Tom Ewing has been on a roll at Popular since Christmas, moving quickly through the second half of 1996 and on into 1997. Here’s a first instalment of my comments on the period in question.

Baddiel and Skinner and the Lightning Seeds, “Three Lions”, 1 June 1996

I wasn’t in the UK when this hit number one, and its cultural references are all a long way from (my) home. I knew who David Baddiel was at the time, thanks to watching The Mary Whitehouse Experience during my early-nineties year in England (and even picking up their Encyclopedia, with its immortal entry on “felching”), but I didn’t know Frank Skinner or the Lightning Seeds. Watching the video now, I can hardly believe that Skinner was ever so young, knowing him as I do only from his current BBC appearances.

But I did learn about the Lightning Seeds eventually. A friend exposed me to Jollification in 2004, and in my yearning for anything vaguely Britpop in those early post-Britpop years I snapped it up, along with everything else I could find. And their albums weren’t hard to find, for a pound or two apiece in any charity shop.

I even picked up the 1997 Best Of for a quid to hear its one or two extra songs, including “Three Lions”, but that was a couple of years after my interest had peaked, so this was probably one of their tracks I’d listened to least until I gave it a few spins earlier this month.

It has enough of the features of the Lightning Seeds tracks I loved to appeal to me now, but its football-song elements are wasted on me. It does sound like a good example of one, compared to some of the guff we’ve encountered here, but I’ll have to leave it to others to give it nines or tens on that basis... for me, on an occasional-Lightning-Seeds-fan basis, it’s a six.

Fugees, “Killing Me Softly”, 8 June 1996

Although I couldn’t help but admire Lauryn Hill’s vocals on this version of the song, the other members’ touches never worked for me, so I always imagined that I preferred Roberta Flack’s version, half-remembered from years before. I’ve finally re-listened to Flack’s as well, though, and had forgotten how steeped in that tinkly, glittery early-’70s MOR soundscape it was, once you got past the a capella intro. And something about Flack’s delivery falters along the way; it feels just a bit too cosy, where Hill’s retains that sense of desperate yearning, that “stop it, you’re killing me” feeling. What I really want is an a capella reading of the song from Hill throughout (and an equivalent Flack version for good measure), but this is still a 7.

Spice Girls, “Wannabe”, 27 July 1996

I must have been on another planet in November 1996, when this began its 11-week run as the Australian number one, because I’d never seen the video before this came up at Popular. (Ah, that was it: I was on Planet Wedding, which is a fair excuse for losing all contact with popular culture for a bit.)

A few things struck me on my first few viewings. One was the disrespect for the homeless guy at the beginning; I hope it was at least a twenty that Emma Bunton slipped him before nicking his cap. Another was just how hard it was to watch the video without retrofitting my contemporary impressions of the performers into it: specifically, how strange to watch Victoria Adams dancing around in her little black dress as if she wasn’t half of Posh & Becks, surrogate royal couple of the 2000s. It’s even more odd to think that the 12-13 years I’ve been used to her as part of the UK cultural landscape far outstrips the preceding five years of the Spice Girls. Because her faltering solo career hadn’t registered with me, and I’m not one who pays much attention to the fashion world, seeing her actually singing and dancing on that screen just seemed... incongruous. I know that’s just a quirk of when I personally was paying attention, but it does mean that my response to the Spice Girls phenomenon, here and presumably over their subsequent hits, is and will be entirely uninformed by being caught up in their pop culture moment, because I wasn’t. “Best-selling female group of all time” and “most successful British band since the Beatles” (says Wikipedia) are daunting accolades, and it will be fascinating to see how their number ones impress me over coming months—or fail to.

That said, I did know they existed and did know “Wannabe”. The video may have been escapable, but the music wasn’t, drifting in from passing car radios and in-store speakers, and there were certainly enough stories and photos in the press. I didn’t mind the song, but the phenomenon struck me as the female flipside to the UK lad culture being touted at the time; from that point of view, a comparison with Oasis seems spot-on. When I moved to Britain in 2001, that strangely plastic look sported by young women on Friday nights, all straight peroxided hair and orange skin, looked like the Spice Girls’ legacy, and it was hard to map it onto my Gen-X conceptions of female empowerment. But there will be many more opportunities to explore this particular minefield, so for the time being I’ll observe the “Achtung!” signs and keep out. (Here’s a contemporary take that’s worth a look.)

The song itself suffers to my ears now in comparison with what came later from other groups, one or two brief generations down the pop line, and the contributions of each group member are mixed, but Mel B serves as a great backbone to both the song and the video (surely she wasn’t dubbed “scary” on the basis of either? Scary Spice, meet Timid Journos). The “so here’s the story/slam your body down” section sells me on the whole thing, really. I was swithering between 5 and 6, but I think I’ll stretch to 7.

12 February 2014 · Music