Interview: Quentin Harrison, Author of 'Record Redux: Spice Girls'

Many a well-meaning adult and a cultural critic gave me the impression that being a part of the Spice Girls fandom was a fleeting and frivolous act, one of the many fancies of a brace-faced pre-teen. 20 years later, braces off, and over a dozen chart-topping hits and millions of records sold, I and many fans of the sassy girl powered quintet have had the last laugh, as the Spice Girls never did radiate and fade away as predicted, but have in fact become an integral part of the pop culture panorama.

Though it's not a slumber party like it was in the mid-'90s as all of the Spices --- Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell-Horner, Victoria Beckham, and the Melanies, Brown and Chislom --- have dispersed down different aural roads and taken varying career paths, a lot of us are still celebrating the Spice Girls legacy, their impact, and wondering when it will be examined and wielded with scholarly precision.

Wonder no more as journalist, music historian and Spice die-hard, Quentin Harrison has got the antidote with his book, Record Redux: Spice Girls. The book (out now) is a comprehensive collection that dissects Britain's biggest selling girl group's discography down to the atom. With editorial flair and detailed research, Harrison hones in on what made the Spice Girls such a fascinating phenomenon during the reign of alternative and hip-hop cultures in the 1990s, and confirms why their fun and fearless tunes provided the perfect soundtrack for a generation in need of a female empowerment overhaul.

I got a chance to chat with Harrison about his exciting debut book and came away having an even deeper appreciation for a musical group that continues to be a great influence to me, even at this adult stage in life. During our conversation we not only talked about the creation of a book this caliber, but also got into serious nostalgia mode, remembering the days of Spice sovereignty, recalling all their best music, and even confirmed why the Spice Girls weren't superficial about feminism, especially in this day and age where girl power is at an all-time high.

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Photo credit: Michael McAllister
Hello, Quentin and welcome to the 'Audio Diva Interview'! Let me kick off by saying that your Record Redux series is a music nerd's dream, you’re covering albums and the impact the albums made, plus the artist's themselves. What prompted you to do this series?

Well, for me it came down to what I love when it comes down to popular music culture, which is its history. That, ironically, is missing in this "Information Age", and if it is present it is extremely revised, usually not in favor of artists within the pop genre. However, those faults can extend to other genres outside of pop too, but typically, you don't see serious commentary/dialogue in that field. So, I decided to create what I wanted to see and/or read.

I feel you on that. And is that why you chose to introduce your series with the Spice Girls, considering they have often been passed off as 'fluff pop' act? Or was there another reason?

It was a combination of things really. They are arguably an act I have followed in real time for 18 years, so experiencing history as it happens gives you perspective to express. Also, with it being 20 years removed from their first single and album, the timing felt right. In all honesty though, the reason I became a popular music critic/commentator was because I knew acts like the Spice Girls wouldn't always get a fair shake. Anti-pop bias is a bitch.

I'll say. I find it's a real problem esp. when they are females, you get all kinds of sexist, "she should be pregnant, she should just shake her ass and shut up" stuff and Spice Girls really persevered in that shady grove of pop culture, having the last laugh in the end. Your book, with it dissecting Spice Girls music catalog to the core, really hones in on that the Spice Girls weren't just up on stage to look cute. They had a vast music catalog.

Yes, 18 albums between them individually and as a group. When you step back and take that fact in, it really is impressive. More so that they had complete control as songwriters over their music en masse for the most part. So you get a real range of sounds and feelings, which is captured in my book via its reference guide style.

So was that the biggest misconception about the Spice Girls in their prime?

That and that they were manufactured because they knew how to navigate the marketing machine and make it work to their advantage. What’s fascinating is that the music never suffered as a result of that, in fact they rose to the occasion with Spiceworld to elevate themselves musically past Spice even with everything being mad around them. They never lost that focus, they just drew together and banged out a classic second long player like it was nothing. That's rock and roll to me.

Did you face any difficulties getting this book published? Take us through how a music journalist like yourself gets a book such as this into the publishing mill.

