Raiding Hannah's Stash: An Appreciation of late '90s Bubblegum Music by Peter Bagge

Raiding Hannah's Stash: An Appreciation of late '90s Bubblegum Music
by Peter Bagge

Back in Early 1997 I was in negotiating a "development deal" with MTV, the goal of which was to turn convert my comic book. HATE. into an animated TV show. Seeing how I hadn't watched MTV in ages (I was pushing 40 by then, so what do you expect?) I decided it might be a good idea to do some marathon viewing, in order to re-familiarize myself with who I was dealing with. What torture. Never mind their non-music vid programming (all of which was unbearable, with the exception of Beavis and Butthead), but the videos had me squirming in pain as well. I recall three distinct varieties of "musical entertainment" that were dominating the airwaves at the time:

"Rap": Which had become almost exclusively of the "gangsta" variety, in which both the male and female rappers would wave a threatening finger at me and talk about what bad ass muthafuckuhs they are and totally trash the opposite sex in a way that most people outgrow when they’re 12 while sporting hideous, ill-fitting jogging outfits;

"Alternative": Always white, usually male, always wearing throwaway t-shirts and pants, always WHINING WHINING WHINING about who knows what and WHO CARES? And always sung with that same harsh, nasal "I don't take anything seriously so fuck everyone anyway" attitude as the band pogos up and down and bangs out their Ramones riffs (or else they'd be doing that Nirvana/Who routine of quiet, achy-voiced verse followed by loud, anthemic chorus. Yawn);

Followed by the worst "genre" of all:

"Chick Singers": self-obsessed, overly-dramatic Divas, regardless of whether they can skyrocket up and down the scales like Mariah and Whitney, whisper and mince like an affected child (i.e.: Jewel), or dish out yet more punk "attitude," only combined with lots of hammy, theatrical gestures and body hugging (Alanis Morrisette, Hole). I'm sure that 1997 -- along with every year of the past decade -- was being proclaimed "The Year of the Woman" by some music industry trade mag, only based on what I was witnessing this was not good news.

Then I saw The Spice Girls.

That's when I realized it wasn't just "me" that was the problem. It wasn't that I was "too old" to appreciate or "get into" pop music anymore. No, the problem was that all these other, more critically acclaimed "serious" acts all SUCKED. They were BORING, on top of being unoriginal. Plus they reeked of self-importance. They all needed to go away. They and their admirers needed to be punished.

And OH! how the Spice Girls tortured and vexed these people! By the time I was actually working at MTV that summer, people were routinely shocked and repulsed by my Love For The Spice Girls. "There are some things you ought to keep to yourself," one co-worker and close friend whispered to me once, with only my own best interests in mind. An allegedly "hip" and intelligent young "development gal" almost hit the ceiling when I told her I'd much rather listen to "Wannabe" than the godawful Radiohead video she was forcing me to watch. "Peter," she said, patiently filling me in on the Sad Facts, " I SAW the Spice Girls perform LIVE at the MTV Awards Show, and they were TERRIBLE: They can't sing, they can't dance -- and they're all FAT!"

Six months later all of these people each owned the complete line of Spice Girl dolls. I guess "fat" was "in" all of the sudden.

I like that the Spice Girls are "fat" (actually, not only are they all built very differently from each other, they're also built like women are NATURALLY built -- as opposed to gym-rats like Madonna, who spends hours of each day of her life trying to make her body resemble a MAN'S). I also like that their personalities have been simplified and boiled down to five easily recognizable cartoon characters (although I HATE the way Geri "Ginger" Haliwell now publicly resents this totally practical marketing ploy in the same way that that hypocritical crybaby John Lennon spent the rest of his ex-Beatle life complaining about). I like that they're wacky and funny and run up and down the street punching at the air and each other like The Beatles and The Monkees used to do. I like that the only thing they care about when they're on stage is to ENTERTAIN THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF THE AUDIENCE for 90 solid minutes. And I especially like their music. I LOVE their Music!

