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The Boston Phoenix Spice Grrrl

Sporty gets 'spikey'

By Matt Ashare

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  Given her Spiceworld moniker, Melanie C (for "Chisholm") was perfectly positioned to emerge as a Jane Fonda for the '90s. It's a plausible leap, from the karate kicks and aerobicizing dance routines she seems to favor in Spice Girls videos to The Sporty Spice Workout DVD. It could have been marketed with an album of isotonically appropriate workout tunes, where each tune is just a few BPMs faster than the one before and the whole thing is capped off by a warm-down ballad. And there would have been room in there for a line of SportyGear activewear, one of those roundtable infomercials where Mel and her Spice pals rap about the importance of staying fit, and maybe even a cookbook or a line of frozen Spiceworld TV dinners.

But somewhere along the line, my second-favorite Spice -- Scary's my numero uno -- got sidetracked and decided that she was "into rock 'n' roll," as she's quoted in the Virgin press release for her solo debut, Northern Star. By which she seems to mean Madonna, Hole, and Garbage, as well as Blur, whose footballer-approved "Song #2" every self-respecting sports fan became intimately familiar when its "woo-hoo" became a favorite of highlight-films editors everywhere. Still, it's Robbie Williams, the former British teeny-popper who scored a big hit and kudos from the critics in England last with a remarkably convincing rock/pop solo album, who's the model for Northern Star. Because it was Williams who proved, well before Ricky Martin came along, that there could be artistic life after Tiger Beat.

So rather than taking the path of least resistance down the righteous road of the physically fit, Sporty got an image makeover of sorts. The cover shot and five-panel fashion spread inside the CD find a conspicuously bra-less Sporty sporting short hair, tats, and CK-style unbuttoned bluejeans and looking quite a bit like an Elastica extra. It's a tribute to just how big a story the 40-million-unit-selling Spice Girls are in England that all it took was a haircut for the press to start grasping for new monikers like "Punky Spice" and the somewhat more accurate "Spikey Spice." But there does appear to at least be an undercurrent of cheeky humor involved in the hyping of Mel's spiking: New Musical Express, for example, had a bit of fun with Chisholm by subjecting her to a friendly game of alterna-rock trivial pursuit. And even if she didn't score particularly well (she thought that Live Through This was Hole's debut CD, couldn't name the singer of the Cardigans, and didn't know what band Shirley Manson was in before Garbage), she handled the challenge a lot better than George W. Bush did when he was put in a similar position a few weeks back.

Which is fitting, because, along with the top-notch team of tasteful advisers/producers (Madonna/Blur's William Orbit, Chili Peppers/Beastie Boys' Rick Rubin, Black Grape's Danny Saber, and Madonna collaborators Marius De Vries and Rick Nowels) with which she's staffed her rock-and-roll campaign, it's Mel's winning, laid-back attitude that saves Northern Star from becoming a brutal parody of alterna-rock. A good thing, because as a line like "I couldn't live without my phone/But you don't even have a home" (from her touching meditation on the plight of the homeless, "If That Were Me") indicates, Chisholm isn't about to finesse her way into the rock-sophisticates club with deep thoughts or a finely honed wit. No, Sporty relies on an old show-business intangible known as charisma (does anybody remember charisma?). Her likability quotient leaves Geri "The Artist Formerly Known As Ginger Spice" Halliwell, whose solo album Schizophonic (Virgin) stiffed earlier this year, in the dust -- Mel's affectations just seem so much less affected than Geri's.

As for the music on Northern Star, well, it's definitely not punk, but it does rock harder than your average Spice. With its heavily vibrato'd guitar riff, the edgy opener, "Go!", is probably meant to recall the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?", though it ends up sounding suspiciously like the Lyres' "Help You Ann," a song it's safe to say Mel's never heard. The album goes on to offer a smorgasbord of alterna-flavors, from the fleet drum 'n' bass-tinged techno-pop of "I Turn to You" to the Blurry distorted guitar and abraded vocals of "Goin' Down"; from the scratch 'n' strum folk hop of "Never Be the Same Again," with its guest rap by Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, to the dark and Garbagey guitar-driven "Ga Ga," with its S&M-lite undertones ("And it hurts/Let it hurt"); and from folky Lilith fare like "Be the One" to the fashionably Latin-inflected smooth groove of "Closer," with its Spanish guitar fills. Sporty's got all the bases covered. Of course, by the end of Northern Star, on "Feel the Sun," Mel's back to belting out some generic power-balladry, which only goes to show that you can take the girl outta the Spice, but you just can't take the Spice outta the girl.

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