Well, I started writing this book, by hand, in May of 2013. So after getting the book out over the course of that summer, it took an additional three months to transcribe it. But in regard to getting it published, I went the traditional route to court an agent in 2014 and spent the whole of that year doing that. It was frustrating as a lot of publisher's had preconceived notions about the Spice Girls, one publisher opined that there was an abundance of books actively in the market on the group already. Anyone with the Internet and Amazon could search and see that was not true. It was around Christmas 2014, that a colleague of mine suggested I independently publish. From there I researched indie publishing avenues and decided to use Kickstarter last year in the spring to raise funds to be able to hire my own team.

After successfully securing funds via the Kickstarter campaign, I got to work with my crew. I currently employ two copy editors and a graphic designer who was kind enough to double as my creative director. Without them this book would not have reached the level it has, in regard to executing the precise vision I had for it. Amazon's CreateSpace medium was ideal for me to use in regard to manufacturing and the book is on my own imprint (Joy of Sound Publications), so it gifted me with autonomy I may not have had had I actually gotten an agent. But it was all a learning experience, to really understand how books are made and I have an even deeper respect than I had before for books. Also, with all this knowledge it has allowed the second book, Record Redux: Carly Simon (out April 10, 2017) to go much smoother.

What type of research did you have to conduct to put together a collection like this?

I did a little bit of everything, from re-reading the single and album liner notes, watching old interviews and Spice related documentaries, etc. I am a music history buff, so scouring for reviews, articles and essays is second nature, so that played a huge role. Also, just really getting under the grooves of the music too, that was key. Further, just having a broad ear and being able to make connections with the group and how they tied into popular music culture itself was a big element, which comes across in the book.

What particular books and articles were important to guiding and fine-tuning your research?

A combination of everything from Discogs, to All Music Guide and David Sinclair's Wannabe: How the Spice Girls Reinvented Pop Fame, to name some. I went in wanting to set-up the book as a "reference guide" that combines stats with commentary, something sort of new, when it comes to pop music commentary, the genre itself. YouTube was a fun tool too, as pretty much the Girls' entire lifespan as artists is available online today. Now, one can go and watch their evolution. Back 15 years ago, it wasn't that easy for international fans to follow them as they receded back into the United Kingdom, unless you were on the major fan boards and participated in file sharing culture of the early to mid-2000s, pre-YouTube days. But, it’s important to state that I have spent years, for both leisure and writing assignments, researching the traditional and non-traditional way. I love reading reviews, essays, commentaries, print interviews, etc. so it was sort of like another day at the office, but more extreme!

Did you interview anybody from the Spice circle for this? Producers, managers, friends, etc.?

No, I wanted to let the music tells its own story as best I could.

Did you learn anything that was new or different about the Spice Girls that you hadn't known before?

I was able to make some connections and pose some theories about the music that I missed back in the moment of first experiencing some of it as I had not had the larger musical education I have now, which the Spice Girls are directly responsible for by the way.

Interesting. Might I ask what those theories were?

In regard to pop music politics with the usage of R&B, things of that nature. How certain songs or records forecasted different maneuvers within their discography at large. Don't want to give to much of it away though! But it was great to sort of "academize" the Girls as their music lends itself to analysis well. It's so musical. To be clearer, I discovered how fans and critics often wrote off their third LP (Forever) as some R&B vehicle --- it was not --- they had been using urban touches since their debut. So, looking at how pop audiences punish their artists if they dare to go "too black".

That's so true. Yet, the '90s was the breakout era for R&B, the "Urban/Black" sound to cross into the pop market. I even remember "Say You'll Be There" from the Spice album being played on the local urban station in my hometown back in the day. They crossed many a genre even on their first record, as there's disco, alternative, Latin dancehall...lots of genre crisscrosses. And the crazy thing is that 20 years later Spice still sounds fresh. Is that the same for you?

Mostly, yes. If I had to pick their most timeless effort, Spiceworld gets my vote.

Why so?

The music stands out a bit more, it isn't just their personalities, but their personalities fueling or working with great arrangements and lyrics. It feels more fleshed out and that they weren't just taking cues. Not to dismiss the Spice album. If that makes sense?

It makes total sense. It was an eclectic mix that proved the Spice Girls were evolving, sonically and lyrically. And they were doing R&B once again, with, going for the Motown soul with "Stop" and then the TLC-esque "Denying", those were actually my two fave tracks on there.