The first time I heard the song "Wannabe" I immediately wanted to hear it again. And again and again and again. This is a reaction I experienced quite often when I myself was a "teeny-bopper" in the late '60s, my ears constantly glued to a tiny transistor radio listening to "Cousin Brucie" introduce the latest release by Steppenwolf or The Cowsills (I loved 'em both!) on WABC. I still would occasionally react that way to new recordings I'd hear all throughout the '70s and '80s, though with less and less frequency. By the '90s I had forgotten what this sensation even felt like, and simply chalked it up to an AGE thing -- that "shock of the New" that we all become immune to as time goes by. The Spice Girls made me realize that this isn't entirely the case: that there IS a certain type of music that, when performed with the right kind of moxie and spirit, still thrills me to my bones and probably always will.

What's always been somewhat embarrassing for me is that the TYPE of music that routinely gets to me in this fashion is of stuff that's usually made for and marketed TO pre-teens. Specifically Girls. EIGHT YEAR OLD girls, like my daughter Hannah. This has created a what might seem like a weird "bond" or shared interest between me and my daughter (although I know of many other dads who enjoy a similar "bond" with their daughters!). Everyone always makes the same joke when they see little girls with their dads watching Spice Girls videos together: That the kids are into it for the music, while the dads are enjoying a little "T and A." The truth is that both the girls and the dads are enjoying BOTH -- the girls are totally fascinated by the S Girls (or Britney Spears’ or Monica's) sex appeal in the same way that boys their age are fascinated by Superman's strength; while if all we "dirty old men" cared about were bouncing boobies we would just lock the channel onto the USA Network and then pretend the remote was busted.

This Unity in Taste also served a pragmatic purpose: that I could march right into Tower Records and tell the clerk that the Cleopatra cassette I was buying "isn't for ME -- it's for my daughter!" Just in case they asked, that is. Which they never do. Still, it was comforting to have that info at the ready, just as I was always prepared to tell the liquor store clerk that that bottle of Bacardi 151 I was buying was "for the Old Man" back when I was still underage. As if they cared (although one time I DID share this false information with the clerk, who nearly died laughing as he rung up my illegal purchase). And as soon as Hannah expressed interest in The Spice Girls herself (all I had of the SGs up until then was a tape that a friend had made and mailed to me) I zoomed off to buy the latest release by latest '90s bubblegum teen sensation that I -- er, I mean my DAUGHTER -- was interested in.

Not that all of these new recordings hold up too well, by the way. In fact, that's the main purpose of this article: to single out the Good Stuff from the mediocre for the "uninitiated" (i.e.: the childless) amongst you who are dying to know "Who's better: The Backstreet Boys or 'NSync?" (Answer: They're both pretty lame). Allow me to work my way through my daughter's CD collection and pull out the ones that are at least worth your time and consideration.

Aqua, "Aquarium" (MCA, 1997)

This Danish foursome (two keyboardist/programmers and two singers) are responsible for that big hit "Barbie Girl" from two summers ago. Yeah, those people. And this entire CD bubbles and percolates exactly like that one does -- it's just a boom-boom-boom Eurodisco beat with Barbie Girl (Lene Grawford Nystrom) playing call and response with Rene "Ken" Dif from the first cut to the last.

I love this record. It drives most people crazy, though -- it even drives ME crazy when I'm not in the mood for it! But when I AM in an Aqua Mood I get locked into its beat and ride it on home in the same way that you could be listening to The Ramones' "Rocket to Russia" and thinking this is the best record ever made ever ever ever, while at other times it sounds like just another stupid Ramones record. I'm not even into techno or disco as a rule. I just like this record. It's got lots of great hooks and can be very funny at times as well.

Buy this at your own risk. I refuse to be held responsible.

B*witched, "B*witched" (Epic/Sony, 1998)

B*witched are "Ireland's answer to the Spice Girls": Four perky, VERY young (18-20 years old) fame-school graduates who can dance their scrawny little Gaelic hineys off, and who sing well to boot (one of the Lynch twins, Edele, sings the lead on every song, and while she has a very nice voice I find it odd that not even her sister Keavy gets to sing lead on occasion. I mean, wouldn't an identical twin have an identical singing voice?). Their dance routines, as well as their music, are a cross between the Jackson Five and Riverdance -- an unlikely and seemingly distasteful combination that actually works quite well (as anyone who's watched them perform their adorable act on that oft-repeated Disney Channel special a dozen times like I have can attest to).

