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Jan 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Say You’ll Be There”

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#749, 26th October 1996

SYBT You can see why Simon Fuller and the label wanted “Say You’ll Be There” to be the Spice Girls’ launch single. It’s just as bouncy as “Wannabe”, but tighter and perhaps even catchier. It both fits into the mid-90s pop landscape and leapfrogs it – doing the plastic R&B thing Peter Andre does and Take That sometimes tried, but making the boys look laughable, with heaps more swagger and panache. It gives everybody in the group something to do – if this had been first, maybe Mel C would have been seen as more of a focal point, and Victoria less dismissed.

As well as being a brilliant record, “Say You’ll Be There” had another natural advantage for a management team of pop-savvy dudes: its theme. The scenario is a simple one – girl and boy are friends, boy wants more, girl does too but can’t be sure he’ll stick around afterwards. This is the kind of song young women in pop have often sung, from the Shirelles to Gabrielle’s “Give Me A Little More Time” earlier in ’96. It was – and may still be – a genre staple on magazine problem pages, too: should I go all the way? If you’re going to launch a girl group, a slick, on-trend update of this might seem like a solid, safe choice. As a springboard for “girl power” it’s a lot less distinctive.

But release it after said manifesto and the song comes into sharper focus from the very first line. “Last time that we had this conversation / I decided we should be friends”. Which establishes two things – this isn’t the first time lover-boy has tried it on, and it’s not ‘we’ decided: girls make their own choices. What’s changed this time? The boy is bringing “love” into it, and the song is asking – is this sincere or tactical? While it doesn’t exactly subvert its sex/commitment trade-off sub-genre, “Say You’ll Be There” still reframes it in the same terms established on “Wannabe”. Words don’t matter, whether they’re “zig-a-zig-aah” or “I love you”. Victoria gets the key line: a slightly weary “It would be better left unsaid”. Only actions count: prove it or move it.

In my memory this is the single that started to win the critics over to the Spice Girls, but a check of the facts shows “Wannabe” high on music press lists for ’96. What “Say You’ll Be There” did cement was a perception of Mel C as the most talented Spice. (Only talented one, according to grumps.) You can see why – she blasts her way through the final minute of this, shouting and taunting and diving and weaving between the other girls’ harmonies. It’s delirious and infectious and my favourite single bit of any Spice record – but it’s effective because she’s ad-libbing her way around a tight five-woman performance, not showboating. (A nice, coincidental riposte to Boyzone – this is how you do dynamic group singing, lads). It’s also a really necessary performance: the chorus on its own risks feeling slightly supine and Mel’s joyful interventions are a sharp reminder that this song celebrates romance on the girl’s terms.

There’s one other moment that jumps out at me from “Say You’ll Be There”. As we’ll see, their arrangements are rarely the best parts of a Spice Girls record. Here though, as with “Wannabe”, they match the Girls’ raucous delight in owning a pop moment. I love almost everything about the music on “Say You’ll Be There” – from the sinuous, ear-nagging high keyboard lines lifted from West Coast hip-hop to the little skritches of turntablism at the verse line-endings (incongruous scratching will be a signature sound of late-90s pop). Sadly, the S-Funk era promised here won’t last, but it does deliver one great incongruous thrill: the blithe harmonica break dropped in after a group shout of “I want you!”. As a moment in its own right – and that’s maybe all it’s meant as – it’s just a lovely free gift in an already terrific song. In the wider scheme of British pop jaunty harmonica breaks have a certain precedent, though. Selling millions, defying predictions, unnerving interviewers, moving like a gang, about to break America – if there’s a British group with the right to do Beatles callbacks at the end of 1996, it’s not the boys with the Union Jack guitars.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    leveret on 20 Jan 2014 #

    As a 16 year old indie-loving schoolboy at this time, I was teetering on the brink of developing a loathing of the Spice Girls after Wannabe, but this track was enough to placate me. It still sounds pretty good as an R&B-flavoured pop tune, especially the (almost) Dre-like synths, but as others have noted the production is a bit cheap-sounding. Still preferrable to the mega-saturated contemporary sound though. A solid (7).

    This was probably the high point of my ability to tolerate the Spice Girls. After this, media over-exposure took its toll. Although it was nice in a way to have a big pop act with a bit of personality, it soon became a bit of overbearing.

  2. 52
    Rory on 20 Jan 2014 #

    As I mentioned, I had only listened to this once until today, but the tune ran through my head off and on throughout the weekend (in a good way), which is a sign that it’s firmly better than a 5 for me. Listening to it without watching the video, so that I barely register who’s singing what, it works well. The harmonica break reads as a teensy bit 1985-Eurythmics to me, but that’s okay. I suspect I’m going to end up doing the same as I did with Kylie, and pick up the Spice Girls albums many years after the fact to hear everything I missed.

    Referring to our handy marks-out-of-10 guidlines: definitely enjoyable; no problem hearing it regularly; might want to own it. Highlight of the charts at the time? I dunno, there’s some stiff competition in 1996. So it’s on the border of 6 and 7. I agree with Tom about the twinkly effect, though, which I never like much; it always feels as if the producers are trying to wave fairydust over the track to convince us that the singers are magical pixies. Echoes of Disney princesses and the pinkification of everything. Six it is, then.

