If it's any consolation to Hanson, who saw their popularity plummet this year when they returned with more guitars and less hair, at least they're not the Spice Girls. Four years after splashing girl power and flashing flesh all over the charts, the very mention of the onetime Brit sensations elicits either indifference or outright hostility. More so than Hanson, they've become the first victims of the teen boom backlash. (And were the boos that greeted 'N Sync's national anthem at World Series Game 3 a hint of their own impending backlash?) Case in point: Two years ago, I took my 10-year-old niece to see the Spice Girls in concert, and not even a lengthy rain delay and the absence of Geri Halliwell dampened her enthusiasm for their fairly tacky, if energetic, show. But this summer, when I asked the now 12-year-old if she was still listening to their records, she crinkled up her nose and said no, adding, ''They're kinda...cheesy.''
Apparently even the Spice Girls feel the same way. After a hiatus of solo projects, marriages, babies, divorces, and enough tabloid reports for a six hour ''Behind the Music,'' the four remaining Spice Girls are ready for their comeback close up on Forever. They've ditched their Posh-Baby-Scary-Sporty aliases for their given names, and they've recruited heavy hitting producers like Rodney Jerkins and the duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to help them play catch up with contemporary R&B.
As if guided by focus groups, tracks like ''Wasting My Time'' and ''Let Love Lead the Way'' could be any urban radio girl group. Every genre cliché, from homogenized harmonies to delicately plucked stringed instruments to male rapper interjections, is securely in place. The music is so tasteful, restrained, and assembly line proficient that it makes early singles like ''Say You'll Be There'' sound like the rawest punk rock.
Coming across as Destiny's Mothers, the Spice Girls may find themselves with a few more hits. But in the process of trading their old insouciance for an adult remodeling, they sacrificed their personality. It was always a stretch to call them thundering talents, but they did return a sense of trashy, stardom loving fizz to the pop scene right when we needed it. Without that sparkle, they're just another interchangeable group of pop wannabes.
The voices of the two Melanies, B and C, are occasionally distinguishable, and a dab of their old naughtiness emerges in a track like ''If You Wanna Have Some Fun'' (in which they brag that they're ''gonna keep you up all night''). But the ultrapolite tease of the generic single ''Holler'' tells the whole story: Sporty -- er, Melanie C -- sings lines like ''Come and let me take you to my fantasy room/ You're gonna like it there, and all the things that I do'' with little spunk or energy. ''Forever'' is all work and little play.
The banality of ''Forever'' is especially conspicuous in light of the offshoot singles and albums the Girls have been releasing during the last 18 months. This summer, Victoria Beckham, the former Posh, added her voice to the U.K. single ''Out of Your Mind'' by the garage techno duo the True Steppers. Even if the result isn't any sort of club classic -- its zigzagging tempos never quite cohere -- Beckham's barking dominatrix cameos at least reveal a different side of her personality. One of the track's remixes, the ''10 Degrees Below Vs. X.Men Vocal Mix,'' is much better, transforming the song into a gliding dance number.
Melanie C's 1999 solo album, ''Northern Star'' -- best remembered for a misguided cover photo that sought to recast her as a grimy British riot grrrl -- was an instant stiff in the U.S. (The same fate befell ex Spice Halliwell's garish ''Schizophonic.'') Yet two of ''Northern Star'''s nondescript cuts, ''I Turn to You'' and ''Never Be the Same Again,'' have been resurrected on the dance charts and in clubs, thanks to spiffy remixes that make them spring to life. Besides, we always suspected Mel C had the best voice of the bunch, didn't we?
Even more striking is Melanie B's ''Hot,'' the solo album by the onetime Scary Spice that's currently available in the U.K. but won't be officially released in the States until next spring. Jerkins, Jam, and Lewis are once again aboard, but the results are friskier, both musically and lyrically, than anything on ''Forever.'' More on ''Hot'' when it's released here, but for the moment let's just say that from its flesh baring cover to its harder beats and Teddy Riley helmed tunes like ''Pack Your S---,'' it's a taste of the Spice the Girls once had.