Like the Spice Girls, they share songwriting credits with their producers (presumably both groups are mainly responsible for the bulk of their own super happy, cliché-ridden lyrics -- though the SGs songs are far more obsessed with sex and EGO than their more innocent Irish progeny are). Also like the SGs, their management landed one hell of a producer in Ray "Madman" Hughes, who along with arranger Martin Brannigan put together one hell of a CD. This giddy masterpiece is simply BURSTING with energy and zing from beginning to end (save for the prerequisite ballads, some of which are also wonderful -- like the ELO/Wings-ish "Oh Mr. Postman" -- and some of which just take up space). The producers of most all these '90s bubblegum records are keyboardists who "play" or "program" almost all the rhythm instruments themselves on their digital midi/DAT/AVID sampling gizmo contraptions, which are little more than $50,000 Casio players. You would think that the end result would be soulless dreck -- and it usually is, although it sure is amazing what some of the more imaginative producers can pull off working this way. "Never Giving Up," "Rollercoaster" and their big hit "C'est La Vie" all crackle and pop like nobody's business, and the way Hughes seemlessly works traditional folk instruments like fiddles and tin whistles into the mix without making them sound gimmicky is nothing short of a marvel. "Madman" Hughes is a genius!

B*witched have been monster huge in the UK and Europe for about a year now, though as of this writing they've barely cracked the top 10 over here, despite the Disney Channel's best efforts. The only logical explanation I can come up for this is their regrettable WARDROBE: they all dress in elaborately designed costumes that are always made of DENIM! It reminds me of the same dilemma the Bay City Rollers experienced 25 years ago, when they were the biggest thing going over seas but never more than an after thought in the States: maybe those silly honky Europeans have no problem with plaid tartans and Kilts, but over here that "look" implies that you might as well be performing on the Lawrence Welk show. Not that I'm repulsed by B*witched's look myself, but I'm sure "the kids" are all thinkin' that it's totally L7.

Anyhow, and in case I haven't made this plain enough already, I love this CD. Two thumbs up. Buy it.

Billie, "Honey to the B" (Virgin, 1998)

16-year-old Billie Piper is the Limey version of Britney Spears, except that she's not as cute and doesn't sing as well, which suggests a VERY aggressive management team is at work here (She does have a nice, straight-forward though nondistinctive singing voice, however). She's had four straight top ten hits in the UK since last summer, though this CD wasn't released in the US until May of this year (1999).

I was pretty disappointed in this CD when I first heard it, after much excited word of mouth by my fellow dirty old men from across the pond -- it's much more Mainstream/MOR/R&B sounding than, say, the youthful, poppy exuberance of B*witched. Kinda reminds me of Brandy's music, though thankfully without any of that I-Wanna-Be-Whitney show-off-y crap that Brandy indulges in. But after a few listens this thing has grown on me quite a bit. As far as MOR R&B goes, it's pretty dang good! Billie's producing/arranging/songwriting team of Jim Marr and Wendy Page don't have an original bone in their body, but they sure know a good groove when they steal one. This thing kind of reminds me of The Spice Girls first CD, with it's nonstop dance floor feel, though without any of the SG's in-your-face insanity. She actually sounds a lot more mellow and MATURE than the Spices, which might make her a lot more palatable to all you Spice Haters out there.

The closest thing to immaturity you'll hear on this CD is her biggest hit/ adolescent anthem "Because We Want To," which is all about doing whatever you want to exert your independence and all that claptrap. I wonder if that would include shooting up all your classmates? Don't expect this song to get much airplay in the States any time soon.

This is a good record. Nothing remarkable, but if you find it on sale you shan't feel ripped off.

