Released: 20th July 1998
Writers: Matt Rowe / Richard ‘Biff’ Stannard / Spice Girls
Peak position: #1
Chart run: 1-1-3-8-8-14-21-28-38-47-50-53-61
Coincidence is a rare event in pop music. From carefully planned marketing to exhaustive promotion, very little is left to chance. That was particularly true of the Spice Girls, perhaps more so than any other act of the time. But Viva Forever proved to be an exception to that rule; it was a single overshadowed by Geri Halliwell’s sudden departure from the group. And yet even in the face of such chaos, what transpired was a beautifully serendipitous swansong to the Spiceworld campaign. And indeed the Spice Girls as we knew them.
Viva Forever was originally pitched as a double-A side with Never Give Up On The Good Times. This would have made perfect sense as the equivalent of Mama/Who Do You Think You Are from the first album, particularly in the aftermath of Stop becoming the Spice Girls’ first single to miss the top spot. To resume their tally of #1 singles, the group would need to pull out all the stops. Something wasn’t quite right here, though; release dates for new singles were always prone to change, but this one bounced around the schedules, moving further and further back. The group had already performed Viva Forever on TV without Geri by the time she announced her departure from the Spice Girls on the 31st May 1998. As plans for the single continued to be in flux, Never Give Up On The Good Times was quietly dropped from the release, leaving Viva Forever to soldier on alone. It was a very fitting song to sit alongside this phase of the Spice Girls’ career, but it was also hugely convenient, as it doesn’t contain any solo lines from Geri (despite her being one of the primary songwriters). Anything else from Spiceworld would have minimally required some re-recording and re-editing, and time was not on the group’s side.
Promotion for Viva Forever was sporadic; dictated mainly by the fact that the 97-date Spiceworld tour was moving through Europe and into America. The group did manage a few TV performances, though; several would transpire to be pivotal moments in their narrative. The first was an infamous appearance on The National Lottery – their first as a four-piece – where the group announced: “Unfortunately Geri’s not very well tonight”, before performing Spice Up Your Life and Viva Forever. It was a clear demonstration that the Spice Girls were, by this point, a well-oiled machine that could keep functioning even when the group was a member down. Following Geri’s departure, her final (pre-recorded) performance with the group was aired on Top Of The Pops, although dressed in black and shoved at the edge of the stage, she probably could have slipped away during the track without anyone noticing. And so, in many ways, Geri’s leaving the Spice Girls was the promotion for Viva Forever given how much the song tied into the narrative of her departure.
At this point, it would be so very easy for the single to have become an overlooked by-product of all that was happening around it. And while there’s no doubt that it was a distraction, that doesn’t change the fact that Viva Forever is a brilliant song and very deserving of the success it enjoyed. Lying amidst the caricatured frivolously fun Spiceworld, this track emits a level of musicianship that the Spice Girls had rarely shown to such extent before. The instrumental composition is exquisite with a sadness-tinged flamenco guitar and dramatic strings dancing among the gravelly harmonies (yes, harmonies!), Viva Forever immediately evokes feeling, but not the sort you’d expect from a Spice Girls song. It’s mournful, and it feels really, really sad. So powerful is this opening statement that it’s a full 40 seconds before the first verse, which in ‘90s bubblegum pop music terms is almost unthinkable.
The performances on the song are in complete contrast to what we’d become accustomed to from the Spice Girls; take Emma Bunton’s opening verse and compare it to something like 2 Become 1, for example. Gone is the playful cheekiness and in its place is a vocal that feels washed out and almost disillusioned. It plays in perfectly to the narrative of the song, which finds the group on the wrong side of a fleeting yet significant romance. But even where it breaks from the usual tropes of a Spice Girls single, it retains the innate sense to craft simple but effective hooks, even if they are a little less in-your-face than usual. The: “Hasta mañana, always be mine” pre-chorus is probably the best example – and as the song progresses, it reveals itself to be one of the most striking moments. The chorus itself is epic; again, it’s momentously sad, but with a glimpse of hope at the same time: “Viva forever, I’ll be waiting, everlasting, like the sun; live forever, for the moment, ever searching for the one”.
Viva Forever is a sterling example of how good the Spice Girls could be as an ensemble piece, which is somewhat ironic given the events unfolding behind-the-scenes. Throughout the song, there’s a lot of consideration given to who does what and when; it feels like a very cohesive performance from the group as a unit, as opposed to five personalities. That said, the real stars of Viva Forever are Melanie B and Melanie C. Both give the performance of their lives on this song; Melanie B’s lower register is fundamental in setting the tone of the song and bringing it to that atmospheric, contemplative place. Meanwhile, Melanie C’s ad-libs over the final chorus are sublime. Rather than veer off and cut a new melody atop the existing one – as was often the formula – here she largely mirrors it in a different key, which is effective and further tightens the overall impression of the Spice Girls grasping and understanding themselves.
