Year in Music 2019

Melanie C On How '90s Nostalgia Fueled the Spice Girls' Comeback

Mel C
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Mel C

It was only last year that Charli XCX and Anne-Marie wrote love letters to Y2K-era pop with songs titled “1999” and “2002,” respectively. But in 2019, the period’s biggest names came back to claim their era: The Backstreet Boys scored their first No. 1 album in 19 years with January’s DNA, *NSYNC (sans Justin Timberlake) reunited during Ariana Grande’s weekend-one headlining Coachella set in April, and the Spice Girls gave everyone what they really, really wanted when they embarked on a sold-out U.K./Ireland stadium tour in May. Melanie C -- who, following her girl group’s reunion, is turning her focus to her solo career with new single “High Heels” -- looks back on the year.

Could you feel nostalgia for late-1990s/early-2000s pop culture in the air this year?

Yeah! I think these things go in cycles, especially with fashion. My daughter’s 10, and she’s a big Urban Outfitters fan. I walked in there last summer and was like, “Oh, my God, they raided my loft!” It was very much on our minds when [the Spice Girls] finally got our shit together and agreed to do some shows.

The show felt timely, though, especially with the video intro that declared how Spice World welcomes “all ages gender identities, sexual orientations, races, countries of origin, religions & beliefs.”

We felt like the political aspect was really important. We did feel like we had a bit of a duty to put a smile on people’s faces, especially here in the U.K., where everyone is so over Brexit. And I know in America things are really though. We’re really conscious of how fucking depressing it is for everybody. It felt like it was time to have a bit of fun, even if it was only for one night -- just escape your problems and party like you were 12 years old again.

On your reunion tour, some of the new arrangements of old songs weren’t actually new at all: They were classic David Morales remixes from the ’90s. How much inspiration did you draw from the archives?

A lot -- because of the nostalgic feel we wanted to create, but also because the ’90s are influencing so much at the moment. I’ve been doing a bit of DJ’ing the last couple of years, and this weekend, I played the Diplo remix of Niall Horan’s “Nice to Meet Ya,” which is so ’90s with those house-y pianos. You’re taking something really authentic from the ’90s, but it has real resonance with young people.

Unlike the group’s 2007-08 tour, the new setlist didn’t include any members’ solo material.

We were really honest about what we felt people wanted to see. There’s this really famous Instagram photo that Adele put up of her [childhood] bedroom, which is like a shrine to the Spice Girls. So many people had that bedroom, and we wanted to let people feel like they were back there, like a scrapbook of their childhood. That also helped us with the song choices. I actually fell in love with the whole catalog again. I’d forgotten how great the songs were -- our sound, our lyrics, the messages that were in these songs. There are so many strong-minded women out there in lots of industries, and I'd like to think the Spice Girls had a little bit to do with that.

At the height of the group’s success, a lot of critics were really dismissive of your Girl Power ethos. But there are a lot of worthy messages in your catalog -- about setting your own boundaries in relationships, not following the crowd and asking people to respect your time.

It wasn’t part of the plan when we started. We wanted to make music, to get on stage, to be famous -- all the things you expect when you grow up in England wanting to be a pop star. But it was because of our experiences and the sexism we encountered in the industry that we began to realize there was something important for us to address. There is so much talk about the topic, but women in the media are very often portrayed as not supporting each other. We were told girl bands don't sell records. We were told we couldn't be on the cover of magazines because only boy bands sell magazines. We thought, “We need to be a girl band for girls -- we need to change this.” I suppose it kind of gave us a focus.

Did you find yourself reconnecting with old songs on this tour in ways you didn’t expect?

The biggest one for all of us girls was “Holler,” because it was from later in the Spice Girls’ career [on 2000’s Forever]. There weren’t many songs that got a modern twist, but that one did. It just felt really fresh -- it had fierce choreography, we had such incredible dancers. That one felt like a real moment of slickness, which with the Spice Girls is quite rare. My love for that song grew during these shows.

It's not too late to put the remix out as a Christmas single...

We should, shouldn't we?

Spice Girls songs were often joyfully over the top. Is that goofiness a defining trait of pop from that era?

It was so important to the Spice Girls because it made us relatable. We are pretty normal girls at heart. We took pride in our imperfections. I think that’s missing today, especially with the Instagram generation, where kids have these apps that make them look perfect. We celebrate making mistakes. Some of the most fun moments of the Spice Girls are when Geri [Horner, aka Ginger Spice] goes wrong! It was really important for us to be polished in the times when that was our intention, but at other times it was good to be silly. 

At the final show of the tour, Geri apologized for the abrupt way she quit the group in 1998. Did this tour help you see your younger self in a new light?

One hundred percent. Through the years, we’ve often talked about getting back together, and part of me was nervous because it would mean revisiting things that were quite painful. But now we’re a little bit older, and being a mum as well, I’m in a different phase in my life. I just feel more and more proud of everything we've achieved. When you have success as a young person in the industry, you’re so overworked, you’re in survival mode. I don’t think you ever have time to fully appreciate what you’re doing. It’s cathartic to go back and celebrate all the success that we’ve had. It’s strange how long it took for me to feel brave enough.

From looking at your social media, it seems like you've been really touched by the reaction to your new single, "High Heels." What made this release so special?

It just feels so positive. When you’ve been in music for as long as I have, you get to the point where you learn that having expectations is quite a dangerous thing. [Laughs.] So you have none! But the song is kind of documenting what a great year we've had [with Sink the Pink, the U.K. nightlife collective she toured with and collaborated with on the song]. It felt like there was a lot of love for the song even before it was released. Playing a brand new song that nobody has heard is pretty terrifying, but it good such a good reaction everywhere we went.

Is that a good indication of the new music you're working on for 2020?

Yeah! I’m still continuing down that electronic avenue and working with a lot of new artists, writers and producers who have brought something really fresh to my work. I’d say “High Heels” is probably the most frivolous -- it’s a really fun track. Maybe the songs will be a bit more serious at times. But there will definitely some more bangers on the album. I've done so much touring this year, it's good to be home and in your own bed every night. But I'm really busy in the studio working on loads of new stuff, and I'll be eager to get back out on the road again.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of Billboard.

2019 Billboard Year in Music