Cleopatra, "Comin' Atcha" (Maverick/WB, 1998)

Cleopatra are three black teenage sisters from the UK: Cleopatra, Zainaim and Yonah Higgins. The oldest, Cleo, does almost all of the lead singing and sounds a lot like a young Michael Jackson (they even do a cover of "I Want You Back" on this CD, and it's hard to believe it's NOT Michael Jackson singing it). They also write all their own lyrics and share the songwriting credits with their various producers. In other words, these gals are bona fide talents with a long-term career in the music biz ahead of them (as far as anyone is able to predict such things, that is).

Watching these girls perform on stage is quite an other-worldly visual experience: they're all very short and wear baggy, candy-colored clothes and big floppy hats. They also have super long braided hair that twirls like helicopter blades as they spin, turn and waddle about in unison. Last year they did their outer space dancing on some Nickelodeon special, after which me and my daughter made a bee-line to the nearest record store to buy their product. Guess what? It turned out their CD "wasn't ready" for US release yet. It took MONTHS to get over here! Somebody really missed the boat on that one -- LITERALLY!

As for the music itself, it's pretty generic '90s R&B, only on the light, sweet side so the kids can swallow it. Nice enough stuff, but nothing too memorable -- save for one cut, "Thinking About You," which is quite a thing of beauty that never stops growing on me. I say buy this CD for that song alone. You at least won't be offended by the rest of the material.

BTW: Why do black R&B acts ALWAYS thank "God" on their liner notes? They always start off by thanking Him for "making it all happen" for them before they eventually get around to thanking their Jewish lawyers and Sicilian managers who really DID make it all happen. Cleopatra thank The Great God Almighty at least a half dozen times for "blessing" them with the miraculous ability to mimic Michael Jackson and twirl like Martian dervishes. It's so obnoxious -- like when some pro athlete thanks God for a big win, as if The Lord was rooting against the other team. Does God HATE all the acts that DIDN'T land a major label record deal? Apparently so! Acts that put out records on penniless Indie labels should start CURSING God on their record sleeves for "NOT blessing them" and for "NOT making it all happen." Or they could just thank Satan, though I suppose hundreds of heavy metal bands have probably done that already.

Hanson, "Middle of Nowhere" (Mercury, 1997)

This is the debut CD by the band that everyone was making fun of when they weren't busy making fun of the Spice Girls. This CD is an awfully polished and professional product for three teenage brothers fresh out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, due to the fact that they had plenty of time, money and help devoted to them in the form of top-rate producers and musicians backing them up. One thing that those well-paid "pros" cannot provide, however, is the hyper, unbridled teen-boy mania that comes through on here in spite of the slick production. In fact, sometimes it seems like the producers were indulging them in this regard, like with the wahwah-laden guitar solo in "Where's the Love" or the totally goofball synthesizer solo in "Madeline." I'm sure they were like kids being set loose in a candy store when they entered the recording studio ("Whoa, dude, check it out -- a BIG MUFF!"), but then, only a 15-year-old should be allowed to use those gizmos to begin with, before they attempt to do something "tasteful" with them!

Hanson Rocks. I saw them perform live, and let me tell you something, folks: They rocked like a motherfucker. Laugh all you want, but it's true. They also sing great, and in a way that only a sibling group can pull off. Theirs was the best live harmonizing I've heard since the time I saw the Beach Boys in 1973. Most of this CD is just shout-out-loud, drivin,' rockin' pop music at it's best. It also is the only CD that really IS "rock" (The rest are all various mixtures of Disco, techno and hip hop), with real guitars and drums on it -- most of which is played by the band itself. Go Hanson!

On the down side, however, is that it also has a real midwestern, John Cougar Mellancamp flavor to it -- especially when the oldest, Isaac, sings, since he's the only one whose voice had changed at the time this record was recorded. Not that there's inherently anything wrong with this, but it is cause for concern re: where they're heading musically in the future, since they do have very Middle-American cornfed sensibilities (again, not unlike Mellancamp). The ballads on this CD, while perfectly harmless, suggest that there won't be much to recommend of them once they outgrow their hyper adolescence. In fact, they could wind up looking and sounding indistinguishable from the likes of Michael Bolton!

