Self-acceptance has become very fashionable lately. In pop, particularly for women, empowerment is currency. Lizzo, who won the 2020 Grammys for best traditional R&B and pop solo performances, has made her name feeling “good as hell” and espousing body positivity online. Gen Z superstar Billie Eilish is identifiable by her head-to-toe baggy clothing – a kind of armour against internet letches – if not her sarcastic vocals. In this new landscape, pop stars in their thirties and forties do not have to pretend to be hung up on the youthful insecurities that so often find expression in pop music. And so despite its overt maturity, and the unavoidable fact that it was created by somebody who found fame in the Spice Girls – the girlband that will forever embody the culture of the 1990s – Melanie C’s eponymous eighth album feels contemporary.
In the chorus of lead single and opener “Who I Am”, Melanie – AKA Sporty Spice – sings “I’ve got nothing left to hide/I’m comfortable with what’s inside” in a familiar and generic British-American pop accent (miles from her native Lancashire) and warm, inviting, always slightly gravelly tone. The song is catchy, camp dance-pop, and gives an insight into her mood. Over the past few years, she has experienced the end of a ten-year relationship (the subject of her 2016 album Version of Me), a public Spice Girls spat over a reunion and now, it seems, a reclaiming of her identity. There is nothing complicated or particularly poetic about the language of self-discovery that runs through the album – “I was lost in the ruins/Of who I thought I should be”, “They said I was too old… but I’m on fire” – but rather than tipping into cliché, this immediacy feels genuine.
Melanie C proves that personal growth doesn’t need to be boring: there is a buoyant energy to this record. In mid-May of this year, she was bobbing around behind DJ decks in her Hampstead penthouse on YouTube, playing a lockdown-friendly set for the Scott Mills Show on Radio 1. She mixed Lizzo’s aforementioned “Good As Hell” with “Spice Up Your Life”, and buzzed up and down in her trackies to Stormzy’s “Vossi Bop”. She has now been DJing for two years, having learned in her early forties, and the party vibe persists on the album, with collaborations with Nadia Rose and Shura. Melanie C is firm and compact at just 35 minutes long and carried by its fist-punching tracks inspired by disco and Ibiza house (it’s apparent that Madonna is her biggest influence). “Blame It On Me” immediately invokes Dua Lipa, with sparse, husky vocals over a smooth, glossy musical backdrop and aerobic beat. There are melodic devices that indicate this is more thoughtful than insubstantial Spotify pop designed to get millions of streams: the bridge deploys a repeating ascending scale before deliberately inverting it to drop into the chorus.
In other places, though, there is a clash. It can feel like Melanie C’s emotional maturity exceeds, or jars with, its own musical expression. Slower, more balladic tracks such as “Escape” address grown-up themes – uncertainty, anxiety, letting go – but retain the sparky electronic production of higher-tempo tracks, and need more musical softness to really make impact. “Nowhere To Run” is the darkest point on the album. “In a crowd in a room you’re alone, no matter where you are,” she sings, as well as the simple and moving line: “I’m so fucking careful.” But musically the track does not have enough drama or gravitas to embody the strength of her feeling, and what could be the most powerful moment of the album ends up being filler.
Similarly, occasionally even the bouncier tracks are weighed down by the feeling of the lyrics. In “Overload”, a relaxed ska bop, Melanie sings, “I don’t wanna be your acceptable version of me,” and somehow neither the empowered lyric nor bubbly music is able to shine. It’s the same maturity that underpins the album, but pitted against this more carefree musical landscape it serves as a reminder that sometimes the thing that renders seemingly trivial pop profound is a little naivety. She is at her best on “Who I Am”, “Blame It On Me” and “Here I Am”, where her almost blasé self-confidence is mirrored by assertive musical structures that have some bite.
Melanie C is impossible not to like: she is the most down-to-earth Spice Girl; never fame-hungry, always self-effacing. This album does not break new ground, but her innate musicality is always present. More than anything, Melanie C is refreshing because it is held together musically by its confidence. Perhaps, buried somewhere in the ever-present pop-culture platitudes about self-love and growth, there is meaning, too.