No surprise then that Viva Forever has translated into some of the group’s most beautiful live performances, particularly during their 1998 tour where Melanie C wistfully sang “Spice Girls forever” as an alternative lyric. While the song is brilliant in its own right, with Geri’s departure, it took on a new meaning, and although our brief, brilliant relationship with the Spice Girls (as they were) lasted a bit longer than one summer, it was over far too soon.
Back where I belong now, was it just a dream
Feelings unfold, they will never be sold
And the secret’s safe with me
But if the circumstances surrounding Viva Forever were worthy of a chapter in the Spice Girls story, then the music video could be a tome in itself. Animation sits just below backstage/live footage in the list of undesirable concepts for a music video, but this one is an exception because it is tremendous. It’s a stop-motion animation that took five months to bring to life, and still, more than two decades later, generates discussion and debate with its profoundly vague narrative.
The music video opens with two young friends playing near some woods and stumbling across what look like Kinder Egg capsules. Out of one pops a springy toy resembling the Kellogg’s rooster (called Cornelius “Corny” Rooster, apparently), which leads the friends deeper into the woods, where they encounter the Spice Girls as five fairies. One of the boys runs away, while the other is entranced by the fairies, who eventually lead him to a giant Rubik’s Cube. They open the cube to reveal the (unseen) contents of it; he appears delighted and responds by climbing in, accompanied by the fairies. The boy who earlier fled has been watching and returns to pick up the Rubik’s Cube, which has now started shrinking. Mournfully he walks with the Rubik’s Cube until he reaches a giant vending machine surrounded by capsules. The boy places the cube inside one and throws it up into the machine with Herculean strength, before glumly turning and walking away. Behind him, the fairies emerge from the device as the video ends.
There is most certainly an eerie moroseness around the video, and much of that is due to the animation. We’re not sure whether it was intentional, but all of the character models are a bit creepy; even the springy rooster at one point looks like it’s about to turn and maul the kids. The fairies – to their credit – manage to exhibit the caricatured personality of their real-life counterparts in a relatively short space of time. But they’re all styled in a way that leaves them looking like possessed toys. We can only presume that Emma Bunton, in particular, had upset the directors because her fairy never looks anything less than utterly terrifying.
There are countless theories about what it all means, but generally speaking, it’s framed as a metaphor of growing up. Or you could take it at face value, but it seems unlikely the creators were going to realise the Spice Girls as five villainous fairies kidnapping young kids. Our favoured narrative is one of young friends who are led (quite literally by the rooster) down a path but go in different directions (one follows the fairies, one doesn’t) and end up growing apart. At the time, the music video made absolutely no sense to us, but it now tells a tale that many of us will have experienced as we grew up. And it does so in a very abstract, yet curiously moving way. Subtlety was not a trait often associated with the Spice Girls, which is perhaps why the visual treatment for Viva Forever continues to intrigue and unsettle in equal measure. Interestingly, when the group’s music videos were remastered recently, Viva Forever received a new ending. Where previously it was just the five (or four) fairies that flew from the machine, the boy now also emerges as a fairy. It lends credence to the notion that life goes on, even if a friendship does not.
When it was finally released, Viva Forever returned the Spice Girls to #1. It was a fitting end to their imperial era as a quintet. But it was a bittersweet success; there was an air of acceptance that whatever might happen next, things would never quite be the same. In the days before social media, all we could do at that moment was rally behind the Spice Girls and show our support in the only way we knew how: to buy their music. Viva Forever thus ranks as the seventh biggest single of the group’s career, amassing 740,000 sales. That’s an impressive feat when taking into consideration the success of the parent album, and the fact that the song was mostly unchanged (save for a minute being shaved off the running time). It’s incredibly difficult to untangle Viva Forever from the events surrounding its release, and that’s without even considering its association with the ill-fated Spice Girls musical. But perhaps we shouldn’t. Almost every single released by the group ties into a particular stage of their narrative, it’s just that this is one we hoped wouldn’t arrive; at least not quite so soon.
But that shouldn’t cloud the fact that Viva Forever is easily one of the most accomplished and striking songs released by the Spice Girls. Indeed, by any standard, it’s a masterclass in how evocative and profound pop music can be.