Released: 14th December 1998
Writers: Spice Girls / Richard Stannard / Matt Rowe
Peak position: #1
Chart run: 1-2-2-5-12-20-27-31-44-42-57-48-42-37-61-68-71-74-49-34-63
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 11-11-11-37-65-58-61-79-87-95-99
Geri Halliwell’s departure from the Spice Girls in the summer of 1998 had rocked the (Spice)world to its very core, and all eyes were watching to see how they would respond. What emerged was a tribute not just to the end of a friendship, but the end of the group as we knew it.
By the time they released Goodbye, the Spice Girls had become masters of storytelling and crafting music that soundtracked the real-life phenomenon in which they existed. Sometimes it was intentional (Spice Up Your Life), and at other times coincidental (Viva Forever), but nowhere was it more pronounced than this single. Adults may have seen this as history repeating itself, for it was only three years since the hysterical outpouring of grief when Robbie Williams left Take That.
But three years is a long time when you’re that age, and so for many fans of the Spice Girls, this was their first experience of loss in a way that they would not have been able to comprehend in 1995. Beyond the fact that Geri Halliwell wasn’t part of the group anymore, her leaving also introduced the younger demographic of their fanbase to the concept of almost everything – and pop acts in particular – having an expiration date. Before this, there was never a sense that things had a defined start and end; your interests would generally evolve on their own terms, and there was never really an awareness that the things you grew out of might not even exist anymore. However, the Spice Girls phenomenon came to an abrupt halt before anyone was ready for it to do so, and with it came a cautious wariness that everything has a shelf-life.
Of course, the Spice Girls were adamant that they would continue as a quartet and they had good reason to do so because the release of Goodbye presented the opportunity to score a third consecutive Christmas #1 single. Not only would they equal The Beatles’ record, but it would send a clear message – of defiance to the critics and reassurance to their fans – that things could still be the same as they were before. And in many respects, that’s precisely what Goodbye represented; the track was written – in part – before Geri left the group, but then subsequently re-worked. And while the Spice Girls maintained that this single was not about her specifically, you can tell where it transitioned from a break-up song into something much more self-referential.
Goodbye has a lot in common – thematically, at least – with their previous single Viva Forever. There is a recurring sense of a group that was increasingly burdened with the emotional toll of the complexities of adulthood, which sat in juxtaposition to the naivety and simplicity of childhood. From early songs like Naked, through to more recent material like Never Give Up On The Good Times, the Spice Girls frequently wrote using a third-person perspective and positioned themselves as commentators on the actions of an abstract ‘other’. What makes Goodbye so powerful is that the subject of the song now has an identity. They didn’t need to say it was Geri, because who else could the verse: “Just a little girl, big imagination, never letting no-one take it away; went into the world, what a revelation, she found there’s a better way, for you and me to be” possibly be about? By clinging onto a slight air of mystique – even at their most emotionally exposed – the Spice Girls allowed their fans to join them in a personal moment of mourning. Because we’d all been there since the start (or since the release of their debut single, at least) and we all definitely knew what the song was really about.
You could make a credible argument for almost every lyric of Goodbye being the most emotional or poignant. But Victoria’s middle-eight is genuinely heartbreaking: “The times when we would play about, the way we used to scream and shout, we never dreamt you’d go your own sweet way”. In just three lines, the song manages to capture the essence of the group’s journey to this painful moment. It conveys a loss of innocence which speaks not just of that which the Spice Girls were feeling, but all those so invested in them as well.
Goodbye trades on much more than sentimentality alone, though. It’s not quite an unparalleled showcase of their talent, if only because they set the bar so high in terms of quality control on their first two albums. Nevertheless, this track deserves to be up there as one of the finest examples of their work. The: “No, no, no, no-o-o-o-o” refrain is the group’s stadium-filling, lighters-in-the-air hook and an evolution on the ballads that had preceded it. Meanwhile Melanie B’s pre-chorus (and later transition into the final chorus) – which feels like a part of the song that was probably retained from the earlier drafts – is one of the most beautiful moments the group ever committed to record: “Look for the rainbow in every storm, find out for certain, love’s gonna be there for you, you’ll always be someone’s baby”. The subtly trippy backing vocals create an edge to the track that sounds slightly uncalibrated and broken, which is the perfect metaphor for Goodbye. But at its heart, this is still as glossy and Christmassy a pop ballad as you could hope for.
Because the Spice Girls had already dealt with the issue of vocal distribution to conclude the Spiceworld Tour as a four-piece, what emerges on Goodbye is a new status quo for the group, which plays to their individual strengths. Emma Bunton – who had developed an underrated maturity to her voice – leads the verses; Melanie B drives the pre-chorus with gravelly soulfulness; Victoria Beckham brings grounded stoicism to the middle-eight, and Melanie C provides a distinctive crescendo to close the chorus. There are no major surprises, but instead, a more considered regularity which is arranged around what each Spice Girl needs to do, rather than what they want to do.
The music video for Goodbye had an awful lot of expectation and focus upon it as the first to feature the revised line-up of the group – and two them (Melanie B and Victoria Beckham) now visibly pregnant. In some respects, it plays with that anticipation as each member of the group arrives separately at Mentmore Towers (the same location used for Five’s wild house party in Until The Time Is Through, released a few weeks earlier). Consequently, it’s over a minute into the video before we get our first shot of them all together. However, it was always going to be difficult to draw any long-term conclusions about the group’s image. Firstly, because although the Spice Girls were no strangers to a ballad, it isn’t the style of song most commonly associated with them. And perhaps more importantly, because Goodbye is positioned more like an epilogue to what came before than the prologue of what is to come next.
The aesthetic has a twisted fairytale feel to it, with the group wandering through a mansion where the occupants have been frozen (how festive!). It’s an exquisitely melancholic affair, with some stylish set-pieces. Although fresh off the horror of her fairy in the Viva Forever video, Emma Bunton gets shafted once again in the shots where inanimate objects rain down on each member. A whirlwind of paper surrounds Victoria Beckham, Melanie B has plates smashing around her, Melanie C is showered by the shards of a smashed chandelier and Emma is pelted by…loo roll. On that note, the ice begins to melt, and the Spice Girls rewind out of the front door.
Goodbye did go on to earn the group their third consecutive Christmas #1. Still, despite shifting 381,000 copies (their second-biggest first-week sales, eclipsed only by 2 Become 1), this was not a runaway victory. Isaac Hayes – performing as Chef from South Park – sold 372,890 copies of Chocolate Salty Balls (P.S. I Love You) to finish agonisingly close behind them. The two songs swapped positions the following week anyway, but Goodbye had done what it needed to do. It was a huge success, ending up the eighth biggest selling single of 1998 and the Spice Girls’ fifth-highest seller overall. Its impact was felt globally as well, including America where the track peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. If there had been any signs that the group’s commercial grip on the charts was weakening, then Goodbye re-affirmed that they were still the leaders of the pack. Albeit for the last time.
There is no question that Goodbye fits perfectly into the Spice Girls narrative. It’s interesting, however, that Geri Halliwell would later discuss how she felt the wheels of the machine would keep on turning whether she was there or not. Knowing the origins of the track – and the fact that the group would almost certainly have gone after that third Christmas #1 with a new single – it’s entirely possible that she was right. Goodbye may well have been released in some form even if Geri had never left. But it wouldn’t have had the same context, and that’s what makes it such a beautiful, meaningful song. This isn’t just the end of a chapter for the Spice Girls; it was the end of an era for a whole sub-generation of pop fans.