Released: 16th December 1996
Writers: Spice Girls / Richard “Biff” Stannard / Matthew Rowe
Peak position: #1
Chart run: 1-1-1-6-11-18-18-17-19-24-27-30-33-44-31-27-34-48-61-X-54-56-63-75
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 6-5-5-4-5-7-8-8-10-11-13-15-23-26-28-30-33-39-45-45-46-46-44-49
There was no doubt whatsoever that the Spice Girls would claim the Christmas #1 single in 1996. But the group certainly didn’t rest on their (festive) laurels, and there’s a very good reason why 2 Become 1 is their biggest-selling and best-known ballad.
After landing their second #1 single with Say You’ll Be There, the Spice Girls released their debut album – Spice – on the 4th of November 1996. It debuted atop the chart and remained there almost uninterrupted until the end of January 1997 (a run broken only by Robson & Jerome for two weeks). By then, it had already sold around two million copies; ‘Spice Mania’ was rapidly gathering steam. Such was the certainty of 2 Become 1 becoming the Spice Girls’ third #1 that the track was pushed back from its original release date (December 9th) to allow the charity single Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – released to honour the victims of the Dunblane school massacre – an unchallenged route to the top spot (and it wasn’t just to save face; 2 Become 1 would’ve massively outsold it).
The track was co-written by the Spice Girls with Matt Rowe and Richard “Biff” Stannard while the group was still under – although not formally contracted to – Heart Management. It’s among several songs (including Wannabe) created during early recording sessions that gave the Spice Girls assurance in the direction they wanted to pursue. After leaving their management armed with masters of the material they’d been working on, some of the tracks went on to form the foundation of the Spice album. 2 Become 1 is alleged to have had a particularly special meaning to Geri Halliwell due to her closeness with Matt Rowe, which was expressed through the first verse they worked on together.
Although the song remained largely the same for its release as a single, one notable change was made to the second verse, which initially featured Geri singing: “Any deal that we endeavour, boys and girls feel good together”. Few – if any – would’ve predicted the immediacy and enormity of the group’s impact; nonetheless, it’s a line that didn’t fit their mantra of inclusivity. Thus, it changed to: “Once again if we endeavour, love will bring us back together” and was now performed by Victoria Beckham (Geri allegedly struggled with the key, which is somewhat apparent). Although the album was never reissued to amend the track, it’s telling that the 25th-anniversary edition – Spice25 – used the single edit rather than the original version, while no such exception was made for Mama or Who Do You Think You Are.
While working on 2 Become 1, the Spice Girls consciously decided that if they were going to do a slushy ballad – which this undoubtedly is – it had to have something important to say. And so, the message of practising safe sex when consummating a relationship was formulated, which forms one of the main hooks of the song (“Be a little bit wiser, baby, put it on, put it on…”). In songwriting terms, it’s very well-crafted. For fans too young to fully comprehend the lyrics, 2 Become 1 is nebulous enough to avoid excluding, patronising or prompting any awkward questions for parents. For those who did understand the subtext, there’s no measurable statistic about whether it affected behaviour. Even so, it’s not unreasonable to think that for fans at an impressionable age, this song – and the Spice Girls themselves – may have contributed to shaping their understanding of empowerment, shared decision-making and consent in relationships.
Besides a narrative through-line that could be universally appreciated, 2 Become 1 is also a perfect summation of the (many) things Spice did so well musically. The vocal dynamic of the group had been quickly established, and a ballad allowed some of their individual qualities to shine. There’s a familiarity and disarming softness in Melanie C’s voice as she opens the first verse: “Candle light and soul forever, a dream of you and me together, say you believe it, say you believe it”, while the gravelly soul of Melanie B’s: “Free your mind of doubt and danger, be for real, don’t be a stranger, we can achieve it, we can achieve it” is almost unrecognisable from her spirited contributions to Wannabe and Say You’ll Be There.
However, it’s Emma Bunton who emerges as the biggest revelation during the pre-choruses. She’s very much the embodiment of the song, particularly in terms of her Baby Spice persona. There’s an almost ethereal purity to her voice as she innocently, yet alluringly beckons: “Come a little bit closer, baby…” with harmonies from Melanie B (“Get it on, get it on”) adding a degree of firm, womanly maturity to emphasise the importance of the message around safe sex. Emma is further positioned at the heart of 2 Become 1 as she delivers the title refrain leading into the chorus: “‘Cos tonight is the night, when two become one”,which conveys what the song is about. It was little surprise, then, that this is the song she chose to perform as part of the promotion for her Free Me album and even re-recorded as a duet with Robbie Williams on 2019’s My Happy Place. The Spice Girls were undoubtedly defined in some ways by the media, most notably in the nicknames given to them by Top Of The Pops Magazine. But the track’s composition predates all that, demonstrating how much the group and their co-writers/producers fully understood how the material would work.
