When the Spice Girls served up the single “2 Become 1” 25 years ago, it arrived in time to get its hooks in the holidays. The smooth ballad delivered a dose of sonic sensuality perfect for fueling fireside romance on long winter nights. The fact it connects to Christmas may seem a slender thread, but it strings hearts together in a way not often mentioned during the holidays.
Over in the United Kingdom, any song charting number one the week of Christmas becomes associated with the season. As such, keeping track of which tunes hit the top spot is, for many Brits, a holiday pastime. One so popular people even bet on the winner. James Gillespie of the Official UK Charts Company once observed, “more records are sold in the couple of weeks coming up to Christmas than in any other weeks during the year.” That makes grabbing the Yuletide number-one a prestigious honor, and in 1996, the Spice girls secured that distinction when their single “2 Become 1” sold 450,000 copies.
Those who wannabe technical might not consider the ballad a Christmas song per se. However, that begs consideration of what exactly constitutes an Xmas tune. East 17, a British boy band, secured number-one in 1994 with “Stay Another Day” which some consider a “perennial Christmas ballad,” even though the song is about suicide. What it comes down to, more than anything, is association.
“Hard Candy Christmas” from the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas isn’t lyrically about Giftmas at all, but once Dolly Parton sang it on a Christmas special, it became a holiday regular. Dean Martin crooning “Winter Wonderland” seems to be more about a couple with a snowman fetish than anything feliz navidad. Meanwhile, the holiday classic “Let It Snow” is a fantastic celebration of meteorological phenomena, but the word Christmas is nowhere to be heard. Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” is a more recent addition to the holiday roster, which, especially when covered by others, has become connected to the season despite having nothing to do with Xmas.
Once the public consciousness connects a song with Christmas that’s what it’ll always be a part of. For better or worse, it guarantees the tune’s presence around the end of the year. Here for a few weeks then gone eleven months, although, that said, music which isn’t explicitly about Christmas is better off. It can come around off season. Listening to “Jingle Bells” in April will summon a few sidewise stares, but “2 Become 1” is just another pop ballad.
It’s been twenty-five years since the Spice Girls sparked a girl power themed British invasion. Composed of five fabulous women — Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell, Mel B, Victoria Beckham, and Melanie Chisholm — the pop group skyrocketed to global fame with the single “Wannabe,” a catchy earworm which burrowed in July of ’96. Unapologetically effusive, it ladled one familiar pop spoonful after another. Lyrically “Wannabe” offered the bubblegum bop people expect from dance music, while also providing an empowering message about not just giving yourself away — love, even if it only lasts one night, can have boundaries.
The Spice Girls appeared everywhere over the next several months, thanks in no small part to the video for “Wannabe”. The one-take music video not only introduced the ladies to the world, but video stations could not stop playing it. When their debut album Spice dropped in November of 1996, the Spice Girls went platinum to no one’s surprise. The single “Say You’ll Be There” followed shortly after “Wannabe” but with “2 Become 1” the group entered new territory.
Steering away from the uptempo thump of another dance bop, the Spice Girls opted for the slow rhythm of R&B lite. Co-written with the help of Matthew Rowe and Richard Stannard, “2 Become 1” sought to tell a love story that included responsible condom use. As Mel B said, “It’s basically a love song, but it’s got a message — make sure you put a condom on if you’re going to have sex.”
Lyrically, the prophylactic angle might slip by some listeners. Lines like, “Be a little bit wiser, baby. Put it on. Put it on. Put it on,” may not seem as obvious as Christina Aguilera singing, “you gotta rub me the right way.” Still, subtlety may have helped avoid any real controversy. However, the Spice Girls safe sex advocacy was a bit ahead of its time.
After the pill arrived in 1965, condom use declined until HIV caused a spike in sales. Yet, safe sex remains a tricky sell since so many “see condoms as robbing [them] of pleasure, stealing… intimacy, and dulling the intensity of sexuality.” The point, though, is the Spice Girls included a safe sex message without it feeling forced. “2 Become 1” makes condom use sound like respecting one’s partner rather than depriving anyone of pleasure.
This is a silky long song riding a soft pulse at 72 beats per minute. Stripped down to essentials, “2 Become 1” uses drums, strings, and guitar alongside an electronic keyboard. Each instrument produces gentle waves of sound touching the ear tenderly, yet every element is noticeably distinct. Melanie Chisolm’s mezzo-soprano expertly opens the vista on this windswept ballad, while the rest of the five-piece carry it along effortlessly. This is a chill urban-pop piece perfect for candlelit evenings as well as romcom karaoke declarations of love.
Interestingly, two versions of the song were recorded and released. Largely the same tune, lyrics and singers were switched depending on single or album edition. On the single, Victoria Beckham took over performing a line Geri Halliwell couldn’t quite hit, though Halliwell’s take remains on the album version. More importantly, the lyric, “Any deal that we endeavor/Boys and girls feel good together,” got altered on the single. Emma Bunton admitted the group felt that wording would alienate their LGBTQ fans. So, the Spice Girls changed the line to, “Once again if we endeavor/Love will bring us back together.” The alteration not only made the song more inclusive but managed to spawn a little mystery since the album and single have different lines.
It says a lot when a song inspires other artists to do a cover. If nothing else, the quality of a tune shines through when, no matter the stylization, its core remains intact. Consider, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy covering “2 Become 1” as a jazz instrumental on the album The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music. It adds instrumental depth without losing the original flavor. Sitti Navarro manages to make the song a bit more contemplative on her album My Bossa Nova. Even Emma Bunton returned to the tune, turning it into a duet with Robbie Williams on her fourth solo outing My Happy Place. Her revisit transmutes the song into a sensual folk-pop ballad revealing just how moving “2 Become 1” can be.
As mentioned earlier, there are those who would question the validity of calling this a Christmas song. “2 Become 1” only technically falls into the category because of a UK quirk for year ending chart toppers. However, keep in mind the unfortunate modern tradition of beating up on Mariah Carey for vocally birthing “All I Want for Christmas.” Perhaps it’s not so bad some holiday music doesn’t fit the Christmas-y mold. If nothing else, it broadens the spectrum. Playlist possibilities don’t have to be limited to incessant sleigh bells, deformed reindeer, and family friendly fair.
“2 Become 1” may not have changed pop music. However, a lot of the holidays is focused on family gatherings. The idea of being with loved ones doesn’t often highlight the romantic side of the season, let alone the sexual. It’s nice to know there’s a Christmas tune to spice up the mood.