Yes, the urban pop doesn't leave their sound, it just took on a different tone was all really. But they definitely shifted into a broader pop space with the second LP overall, just great music that has held up. I would say "Denying" is more so late '80s, Babyface produced fare, unconsciously evoking that I mean versus TLC. Melanie B's "Sophisticated Lady", a b-side to her single of Cameo's "Word Up!" evoked more TLC in the vocal and production.

Solid point. It does have touches of the New Jack/Tender Lover era Babyface coming out in that track. And since you brought up Mel B, I was thrilled you have given ample attention to the Spices solo outputs in this book. Those albums were pretty shafted here in the US, but I thought it was a very interesting period for them because they all got to explore their own personalities a bit further, and they all went solo which was really rare for a singing group.

Groups go solo eventually, but the results can often be extremely uneven. With the Spice Girls, there was a specific stretch where, for a time, they were matching each other in creative, commercial and (sometimes) critical victories. The only group to rival that would have been New Edition, this is touched upon in the book.

And going back to Forever that was terribly underrated effort. It had some great bops with Rodney Jerkins and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on production, which many have not heard. I was always disappointed by the fact that once Geri left the group, people stopped checking.

Well, they stayed pretty present in the UK, America has a very imperialistic attitude culturally, so it is harder for foreign act to maintain American attention but for so long.

Americans do have short attention spans with acts from across the pond, but what has impressed me is the impact of the Spice Girls has shifted gears in these past two decades, people used think they were fluff, novelty acts, but their music, presence has endured all these years, why so?

I think the music is just good, it has variety, you can hear the lyrics. It’s smart, but not inaccessible, fun, but not cloying. It strikes a great chord with people, if they’re open to it. I don’t think music critics have been kind to them normally; but, there has been a slight thawing toward them though. Emma Bunton's Free Me was instrumental in that, but overall, critically the Girls have really not gotten their due. I’d like to think my book can rescue them from '90s nostalgia, as they’re so much more than that.

Which Spice Girl you felt had more success with her solo output? Who'd you feel could have been better/had better backing?

I mean, I think when it comes to consistency in the three areas I mentioned (creative, commercial, critical) it would definitely go to Melanie C, Emma and Geri Halliwell-Horner. However, Melanie B and Victoria Beckham had the potential to go very far. Melanie B struggled as she attempted to reinvent herself as a true R&B stylist, which her run of singles from 1998 through to 2001 evinced wonderfully. But between soft support, label wise, and her own lack of focus, she didn’t really seize upon the opportunity to do what she could have. Victoria's celebrity, or the British press/public’s perception of it, limited her. I often say that her debut, while not a classic, was very strong and passionate affair and it has held up in the ensuing years. Her confidence definitely took a drubbing from said British press/public and I do believe that’s why she left music behind unfortunately. But I want to stress that success is relative and each of these women walked her own path. As result, people got some great music out of it that is pretty engaging, at least I think so.

Like me, you've been a fan of Spice Girls for over 18 years. I remember a friend bringing the "Wannabe" tape to recess and playing it on her Walkman and hearing Mel B dive into that brash opening line --- it was a huge turning point for me. What was the song, the moment the drew you become a fan? 

"Spice Up Your Life" is my favorite recording of all time, it's what made me want to actually listen to the group. Further, it’s why I study music frankly. The song is just this great, enormous, almost esoteric slice of Latin pop groove. Fantastic call and response. I still find things about that recording that just makes me smile and go crazy when it comes on.

When I began getting into women's studies, I remember Spice Girls were called "fast food feminism", but for me they were some of my first women empowerment teachers. Do you believe that the Spice Girls really effected third wavers in their empowerment thought with their "Girl Power!" rallying cry?