It's been quite a while since they released anything new as well, so I'm filled with apprehension once something new by them DOES come out! Oh well, we shall see. But no matter what happens to them down the road this CD will remain a rock and roll classic forever. Buy it and give it a listen if you don't believe me.

Their only other releases besides this one are a Christmas CD entitled "Snowed In" and a collection of early demo tapes called "Three Car Garage." "Snowed" is one of the most enjoyable Xmas albums ever made, and I heartily recommend it for some sure-fire rockin' holiday good cheer. "Three Car" is a must to avoid, however. Sure, it's a pretty impressive demo from a group that features a 10-year-old drummer, but it's still a DEMO. Demos should be BURNED before some dipshit "fan" decides to make a bootleg out of them, or a greedy label decides to use it to rip off their gullible public (i.e.: me).

"NOW" Compilation (EMI, 1998)

This is a "This Year's Biggest Hits All On One CD!"-type compilation that you can only order by phone via it's relentless TV commercials. My daughter wrote down the 1-800 number and handed it to her mom, instructing her to dial it a.s.a.p. She wanted Today's Biggest Hits and she wanted them NOW, Goddammit! Who were we to argue?

Anyone who's listened to a day's worth of top 10 radio in the last couple of years knows half of these songs already: Hanson's "Mmm Bop," The Spice Girls' "Say You'll Be there," etc. Some of these hits I like just fine, such as Janet's retro-'70s disco tune "Together Again," and the Backstreet Boys' "As Long As You Love Me" (which is pretty much the ONLY BSB song I like). Unfortunately, there's an awful lot of "alternative" gunk on here as well, which grates even more than usual when pressed up against songs like the ones mentioned above. The only tolerable ones are "alterna-beatle"-type bands like Fastball and Harvey Danger (think John Lennon at his most nasally and cynical). The latter band features a guy who used to work in the production department for my publisher here in Seattle. One day he's attaching page numbers to my comic book for minimum wage, and the next day my kid is ordering his record off of Nickelodeon. What a wacky world.

This comp also has one gem I've never heard before: "Never Ever," by a British all-girl singing group called All Saints. This slow, gospel-ly tune has a real early-'60s-Shadow Morton girl group feel to it. I didn't think much of it at first, but MAN has it grown on me since then. It just sucks you right in like a vacuum cleaner. I don't even know if you can still buy this CD anymore, but if you ever come across it used and cheap then pick it up for this song alone.

"Sabrina The Teenage Witch -- The Album!" (Geffen, 1998)

This compilation has contributions by all the latest hot teen sensations (inc. an otherwise unavailable track by the Spice Girls, which made it a must-have item in the Bagge household). The only connection that it has to the TV show are the photos of Melissa Joan Hart's smirky face all over the sleeve, as well as her own uninspired rendition of Blondie's "One Way Or Another."

Aside from that and a few other note-for-note covers of '70s classics (Matthew Sweet does a why-bother remake of "Magnet and Steel," while current hit-miesters Sugar Ray give Steve Miller's "Abracadabra" the kereoke treatment), this CD has a few real doozies on it: good cuts by Aqua, Britney Spears, the Murmurs, the Cardigans, and The Spice Girls (of course!). Plus the otherwise annoying Ben Folds Five turn in their best song by far with the rousing "Kate" --though Mr. Folds still comes close to ruining even this song with that smarmy "look at me, I'm being clever ovah heah!" singing style of his, to go along with that bangy Billy Joel (another long-time sufferer of cleveritis)-style piano playing that I hate. This is a classic example of ruining a perfectly pretty song in order to hang on to your "indy cred" -- something I thing a lot of indy rockers are bound to regret someday, if they don't already.

