the sticky, underdesk side of our Top 40 past and the office-ready sounds of those 50,000-watters? And while Ace of Base seems unlikely to sustain an ABBA-style career, “The Sign” certainly has a place on the airwaves here until long past the millennium.
Where the Aces were the love/hate proposition of MTV and Hot-format radio three years ago, Spice Girls have grabbed that spot over the past couple of months. Already a force in Britain, with everything from three No. 1 singles to several music-weekly covers to its name, the quintet has already put its first American single, “Wannabe,” in the top position on the Billboard chart, with Spice crashing the album list’s top 10 in its first week.
Spice Girls have attracted the scorn you’d expect from the same people, both in and out of the industry, who hated the admittedly noxious Vanillis. But their (no doubt carefully considered) come-as-you-are styling and good-not-great voices have a ramshackle charm that recalls the early
Bananarama. Although my Anglophile girlfriend pegs “Wannabe” as a prime example of what happens “when English people try to do the American hiphop thingit ends up sounding kind of thin,” the song’s remodeled-Motown arrangement and jumpy energy make it a lot harder to resist than, say, any randomly chosen Stereo MCs track. And is that a sample of Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” Psycho homage adding flavor to the chorus?
Presumably their next U.S. airplay bidits video has already appeared on MTV’s pseudo-samizdat M2 channel, an early testing ground for “Wannabe”
”Say You’ll Be There” matches the group with a more traditional Holland-Dozier-Holland update that wouldn’t be a bit out of place on the next Janet Jackson album. Even if “Wannabe” works your last nerve, disliking this one should take some work. Its obvious debt to the Supremes also stands as a reminder that Diana Ross got over more on kittenish guile than vocal muscle. On the other hand, she didn’t have to contend with a Downtown Julie Brown-alike named Melanie B. powering her way over and above the mix.
That brattishness, however, is part of Spice Girls’ appeal, not to mention one of the few things on Spice that seems really personal, despite the stars’ writing credits. A couple too many of these concoctions do come off as little more than the sum of their influences, even as they flit by enjoyably. Lacking the haunted feel of Madonna’s best grown-up slow ones, “2 Become 1” may be destined to burn itself out on the radio a lot faster than “Say You’ll Be There” ever could. And for a bunch of (they say) 18-to-21s who wanna be their own thangs, “Last Time Lover” is awfully eager to work the rough-voiced TLC tip, right down to claims of being “crazy,” “sexy,” and “cool.”
The only really insufferable moments on Spice, though, come with the two downtempo showcases. “Mama” is a hokey testimonial that Virgin somehow restrained itself from tossing into the 1996 U.K. Christmas No. 1 stakes, and which ends in, whaddaya know, a choral round from what sounds like the Dial-Like-a-Prayer Singers. The other loser is “Naked,” a PG sex romp that wouldn’t convince a caller to a 1-900 line. Then again, maybe it would. That’s the thing about spicesyou season to taste. Or lack of it.CP