’90s No. 1s Revisited: “Wannabe”

The one hundred fourth No. 1 song of the 1990s was “Wannabe” by Spice Girls, the best-selling female group of all time with 85 million albums sold globally to date. This track hit No. 1 in 37 countries and marked the beginning of a global Pop explosion that would create a hospitable environment for mega-selling boy bands such as Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, and solo female artists such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Spice Girls represented an unusual combination of these configurations (at the time), a Pop Girl Group. (In the ’90s, most popular girl groups were R&B/Hip-Hop acts, such as Destiny’s Child, En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa, TLC and Jade.) “Wannabe” has sold 2.9 million copies in the U.S., still a record for a girl group.

In the U.S., “Wannabe” was the first of seven releases by Spice Girls to reach the Hot 100 during the two-year period from January 1997 to December 1998. They would follow “Wannabe” with “Say You’ll Be There” (peak: 3), “2 Become 1” (peak: 4) and “Spice Up Your Life” (peak: 11) in 1997, and then “Too Much” (peak: 9), “Stop” (peak: 16) and “Goodbye” (peak: 11) in 1998. “Goodbye,” which was their first release as a quartet minus defector Geri Halliwell, is their best song in our opinion, and was a fitting title, as it marked the end of their U.S. run of hits. They would chart just once more, as of this writing, in 2007 with the No. 90-peaking “Headlines (Friendship Never Ends).” Some of these are very nice songs; most have been forgotten, with “Wannabe” lingering in the public consciousness as Spice Girls’ signature release.

It’s worth noting that Spice Girls’ success is the stuff of legend in their native United Kingdom. All their ’90s releases that we just mentioned were No. 1 smashes for them in the U.K., except “Stop,” which stalled at No. 2. In addition, they had three other No. 1 hits that didn’t chart in the U.S., for a total of nine chart-toppers over a five-year period. Some regard them as comparable to The Beatles in influence and popularity. A main driver of their success was their ability to appeal to a variety of ages and classes, and to both genders. Their “spice” nicknames (Scary, Baby, Posh, Sporty and Ginger) appealed to children; their accessible music appealed to teens and young adults; their sex appeal appealed to men; and their style and “girl power” attitude appealed to women. All in all, it was a formula for massive, if not sustainable, success.

“Wannabe” is a highly upbeat production with little lyrical substance, seemingly meant mostly to introduce the group and its attitude to audiences. But to the extent a meaning can be discerned, it appears to be about the conditions these women put on their suitors. These warnings include: Ignore my past, don’t waste my time, be organized, don’t annoy me, dance, and, perhaps most importantly, get with my friends. Solid advice for any bloke who wants to court a fine young woman.

Let’s listen again to “Wannabe”:

This track is a lot of fun and full of nifty hooks. The vocal performances aren’t especially tremendous, although Spice Girls’ appeal didn’t depend much on their talent. (Fun fact: The group has never been nominated for a Grammy.) But there’s a lot to like here from start to finish, including the piano bass line in the intro and bridge, the “tell me what you want” chant and the harmonies in the chorus. When this came out, nothing sounded like this. We’d just been subjected to a few years during which very little Pop music rose to the surface. The release of “Wannabe” was refreshing, and the impetus for what would turn out to be some of the best years for Pop music in history.

In the summer of 1998, during perhaps the height of Spice Girls’ popularity, I (John) had a full-time job between my freshman and sophomore year of college at KinderCare, a daycare center, teaching a class of 6- to 11-year-olds. The girls were all obsessed — obsessed, I tell you — with Spice Girls. Every day of my summer, during free time, I saw these girls choreograph routines to Spice Girls’ hits, argue over who was which Spice Girl, and generally carry on. It was a little annoying, but especially in retrospect, I think it’s fantastic. That’s what Pop music is for, and how it should be consumed. Those girls are lucky to have had a group like Spice Girls to look up to. Today I imagine they would be practicing stripper moves to the unbearable sounds of Cardi B.

Does it hold up? Well, no. Earlier we mentioned that some people compare Spice Girls to The Beatles. But a major difference is that people still listen to The Beatles. Nobody is listening to Spice Girls’ catalog. But if someone out there is listening to anything by Spice Girls, there’s a 99% chance it’s “Wannabe.”

Dopeness: 4 out of 5 Birkenstocks


Spice Girls
4 weeks at No. 1, starting Feb. 22, 1997
Preceded by: “Un-Break My Heart,” Toni Braxton
Followed by: “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” Puff Daddy f/ Mase

’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?

– John

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