Yet, it’s not just the group’s presence that gives 2 Become 1 its identity; so does the music. Instrumental sections filled with tender guitar melodies and a swirling string accompaniment are laden with personality to set the tone effectively. None of them was trimmed or removed for the radio edit, either, such is their place as a cornerstone of the track. There’s no attempt whatsoever to play things cool; the heavily romanticised production wraps mawkishly around the chorus: “I need some love like I never needed love before (wanna make love to ya, baby), I had a little love, now I’m back for more (wanna make love to ya, baby), set your spirit free, it’s the only way to be” filling the song with sentimentality. The Spice Girls’ penchant for Disney-esque balladry wasn’t always regarded positively. Still, here, they resolutely captured the essence of the moment in which they existed. 2 Become 1 is, of course, suitably schmaltzy for the festive season but also in broader terms of the group spearheading a re-emergence in teen bubblegum pop, which this is a perfect example of.
A cover of Sleigh Ride was included as a B-side to add an extra lick of festive appeal to the single. It diverts – rather drastically – from the version popularised by The Ronettes with a spoken verse where the Spice Girls converse spontaneously: “Remember to go to sleep on Christmas Eve otherwise Santa (he won’t come). Or stay up the whole night. No! You can’t do that ‘cos Father Christmas won’t come then, you’ve gotta go to sleep”. It’s not a particularly essential addition to their back catalogue, but Victoria’s outburst of: “Father Christmas doesn’t exist now!” and the group’s subsequent attempts to backpedal (“Shhhhhh! He does Vicki. Yes, he does. What are you talking about? You can’t say that. Vicki, that’s terrible to say”) capture – in a very raw sense – their chaotically unique appeal. What other pop act could have Melanie B matter-of-factly stating: “I know you might not get what you want, but you’re gonna get a hit in the face if you don’t shut up” before breaking into knowing mirth and gotten away with it?
A Spanish version of 2 Become 1 – Seremos 1 los 2 – was also included as a B-side to the American single (as well as later pressings of Spice album in Spain, Chile, Colombia and Mexico). It’s based on the original version without Victoria’s revised verse, but otherwise, the vocal arrangement stays the same. The track is almost entirely translated except for the: “Wanna make love to ya baby” line, which, presumably, does not have a Spanish equivalent or wouldn’t fit the melody. Seremos 1 los 2 may be little more than a one-off curio (none of the group’s other material received the same treatment). Still, it’s an impressive effort considering Geri was the only fluent Spanish speaker and demonstrates that global ambition for the Spice Girls was there from the start.
The music video for 2 Become 1, though set in New York, was filmed in a London studio. Using mid-‘90s green screen to achieve that effect sounds rife with the potential to look naff, but it turned out well because there’s never any real pretence that the Spice Girls are actually there. They move in real-time (or are occasionally slowed down) while everything else – whether a cityscape background, the traffic at a crosswalk or skaters on an ice rink – flashes by rapidly. Leaning into the superficiality means the studio elements are seamlessly incorporated, and the fashion (puffa jackets and long coats) ensures a suitably wintry feeling. Artistic flourishes, such as on-screen symbols and even a deer wandering through the street (filmed in the same studio) at the end, provide an extra layer of style to the video. Sensibly, perhaps even necessarily, scenes of physical (fully clothed) closeness between couples are portrayed using extras, which avoids sexualising the Spice Girls and maintains their appeal to the broadest possible audience.
Although 2 Become 1 claiming the Christmas #1 spot may have been a foregone conclusion, the Spice Girls were still, at this point, riding the crest of a wave that just kept getting bigger and bigger. The track earned them their biggest-ever week of sales – selling 429,000 copies to debut at #1 – and ended 1996 as the 10th best-selling single (730,000 copies) after a fortnight. 2 Become 1 remained at #1 for three weeks in total and was also the 35th highest-selling single of 1997 with a further 350,000 copies. It spent 23 weeks in the top 75 and, in pure sales, ended as the 19th best-selling single of the ‘90s. Overall, 2 Become 1 is the Spice Girls’ second biggest hit – behind Wannabe and ahead of Say You’ll Be There – with combined sales of 1.25 million copies. There is certainly an argument that the group could’ve released anything at this point and achieved much the same result in terms of reaching #1. However, this is an example of that momentum being combined with a(nother) brilliant song.
Because everything about 2 Become 1 is so synonymous with Christmas in the UK, it seems bizarre to think of the song being a hit at any other time of the year. And certainly not in the summer. But that’s precisely what happened in America, where the Spice Girls debuted with Wannabe at the start of 1997. The delayed rollout of the campaign meant 2 Become 1 made its first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 in August of 1997 and peaked at #4 the following month. Although propelled by a physical release, the track picked up substantial airplay across Adult Contemporary, Mainstream and Rhythmic formats. It was the final single to be lifted from Spice in America as the group’s second album – Spiceworld – received a simultaneous worldwide launch. Not that the quick turnaround harmed sales of their debut, which sold more than 23 million copies worldwide.
It’s sometimes easy to forget from the sheer volume of merchandise and endorsements which followed in 1997 that while ‘Spice Mania’ would reach unprecedented levels of commerciality (leading to two further consecutive Christmas #1s with Too Much and Goodbye), there was a moment before that when all the hype was spun out of the Spice Girls and their music. 2 Become 1 is probably the last single where they were ‘just’ a pop group, which does make it that little bit more special in hindsight.