The Spice Girls are an anomaly.
Ginger, Baby, Scary, Sporty and Posh Spice should’ve been a fly-by novelty, with one hit that we remember fondly when it comes on a playlist, and then forget about once its over. And yet, the Spice Girls are one of the most successful pop acts in history, selling nearly 40 million albums worldwide in 4 years. “Wannabe” is one of the biggest pop songs of the last half-century, and their catalog is chock-full of catchy, memorable tunes that render the one-hit wonder title false. Today, the five girls are pop culture icons, who can still make headlines with even the whisper of a reunion.
The Spice Girls wouldn’t be in the rarefied air of pop legends if their music didn’t hold up. While the group weren’t particularly aspiring to win Grammys or anything, their music, especially the singles, were much better than critics gave them credit for. The songs were campy and irreverent, but also grounded in some relatable truth that inspired a generation to believe in themselves and have fun doing it. It’s no wonder nearly every single they released topped the charts in the UK.
Because there is never a wrong time to recount the power of Spice, here is my ranking of the Spice Girls’ thirteen singles, from their 1996 debut to their 2007 comeback.
13. Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)
When the Spice Girls announced their long-awaited reunion, fans were likely expecting an explosion of British pop bombast, the group’s specialty. What they got was “Headlines (Friendship Never Ends),” a ballad about love and friendship. It was an odd choice to launch a comeback with, and the public responded in kind. It was the group’s first song to miss the Top 2, peaking at #11 in the UK (despite being 2007’s official BBC Children in Need charity single). It’s a fine song, but it’s the one thing the Fab Five never were before: forgettable.
Spicemania was well and truly over by the turn of the millennium, but the Spice Girls weren’t ready to go quietly. After a two-year break following Geri’s departure, the girls came back with a sleeker, sexier sound, courtesy of R&B hitmaker Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. “Holler” was very of-the-moment, hip and edgy and also kind of besides the point. The Spice Girls spat in the face of compromise, and “Holler” is very much a compromise. While it showed they were willing to evolve, the song was a subtle message that the girls weren’t all the way in it anymore.
“Mama” is a genuinely sweet tribute to the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship that is complicated by its odd blend of orchestral and ’90s R&B production tics. Instead of splitting the difference between hip and sentimental, the Girls should’ve leaned into the sentimental, however treacly it might come across. Regardless, “Mama” finds the girls revealing their softer sides, with Mel B and Emma sharing a lovely closing verse.
10. Let Love Lead the Way
The other “Geri’s left” ballad in the Spice Girls singles canon, “Let Love Lead the Way” is a somber yet optimistic reckoning with Ginger’s abrupt exit. Did they think Geri would come back someday after some soul-searching? Or, would she “go her own sweet way” and never return? The elegant production and pretty harmonies suggested yes. (And, seven years later, they proved to be right.) Released alongside “Holler,” the song proved that the group still knew their way around a ballad.
9. Say You’ll Be There
If it weren’t for “Say You’ll Be There” smashing right out the gate, the Spice Girls might’ve been a one-hit British novelty instead of global pop icons. After the unabashed bubblegum pop of “Wannabe,” “Say You’ll Be There” was a super-hip, R&B-flavored curveball, showing that the girls could be sexy and even a bit vulnerable. “Say You’ll Be There” was a brilliant choice that helped codify Spicemania worldwide. It also promised that the Spice Girls had more interesting music that we had yet to hear.
8. Viva Forever
The last Spice Girls single to feature Geri for nearly a decade, “Viva Forever” is a potent, unintentional farewell. The ballad flickers with regret and reflection, bolstered by the group’s lovely harmonies and the mournful mix of Spanish guitar and orchestral strings. Separated from the context of its release, “Viva Forever” is a swooning, sweet coda to a deep relationship. Attach Geri’s goodbye to it, and it’s lowkey devastating.
7. Spice Up Your Life
The Spice Girls, just by existing, were already camp personified. “Spice Up Your Life” took the tongue-in-cheek irreverence to its logical extreme. The first single from their second album Spiceworld is a cacophony of global influences, references, and hooks that sits right on the edge of being too much. What holds the song together is the girls’ unwavering confidence. “Spice Up Your Life” is as much a statement of intent as it is a single, with them declaring their global domination with incredible bravado. Presumptuous? Maybe. Aggressive? Absolutely? Irresistible? Not necessarily. (US radio outright ignored it.) Undeniably Spice? You bet, which is why it works so well.
“Goodbye” will always be known as the “Geri’s left” song. However, it stands on its own as a stunning, wintry ballad about moving past heartbreaking loss and finding some kind of silver lining. The melodies are sweeping, the harmonies are rich, and the emotion is palpable. It might’ve been on-the-nose if this was the last Spice Girls song ever released, but “Goodbye” earns the justification for it to be.
5. 2 Become 1
The Spice Girls blasted onto the scene with randy energy that danced on the border between endearing and obnoxious. This made “2 Become 1,” the group’s first ballad, and their first song to directly take on sex, such a surprise. The Girls dial down the volume significantly, weaving a sweet and subdued tale of passion against the backdrop of sweeping strings. The lyrics are subtle enough to go over the heads of the group’s younger audience, and deft enough to encourage contraception without sounding preachy. “2 Become 1” was romantic without being treacly or titillating, and helped establish them a real pop music force.
4. Who Do You Think You Are
“Who Do You Think You Are” will forever be tied to the Spice Girls’ performance at the 1997 BRIT Awards (and Geri’s legendary Union Jack dress). However, the song stands tall enough on its own. With horns blaring and Mel C’s ferocious voice blazing, this funky slice of ’90s-era disco is a relentless call to storm the dance floor in your highest platform boots. Rowdy, rash, and rambunctious, “Who Do You Think Are” is quintessential Spice Girls, and an excellent pole for the “Cool Britannia” flag to fly from.
The Spice Girls picking at the era of Motown and the Spectorian Wall of Sound? On paper, it sounds, well, perfect actually. The Fab Five fit right in with the sound of ’60s girl groups, crafting a fun and flirty pastiche that finds the girls asking their prospects to slow things down. (In reality, the song was in response to the group’s management at the time.) “Stop” is pop perfection, featuring their second-best-ever hook, and hand choreography to match. Somehow, this song was the beginning of the end of Spicemania, becoming their first British single to miss the #1 spot, and the last single to feature Geri. Despite the negative implications, “Stop” is sheer brilliance.
2. Too Much
More than any other single barring “Wannabe,” “Too Much” is the Spice Girls’ greatest achievement as a pop music act. It is also underrated (despite being a UK Christmas #1 and their last US Top 10). The second single from Spiceworld is a silky, doo-wop inspired ballad that thoughtfully contemplates love and fame’s excesses. Both sexy and melancholic, “Too Much” is understated and mature without being self-serious, signalling their long-term potential as a legitimate girl group. There’s a universe where the Spice Girls took this energy further and continued on into the 21st century. Alas, we live in the one were Geri would quit a mere seven months later. You absolutely hate to see it.
There’s really no other option, is there? “Wannabe” is more than a once-in-a-generation pop smash that practically defined the ’90s. It is one of the greatest statements of intent that the music industry has ever seen. The explosive, dance-pop stormer has the five future legends wearing their brash and sassy energy on every visible surface. They drill their effervescent message of empowerment and friendship into your brain with so many iconic hooks that resistance is a laughable fool’s errand. Yes, it’s presumptuous. It absolutely sounds like a flash-in-the-pan from a one-hit wonder act. None of that erases the fact that “Wannabe” is one of the best pop moments of the last 30 years.
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