Released: 10th May 1999
Writers: Geri Halliwell / Andy Watkins / Paul Wilson
Peak position: #2
Chart run: 2-5-10-11-17-27-36-48-50-55-57-73-X-X-60-72
Look At Me was released almost a year (344 days, to be precise) after Geri Halliwell left the Spice Girls. That’s not long, considering she quit without a record deal or indeed any real plan of what she might do next. But in ‘90s pop music terms, it was a lifetime, and anticipation – or even just morbid curiosity – for her debut single could not have been higher.
The prospect of Geri Halliwell attempting to forge a solo career would have seemed laughable to some (yes, we all saw *that* protest sign). But she had every quality that a ‘90s pop star needed in spades. Almost. The elephant in the room was always going to be the vocals, but there were no surprises here; they were as they ever had been. Geri’s strength was her personality. Although the Spice Girls very much functioned as a singular unit – albeit with five distinct personas – there was little doubt that she was the ringleader of the vivacious “girl power” whirlwind that swept the globe. Thus, Geri’s credentials as a solo act were never really in question. Whether she could maintain the bravado without four friends egging her on was, however, yet to be seen.
Sensibly, Geri didn’t venture too far from the Spice Girls’ infrastructure when leaving the group. Several months after announcing her departure, she signed a solo deal with EMI, the parent company of her former label, Virgin Records. She then set about working on her debut album with Absolute, the production team who had helped create Spice and Spiceworld. There was a certain degree of irony here, for although Geri Halliwell had walked out on the Spice Girls, she was the only one who fully embraced their sound for her solo career. And this was her trump card; while her former bandmates used their respective solo ventures to work with new writers and producers, Geri stuck to what she knew best. And more importantly, what she knew would work. Schizophonic lifted the Spice Girls’ sound in its purest form and used it as a template.
Look At Me wasn’t necessarily the best representation of the album, but it was one of those songs that had to happen at this point. It could only have been a lead single; such was the statement attached to it. It wasn’t necessarily an obvious way to pitch Geri Halliwell as a solo act; the song is a little bit pop, a little bit jazz and a whole lot theatrical. Musically, it’s vaguely reminiscent of The Lady Is A Vamp from Spiceworld, albeit less pastiche and more pointed. Familiarity greatly benefits Look At Me, but at the time it was quite a hard sell to radio because it sounded like nothing else in the charts.
The song sidesteps the obvious issue of whether Geri’s vocals could fill a whole song by adopting the strategic tactic of sing-speaking the verses. And it works because up until the chorus, Look At Me attempts to construct little more than a stream of consciousness; witty observations on life and love that are quintessentially Geri Halliwell: “Queer thinking, straight talking, what you see ain’t what you are getting, fast loving, slow moving, no rhythm, but I’m grooving”. The introduction of more mature themes, such as sexual identity, into her music, would be a significant evolution and allowed Geri to express herself in a way she would never have been able to as a Spice Girl. But despite such profundity, the track never takes itself seriously.
That’s not to say Look At Me isn’t daring. The middle of the song moves in an incredibly brave direction and is probably the sole reason that radio fumbled over the track. There’s a dramatic breakdown, with orchestral horns and projected vocals. It’s here that Geri Halliwell bares her soul, in what feels like an aural recreation of that fateful moment of clarity when the penny dropped so many months earlier: “Sometimes I don’t recognise my own face, I look inside my eyes and find disgrace”. As risky a deviation as this mid-section is, it feels right that such exposition is treated so significantly. It shows that Geri’s departure from the Spice Girls was as traumatic for her as it was the fans, and here she still seems to be carrying the weight of it on her shoulders.
However, as Look At Me transitions back into itself, it seems Geri has finally exorcised her demons because the final minute or so is where she sounds her freest. The vocals are bolder, looser (“I’m your fanta-see-yee”) and it’s here that the track finally delivers what had perhaps been missing up until that point: fun. When Look At Me shrugs off the expectations heaped upon it as a debut single and stops trying so hard, underneath lies precisely the sort of exhilarating pop song that it wanted to be.
There’s no doubt that Geri had a lot to say as an artist, and much of it came out in the music video for Look At Me. It’s brimming with ideas – arguably a few too many – and went deliberately against the grain by opting for a (mostly) black and white aesthetic. The central theme surrounds Geri breaking out of her Ginger Spice persona, and she does that both directly and indirectly. At the start of the video, she plays a series of characters (virgin, sister, vamp and bitch), but this is much more than an opportunity to play dress-up. Female pop stars were – and still are – continually battling with labels, and only ever seemed to be allowed one identity, which was subject to intense scrutiny. Here, Geri was asserting that as an artist and as a person, she was much more than that. And to make her point, she killed off the label that had been hanging over her head for the last three years. The centrepiece of the video – and probably the bit that should have been the focus of the whole thing – is the funeral of Ginger Spice. A hearse is pulled through the streets as mourners grieve before the coffin is carried solemnly by pallbearers. For a pop act, it’s pretty dark; but Spice Girls fans were now no strangers to the feeling of loss when something good comes to a sudden end. Everyone went into this a little older, and perhaps a little more jaded. But wait! At the last moment, the union jack peels back to reveal Geri Halliwell – or is that Ginger Spice – alive, well and in full technicolour having, quite literally, the last laugh.
The video then transforms into a dance sequence. It seems evident that this part of the video should have featured the now-resurrected Geri in a spectacular, colourful finale. Instead, it returns to black-and-white and features her dressed in more modest attire. A suggestion, perhaps, that this is the real Geri Halliwell; a little bit of everything else featured so far in the narrative. The staging of the choreography is impressively theatrical at times, although it perhaps like it’s trying a little too hard to prove a point about her capability as a solo act. There was no need; subsequent singles were ably demonstrated that more effectively by just allowing Geri to be herself. The video closes with one final parting shot as she emerges from a swimming pool to the caption “Geri’s back!” as her bum (censored, of course) comes into shot. And that’s perhaps the key message to take away from the whole thing. At the heart of the music video is that very same message, but it’s not always projected clearly, particularly concerning the is-she-or-isn’t-she death of Ginger Spice. As Geri herself would later reflect, a lot of the subtext was misunderstood or overlooked, which is a shame because the overall presentation of the video is cinematic and struck a very different tone to anything we’d seen before.
For a campaign that was so carefully thought-out, there was one major oversight. Taking on Boyzone in the chart was bold since five of the group’s last nine singles had reached #1. But Geri Halliwell was nothing if not ambitious so that in itself was not a problem. However, releasing Look At Me on cassette and a single CD (priced at £3.99) put her at a significant disadvantage. Taking the minimal approach to formatting was a peculiar decision considering there was certainly enough material recorded to have released the song across two CDs. It was a strategy that most pop acts – including the Spice Girls – benefitted from, and ‘simple’ had never really factored into Geri Halliwell’s approach to pop music. Now was not the time to start, and ultimately, it’s what cost her a #1 single. Boyzone, with their two CDs (both priced at £1.99) sold 142,901 copies to debut at #1 with You Needed Me. Meanwhile, Look At Me peaked at #2, with sales of 142,153.
Yet, while those 748 copies may well have tormented Geri, her perception that Look At Me had somehow failed might well have been the best outcome for the single. Because the remainder of the Schizophonic campaign was flawlessly executed. She ditched the high concept music videos and started to play the pop game like a seasoned pro. Look At Me was – in reality – far from a disaster. But Geri Halliwell wasn’t here to be a runner-up, and nor would she be again for quite some time.