Black-sounding blondie girl Robyn is also featured with "Show Me Love," her slinky smash from a few summers ago. This song was co-written and produced by the Swedish hit-making team of Max Martin and the recently departed Denniz Pop. These two Scandihoovians are also responsible for just about every major hit by all the "O-Town" acts (Britney, Backstreet Boys, 'NSync). These guys are probably the most successful songwriters of the '90s by far, in spite of the fact that no one's ever heard of them. While I enjoy a lot of their tunes (like this one), it's hard for me to think of myself as a "fan" of theirs, since they hit the mark with a little TOO much ease. In other words, their sensibilities are just too middle-of-the-road and mainstream for me. I like at least a LITTLE bit of personality and quirkiness to go with my pop schmaltz!

The low points on this CD for me are all the New Kids-clone boy groups, who's contributions here show them all doing what they do worst: macho-posturing rap and hip-hop. I simply can't buy into these obvious nancy-boys trying to make like they're street toughs. "Ruff Tuff Cream Puffs," I calls 'em! They should stick to the ballads, in my opinion, though my wife thinks these songs are adorable, especially the UK outfit Five's laughable theme song "Slam Dunk Da Funk" (also written by those high-fivin' homeboys from Stockholm, Martin and Pop. Can you imagine those two Squareheads sitting at home "composing" this thing in their Swedish country kitchen, while they're gettin' jiggy wit' their lutafisk?).

Adults seem to do a flip flop from the sexual identifying of our youth -- My daughter has little interest in male singers and acts, just as I rarely bought anything that was sung by a female when I was a kid. Now it's the opposite, with my wife cranking up any tune that's sung by some hunky 18-year-old (one of the members of Five even goes by the name of "Abs"), while I sit there jealously calling the singer a "sissy" and a "faggot," even when I'm secretly enjoying the record myself.

Anyhow, "Sabrina" is a surprisingly good sampler, and Tower sells it at some super low price. Check it out if it's still in stock.

Savage Garden, "Savage Garden" (Sony, 1997)

These two Aussies wear mascara, and the singer, Darren Hayes, sings in this real affected '80s-style voice. Plus they're called "Savage Garden." Talk about your sissy faggots! I would love to run them over in my Subaru if I ever got the chance, only some of their songs are brilliant; real nice beat ballads like the hit "Madly Truly Deeply" (they're love songs, yet they have a steady, toe-tapping beat to 'em, so I call them "beat ballads." What am I supposed to call 'em?). "Universe" is an especially pretty tune, very Smokey Robinson, with great harmonizing on the chorus by Mr. FruityPants Hayes. Their attempts at noisy, upbeat disco numbers are annoying, however, so this gets only half a rousing thumbs up.

Buy it used.

Britney Spears, "Britney Spears" (Jive/Zomba, 1999)

Britney Spears is literally the new Annette Funichello, since not only is she a sexy sweetheart whom all of America is in love with, but she also was a Mousekateer on the "NEW Mickey Mouse Club" show! Unlike the monotoned Annette, however, she has an incredible singing voice. She goes from peeping like a tweetie bird to growling like a grizzly bear all in the same verse! This could a bad sign, however, since once she outgrows her teenybobber status I'll bet you dollars to donuts she's gonna be tempted to give Celine, Mariah and Whitney a run for their money in the show-off-y diva drama queen sweepstakes.

Another problem for Miss Spears is that she has no stage presence whatsoever. She's not a natural dancer either, which makes me wonder why she's obliged to perform dance steps at all. Just let her stand there and sing! Actually she always looks like she just wants to go home or run into the bathroom to throw up whenever she performs on TV -- all the more perverse that she recently got these insane looking breast implants to complete her "look." Just imagine Dolly Parton's boobies on a twelve year old girl and you'll get the picture. What was her management THINKING?!?

And that brings us to yet another bad sign: she's managed by the Orlando-based hit-making machine called "O-Town," who also assembled and controls the Backstreet Boys and their interchangeable clones 'NSync (along with many other "future stars" who are currently being groomed at their "finishing school"). All of these acts are super huge at the moment, which led one of O-Town's odd-couple founders (fatso billionaire and Chippendales Dancers mogul Lou "Call Me Big Poppa" Pearlman) to start promoting himself as the Berry Gordy/Don Kirshner/Neil Bogart of the '90s -- much to the chagrin of his partner, the black "jesus freak" and former Maurice Starr gopher Johnny Wright. Ever since then these two egomaniacs have been suing the daylights out of each other, much to the delight of the rest of the music industry.

