Sometimes you just want to plunge a dagger right into your own heart. Your mind tells you to be sensible and not overly emotional, but that blood-pumping organ intervenes. This dilemma is particularly true when it comes to pop: You try to ignore the latest piece of unmitigated, irredeemable audio junk food, yet you continue to listen anyway. And in the last few years, that scenario has not been more true than it's been with the Spice Girls.
In theory, no one except those between the ages of 8 and 15 (and a bunch of lonely guys) should care about the Spice Girls. They're brazen and blatantly contrived, and in order to have become as world renowned as they are, they've probably sold a number of close relatives into slavery. They spout cheeky comments in public and pick their noses for interviewers. Their first album, Spice, shamelessly bundled together rap, power ballads, and bubblegum pop. Now, a mere nine months after the U.S. release of Spice, they're back in our faces with a follow-up, Spiceworld, as well as an upcoming authorized biography and a feature film. You've already seen the Pepsi ad, right?
Don't worry if you haven't. Only a group with such Anglo-Saxon chutzpah as the Spice Girls would include a corporate jingle on their new album. ''Move Over'' as the complete, unedited, 2-minute 46-second version is called turns out to be not a specific product plug but a laughably vague call for universal togetherness. (''Let me tell you 'bout a thing/Gotta put it to the test'' um, what ''thing,'' precisely?) But then the song's burbling beat kicks in, the Girls' combined voices dig into the ''move over, yeah/ don't do it over, yeah'' refrain with the help of a metallic power chord, and suddenly the heart takes over, and you find yourself lying in front of the stereo speakers bowing before the great goddesses of Spice.
''Move Over'' is hardly the only audacious moment on Spiceworld. The album opens with ''Spice Up Your Life,'' a ha-cha-cha slice of tropical-boat-cruise frivolity, and it ends with ''Lady Is a Vamp,'' a hokey bit of '20s-flapper goofiness in which they equate themselves with ''girl power'' proponents of the past, like Jackie O. and Grease-era Olivia Newton-John. ''Never Give Up on the Good Times'' flagrantly recycles every cliché from every disco anthem. And the 10 tracks barely total 40 minutes, astoundingly skimpy for a contemporary pop album.
Anyone with a brain can see that Spiceworld is superficiality incarnate. But anyone with a heart will also see that it's very goofiness, its very crassness, makes it not only a better album than Spice, but the true essence d'Spice experience. Beyond the undeniable singles ''Wannabe'' and ''Say You'll Be There,'' their first disc was tasteless fare, as tepid as a day-old cup of Earl Grey tea. The music barely reflected the Girls' image and personae which Spiceworld does by dint of better songs, the Girls' stronger vocal personalities, and the insolence of the whole package itself.
''Stop,'' for instance, is a delicious re-creation of Motown-era bop packed with skipping-down-the-street good vibrations. ''Too Much'' is their sultry slow jam, while ''Denying'' resurrects the whistling keyboard hook that ran through ''Say You'll Be There'' but places it in a darker, moodier setting. As Posh, Scary, and the gang are always ready to admit, none of them are powerful (or even distinguishable) singers, but the quintet's harmony singing has a ramshackle charm: Just listen to the way their voices glide into the chorus of the free-your-mind ditty ''Do It.''
When they're not spouting positivity-rally lines like ''Hey now, look around/Pick yourself up off the ground,'' the Girls even make good on their ''girl power'' shtick. It's not simply a matter of cowriting their own songs (along with the same team of male producers who stewarded Spice). ''Saturday Night Divas,'' for example, isn't as musically zesty as its title implies, but the lyrics tell a different tale. The song is aimed at an ex who is ''kiss and telling on a superstar'' (a commonplace occurrence for the Girls, as the British tabloids are ever eager to print recollections of former boyfriends). Each Spice steps up and offers advice to another about dealing with the cad: ''You'd better wise up/to mind games he's playing,'' sings Mel B, followed by Emma's ''Keep your head up high/Don't you know you are the superfly.'' Trading verses in this and other songs, they transform the numbers into audio pajama parties full of sisterly advice, support, and warnings. Part heart, part mind, all cotton candy, Spiceworld may just be the answer to one of life's most vexing quandaries. B+