The Spice Girls roared into pop culture with a raucous, giggly blast of spiky bubblegum pop. As with predecessors such as the Monkees—and like a late 1990s take on the Village People—they were a prefab pop band made up of cartoon archetypes. Each Spice Girl played an appealing role. For instance, Geri Halliwell’s loud and fun Ginger Spice was a gregarious redhead who acted as the band’s de facto leader. Then, we had Emma Bunton’s Baby Spice, who wore ingenue baby doll dresses and pigtails, as well as Mel B’s hiply urban Scary Spice and standout vocalist Mel C’s athletic Sporty Spice. Of course, there was also glamourpuss Posh Spice, portrayed by Victoria Beckham (nee Adams… more on that in a bit) as a pouty homage to the standard ’90s supermodel.
Were the Spice Girls great singers? No, not really. But that wasn’t the point. Their candy-coated harmonies and abundance of studio gloss managed to hide the potential imperfections of their passably pretty voices.
The quintet’s 1996 debut LP, Spice, wasn’t merely a hit; it was a phenomenon. Selling over 20 million copies and unfurling a string of no. 1 hits—including guilty pleasure classic “Wannabe”—Spice made the group superstars. It epitomized the nascent Cool Britannia movement (during which UK pop culture made a massive impact on global pop culture). Like any excellent pop band worth their salt, the Spice Girls followed up their massively successful first album two years later with a movie, Spiceworld, and a companion soundtrack. The latter eventually sold over 15 million copies.
Although they were most successful in their native UK, they were huge in the States, too. Naturally, Spiceworld’s monumental sales meant that the girls went on to sell out stadiums on their subsequent world tour. Unsurprisingly, the Spice Girls didn’t stop at making music, either; they branched out into merchandise that included bedsheets, dolls, makeup kits, and t-shirts. They also starred in some commercials (most famously, they reworked one of their tunes for a Pepsi commercial).
Predictably, an act as overexposed as the Spice Girls would inevitably face a dip in popularity and commitment. Specifically, internal struggles led to Halliwell leaving for success as a solo star in May 1998. Afterward, Mel C released her debut, 1999’s Northern Star, to big sales. Mel B was the third Spice Girl to put out a solo album, Hot, in October 2000 (a month before the band’s final studio LP, Forever). It reached number two on the UK Albums Chart and saw its lead single, “Holler”, top the UK Singles Chart. Sadly, it was still judged a flop because it sold only a fraction of what its predecessors did (four million copies).
After the disappointment of Forever, the Spice Girls’ breakup seemed implied and inevitable; in December 2000, it became official. From there, each member went their separate way, looking toward solo work, reality TV, and magazine covers to maintain celebrity. That is, everyone except Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams, who aimed for a different sort of celebrity. After marrying David Beckham—the most popular footballer in the UK then—in 1999, she became Victoria Beckham, a newly-minted multi-media brand. Whereas the Spice Girls forced Beckham to share the spotlight with four other pop tarts (each of whom had a flamboyant persona), her marriage allowed her to became one half of a power couple. Dubbed “Posh” and “Becks”, the two absurdly attractive people developed unprecedented amounts of fame and followers, particularly in the UK.
Even though the UK has a monarchy, they became pop royalty.
As part of her branding, Beckham matched her fellow Spices by entering the studio in the hopes of finding solo superstardom. Initially, things looked promising because her first post-Spice single —”Out of Your Mind” (a collaboration with UK garage outfit Tru Steppers and DJ Dane Bowers)—went to number two on the UK Singles Chart. (It eventually went Gold as well.) Beckham’s thin, sullen vocals fit ably with the skittery beats and bouncing synths, and the overall sound was a palpable departure from the goofy pop of the Spice Girls. It was sleek and slick, just like Beckham herself.
The lead single from Beckham’s studio introduction, “Not Such an Innocent Girl”, came out a month before her album’s release. It was an intelligent choice of Virgin Records because the song is probably the strongest of the set. Its lyrics are nonsense piffle that explore something about Beckham being more sophisticated than she seems. In contrast, the production is catchy and canny (which comes as no surprise since its songwriter, Steve Kipner, was responsible for hits like Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle”). Like her single with Tru Steppers, “Not Such an Innocent Girl” is a concerted effort to distance Beckham from her Spice past. The swinging beat and the urban-pop swagger significantly depart from the fizzy pop of hits like “Wannabe” or “Say You’ll Be There“.
It was unveiled at the same time as Kylie Minogue’s comeback single, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”. The pop media pitted the two divas against each other, even though it wasn’t a fair fight (Minogue had almost two decades of prior success, after all). Expectedly, Minogue emerged victorious, her single peaking at number one while Beckham’s peaked at a not-too-shabby number six. Victoria Beckham’s second single, “A Mind of Its Own”, came out in February of 2002, just in time for Valentine’s Day (which makes perfect sense since it’s a breezy, romantic pop ballad). It also peaked at number six on the UK pop charts. The record itself reached number ten, failing to sell sufficiently and essentially ending her solo pop career right then and there. Sure, she’d make a half-hearted attempt at another pop single (“I Wish”) a year later, but she soon gave up, settling instead for professional celebrity superstardom. Before long, she found her identity as a significant figure in the fashion industry.
Twenty years later, Victoria Beckham is a fascinating chronicle of the intersection between celebrity culture and pop music. Its sound is a bit scattered (it’s unclear if Beckham was looking to Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, or Janet Jackson for inspiration). It comes across like an accessory—an expensive and shiny accessory, but an accessory nonetheless, just like Beckham’s Birken bag. While it would be unfair to say that Victoria Beckham bought herself a pop music career (after all, she paid her dues by playing the fifth fiddle to her fellow Spice Girls), Victoria Beckham feels like a bit of a cash-in. That’s a true shame because if Beckham had focused on putting together a dance record that’s more in line with her UK garage hit, it’s possible that she would have been able to create a successful, if smaller, second musical career after the Spice Girls.
Or maybe not.
In a 2009 interview in Harper’s Bazaar, Beckham summed up her solo career as a mistake: “People never believed the solo singing career, and it wasn’t the real me – I was a little bit lost at the time.” She was nothing if not astute about her fame. As for her solo music, she commented, “My autobiography sold amazing amounts because people are very interested in me as a celebrity and want to know details such as what I wear, how much I weigh, and what style my hair is in.”
Though Victoria Beckham the album is seen as a failure, Victoria Beckham is not. She could have settled into a professional celebrity and essentially reduced herself to becoming arm candy for her superstar husband, but she didn’t. Instead, Beckham chose to forge her own career. She hasn’t transcended her Spice Girls past, but she has at least made peace with it. For example, Beckham joined her former bandmates on their 2007 comeback tour supporting their greatest hits album. Five years later, she appeared on an acclaimed performance of “Wannabe” and “Spice Up Your Life” at the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony.
Perhaps Beckham puts it best when she muses:
I’m so proud of everything we achieved. It was about making people embrace who they are, being happy with who they are, being the best version of themselves and for that to be celebrated. And the fact that it was okay to be a little bit different – why conform, you know? Now, I would like to think I’m doing that through beauty and fashion.
Indeed, the Victoria Beckham of 2021 has established herself as a major figure in fashion. She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 2017 New Years Honours for her work in the industry. Though she’s completely remade herself, she hasn’t transcended her pop Posh past life; instead, she’s built upon it, moving on yet still looking back with affection on her former life.