The thing is, at least Gordy and even Kirshner had a certain style and sensibility that permeated everything they touched. They could lay claim to a certain style or innovation that was all their own, while the O-Towners have savvy and street hustle going for them and nothing more. While originality has never ruled supreme in teeneybopperland, literally EVERYTHING their charges do is completely by-the-book. Their boy groups in particular are TOTALLY generic from head to toe: looking and moving EXACTLY like The New Kids On The Block (whom Wright used to chauffeur), while harmonizing EXACTLY like Boyz 2 Men (or trying to). And while this song or that may be tolerable, the music is WAY too bland and generic. It just sits there, like your Aunt Edna's meatloaf. Sure it's edible, but it's nothing to drive miles out of your way for.

The same goes for most of the material on Britney's debut CD, sadly. Pretty bland stuff. There are a few exceptions, like the megahit "Baby One More Time" and it's carbon copy follow up "(You Drive Me) Crazy;" as well as the super bouncy "Soda Pop," with a great Jamaican-style back-up vocal by some guy named Mikey Bassie. Some of the other tracks she's able to save with her amazing double and triple track vocalizing, but not always. I say buy this if you find it on sale in the cut out bin (which it will be filling up in a year or two, believe me), but don't pay full price for it.

BTW: There are a few incredibly crass things about this CD that I have to make mention of: one is that it ends with an infomercial for the new Backstreet Boys CD, narrated by Britney herself! It also has an order form for all sorts of Britney merchandise, even though this is her debut album (although I can't blame her handlers for their optimism, greedy slobs though they may be). Finally, the back cover has all this small print, technical-type info explaining what "plug-ins" you'll need to play it on either a PC or an Apple CD Rom disk drive! I suppose this is to be expected on a CD that features a ballad called "E-Mail My Heart," but it even has all these tiny logos and copyright marks for said plug-ins next to the text (at first I thought "Quick Time" was the name of the subsidiary label this record was on!). In fact, this CD cover and booklet is LOUSY with logos and trademarks. Everyone wants a piece of Britney, apparently. Perverts!

Spice Girls, "Spice" (Virgin, 1996)

This debut CD sold half a billion copies worldwide, so chances are you're already familiar with half of it without even knowing it (then again, maybe not, since most of you SCRAM readers can do a damn good job of cloistering yourself away from "mainstream society" when you want to, myself included).

The anthemic megahit "Wannabe" kicks things off with a bang, and this cut pretty much sums up the Girls' whole shtick in a nutshell: high energy; sexually liberated; be true to your galpals; etc. My kid and her galpals all played this song five hundred thousand times in a row when they first brought it home, so it obviously had the same impact on them that "Hound Dog," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "God Save The Queen" had on previous generations of impressionable youth.

None of the rest of the songs on this CD have the same impact or immediacy as "Wannabe," but it's all enjoyable, goes-down-easy fare nonetheless. In fact, most of it has a very '70s R&B feel to it: "Something Kinda Funny" sounds a lot like Chic, "Love Thing" is Emotion doing Earth, Wind and Fire (Melanie "Sporty" Chisolm even opens it with a very Maurice White-type "OWW!"), and "Say You'll Be There" is pure Stevie Wonder, complete with harmonica solo. All five Spices must have been weaned on a steady diet of American R&B, since even lily-white Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton can dish up some surprisingly soulful ad lib warblings.

Throw in a couple of slutty ballads, along with the embarrassingly sentimental-yet-highly hummable piece of Euro-drivel "Mama," and there you have it: A multi-platinum MONSTER. I'd recommend this CD to anyone who's inclined towards liking the SG's shtick in general. If not, then skip it. I don't want to here about it later.