I think that feminism means different things to different people. Prior to the Spice Girls, you had strong women in music and you have them now. You have to make it (feminism) be what it needs to be for you (as the girl/woman), but own it and work it. I think that the Spice Girls just happened to be the zeitgeist in the moment who had the global stage to espouse that, which is not a bad thing. But I like that the Spice Girls showed that you could be multi-faceted, you could be traditionally vampy / sexy, you didn’t have to be White, you could be a tomboy --- it was a range of personality tones. In that respect, I do think the Spice Girls stood out because they were, and still are, themselves. If you continued to follow them, you got to see them keep "Girl Power" in action, through their mistakes and victories, and that's a testament to the philosophy of "Girl Power" in the real world.

Wonderfully stated. It also seemed that when Beyonce did her whole ‘I am a feminist’ roll-out, people acted like that type of stance had never happened before in pop music, when it’s been going on for decades. In this sense, do you feel that pop culture feeds a healthy intro to a societal issue such as women issues? Or is it the reverse? Or were the Spice Girls the exception to the rule?

In regard to Mrs. Carter, like the Spice Girls before her, she just happens to have the global stage at this moment. I personally think that is great, especially for women of color, because it makes them aware of the notion of feminism. They then can take that and make it what it needs to be for them, because I do think as African-Americans, we tell women to not think for themselves and make it out as if feminism is white female construct. It is not. So it is good that Beyonce challenges that by being independent and being married equally, the ideas aren't mutually exclusive to me and shouldn't be to others. Back to society at hand, I think that, again, these things are an ebb and flow sort of situation. The Spice Girls thumbed their nose to the idea that women could not really have a female voice in a fun, but intelligent way. It is about being consistent in what you believe and if you do that, then when people look back over your life or history, they can see you put your money where your mouth was. The Spice Girls have, as I stated in the last response, always lived as women in control of their lives. So, they've always been feminists, keeping female issues in the public eye, even if that eye roved topically.

I read a few weeks back that L.A. Reid (CEO of Epic Records and famed record producer) said that Fifth Harmony was the ‘biggest girl group on the planet’, but that statement’s pretty fragile since they didn’t have the competition the Spice Girls had in their prime, not to mention, like you said in your Blogcritics article ("G-Force With A Zoom: The Spice Girls Legacy At 20"), their music is ‘nondescript’. What do you think about the lack of girl groups today?

First, L.A. Reid, while I respect that at one point he was a decent musician and a partially tolerable music industry expert, has become a bit a carnival barker latching onto whatever product he can sell. Fifth Harmony may surprise us, but currently the music Fifth Harmony is throwing out there is lacking musicality. No punch, no bite, no zap. They look good, they sound good, but they're interchangeable. I’d say after the Spice Girls, the girl group medium just took a dive; Destiny's Child had some strong singles, but their internal friction kept any real chemistry from forming with them to subsequently create music that felt authentic. Authentic as in created by separate individuals coming together with a vision to create music that really grips you. Again, this is just my opinion. There are so many great women groupings in music that stretch past any one era or genre, the best of them had a form of internal chemistry to create music that could unite and supercharge people. The Spice Girls, thankfully, were one of these groups. I think it (the lack of girl groups) could turn around, but it just depends on if these women today are bold enough to be themselves and smart enough to sell themselves without losing their integrity.

Would people be receptive to an act like the Spice Girls in 2016? Or are we too entrenched in making brands and not music these days? 

I doubt the Spice Girls would make it today because individuality is not something that is really embraced, but again, that may be the right terrain to change it around. That was the cultural landscape in Britain moreso and they completely reset the game there. Hindsight tends to make us look at formerly perilous situations in a much softer light. But I have to say, we are really living in the dark ages when it comes to the pop genre, there is not too much on either side of the Atlantic that really is doing anything.

What is the one thing you want readers to come away with this book? 

I want them to see that the Spice Girls have created a rich body of music worth rediscovering.

And final question…are you more Sporty? Posh? Baby? Ginger? Or Scary? 

I love them all, I could never pick just one! :-)

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+ 'Record Redux: Spice Girls' can be purchased in hardcover/softcover via Amazon; list price is $27. 50. Digital downloads can be purchased via Selz; list price $13.50. 

+ For further information about the 'Record Redux: Spice Girls' and the Record Redux series, visit its storefront via Facebook

+ Quentin Harrison is a freelance writer and music critic based in Atlanta, Georgia. You can see more of his work via his blog, The QH Blend, or follow him on Twitter.
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