Spice Girls: "SpiceWorld" (Virgin, 1997)

This is one of the most amazing album/CDs I've ever heard. Every song has a completely different groove or "feel" to it, yet they all have that high-fructose effervescence that you'd expect from a "teenybopper" outfit like the SGs. The same goes for its uber-positive, egocentric lyrics and themes, which could be summed up by their titles alone ("Spice Up Your Life," "Do It", "Never Give Up on The Good Times").

The production on this CD is awe-inspiring, with the dueling producing/songwriting teams of Stannard and Rowe vs. Watkins and Wilson (AKA "Absolute") trying to outdo each other on each successive cut. At the risk of sounding like the teenaged pothead that I once was, this record is also the most mind-blowing HEADPHONE LISTENING experience I've heard since the Beach Boys' "Surf's Up" or 10cc's "Sheet Music," due to the layered intricacies of the music and the treatment given to the vocals. This CD is a MUST HAVE ITEM for anyone who appreciates lush harmonies as much as I do. I think the Girls' own self-effacing humor is primarily responsible for this permanently accepted notion that "the Spice Girls can't sing," (though God bless 'em for never wasting their time bickering with their own critics). Ginger even claims that she can barely sing on key, though she herself has a very endearing raspy, lisping singing voice. While the state-of-the-art production facilities employed here (and which every major label singing act ALSO uses) certainly didn't hurt, nothing can take away from the fact that this record has GREAT singing on it! Vicki "Posh" Adam's and Mel "Scary" Brown both have very deep voices (Mel B's low growl even gets down into BARITONE range at times), so while Emma's voice is riding on top with her flowery flutterings along with the amazing Mel C's ear-piercing punctuation marks, the rest of them fill out their harmonies with a rich, earthy fullness that sounds more like Spice WOMEN than Spice "girls."

Bunton and Chisolm also have two of the most distinctive, radio-friendly voices I've ever heard: as soon as either of them utters a line over the air you know you're hearing a new SGs song. (Though it surprises me how reluctant US radio stations STILL are about playing the Spice Girls. Their success over here is due almost entirely to TV and word-of-mouth -- Radio has rendered itself irrelevant strictly out of spite). Believe me, it takes a lot more than clever marketing to sell a zillion records -- just think of all the countless "pretty faces" in the history of the music business who've tried and FAILED. Most of my all-time favorite singing groups have had two lead singers with voices that contrast yet compliment each other: John and Paul, Brian and Mike, Roger and Pete, Maurice and Philip of Earth Wind and Fire, Allan Clark and Graham Nash of the Hollies, etc. The Spice Girls have Emma and Mel C.

I recommend this CD to everyone. If you buy it and still don't like it then I'd suggest you crawl into your sad little cubbyhole and listen to your wretched Bob Dylan (or Lou Reed or Nick Cave) records one last time before putting a bullet through your miserable fucking head.

Other SG items: Their CD singles are hit or miss. The "Stop" single includes a bunch of extended dance mixes of the same song that all suck.... The "Goodbye" single (their only release as of this writing sans Geri) has a great cover of the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping," but it also includes live versions of "We are Family" and "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves." Good versions, mind you, but GOD do those songs suck. "Goodbye" itself (an insincere sounding "farewell" to Geri) is pretty insipid, though it does feature nice harmonies.

"Spiceworld" is a super entertaining movie that holds up to repeated viewing. Unfortunately, a lot of people who enter that film preparing to hate it exit hating it as well. Go fucking figure...

The "Live in Istanbul" Video is a MUST. This the greatest concert film EVER! And what makes it better by leaps and bounds over the more recent "Live at Wembley" concert video is that the latter doesn't have Ginger Spice. The Spice Universe has been thrown irrevocably out of whack since her departure, sadly. Ginger may have been the worst singer and dancer of the bunch, but she also was the best "Spice Girl" by far. I defy anyone to watch this Istanbul tape and then tell me to my face that she isn't completely BONKERS. She truly was (is?) a mad, inspired, and dangerous woman. 10 times more "punk" than Johnny Rotten. A zillion times sexier than stupid ol' Madonna. Geri Haliwell may be a big bore now, but "Ginger Spice" was the most unlikeliest -- and therefore the GREATEST-- "rock star" that ever lived.