    (Shiny new gravatar! Sadly I have no picture of myself covered in gravy, as the word would seem to require.)

  3. 53
    Gavin Wright on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Re: “the sinuous, ear-nagging high keyboard lines lifted from West Coast hip-hop”, I’m glad you mentioned this – I heard ‘SYBT’ for the first time in ages late last year (at a club where most of the music was ’80s/90s r&b) and my immediate reaction to the intro was “Which Dr. Dre song is this?” I’d never made that connection before but it seems obvious now.

    I have to say this is probably the only Spice Girls single I’ve ever really liked. A (7) from me.

  4. 54
    thefatgit on 20 Jan 2014 #

    I’m sure the producers of this, as well as Dr. Dre were aware of “The Funky Worm”. Rather than sample it, use the same keyboard setting (I believe there’s somebody among the comments crew who is something of an expert in determining which synth/organ made which sound) to get your funk on, so to speak.

  5. 55
    weej on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Agreed entirely with JLucas at #15 – I always thought Emma had the best voice and we’ll be seeing how great it can be on their next number one. Disagree with same @ #13 though – Victoria’s part on here just sounds like she’s been protooled into complete anonymity. As for Mel C, I can admire her voice in terms of range, but it just seems too shrill and unsubtle to really love, and I have a suspicion that much of the praise she received was from people who didn’t like The Spice Girls.

    This is my least favourite single from the first album – it’s not bad, there’s just nothing that really grabs me about it. Still worth a 6 though.

  6. 56
    Will on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Re 51: Interesting you mention that. I think for most non-out and out pop-lovers this is the Spice single they like best. Certainly it is around that time that friends of mine that loathed Wannabe came out and said ‘actually they’re not bad, are they?’ or words to that effect. As you say, at this point over-exposure hadn’t yet sullied their appeal.

    Myself, I loved SYBT; a very relaxed-sounding record that doesn’t wear its influences too heavily (as some of their later Number Ones had a tendency to). For me, an easy 8.

  7. 57
    iconoclast on 20 Jan 2014 #

    Next to its predecessor, SYBT is solider and – necessarily, in a very U-rated way – funkier. It’s also less frenetic, more prosaic, and lacks charm. Parts of it are quite good; the bridge (“Any fool…”), thanks to the absence of the annoying keyboards which disfigure the rest of the arrangement, is nice, and the harmonica solo is the undoubted highpoint. The strange two bars of fast chanting seem to have come from a different song entirely, however, and at the end it just drifts mechanically off into an uninspired fade. Ultimately it’s not worth much more than a ho-hum and a resigned sigh as impressionable preadolescent girls up and down the country are once again successfully bilked of their pocket money. Moreover, any claims to “girl power” in the verses – already questionable next to the not-at-all-fetishistic-honestly costumes in the video – are rendered null and void by the reaffirmation of traditional patriarchial values in the chorus: all he has to do is be there, and she swears she’ll give him “everything – all that joy can bring”. SIX.

  8. 58
    iconoclast on 20 Jan 2014 #

    ouch – double post!

  9. 59
    tm on 21 Jan 2014 #

    When girl pop singers flaunt their charms, they’re never trying to sell records to the boys are they? I remember, around about this time asking rhetorically ‘who the hell is buying Robson and Jerome records?’ To which a female friend replied ‘Maybe all the girls who think they’re really fit’ My reply I think was ‘I think the Spice Girls are fit but it wouldn’t make me buy their shit music’ (I was heavily into my shit Britrock at the time…oh dear)

    Is it a fair assumption that when boybands get their pecs out, they’re enticing their female (and gay male) fan base but generally for girl bands, it’s more that they have to be sexy to be seen as cool by the girls who are going to buy their stuff? I don’t know any man who ever bought a record because he fancied the singer but it’s a generally culturally accepted criterion for young women. Or is it more that men (again, very sweeping statement, I realise) are more likely to cite some other reason (“Polly Harvey has a great voice”, “Louise Werner is a great songwriter” etc) to save face?

    When a teenage boy has a pop crush, he’s far less likely to buy or listen to the music. Is that a reasonable assumption and if so, why should it be so?

  10. 60
    Tim Byron on 21 Jan 2014 #

    My recollection of my feelings about ‘Say You’ll Be There’ at the time was that it was a bit of a disappointment after ‘Wannabe’ – it was missing some of the punk/spunk/sense of fun of that, and instead was a more run of the mill pop song. It wasn’t terrible, I thought at the time, but it was a bit out-of-date R&B-wise, and it seemed like a safe song, whereas there was something anarchic-seeming about ‘Wannabe’ (I think ‘Wannabe’ as the first single was the right move – it probably got the Spices noticed by a wider demographic than ‘Say You’ll Be There’ would have, whereas ‘Say You’ll Be There’ maybe was the song that solidified the fandom).

    Nowadays, I’ve warmed to ‘Say You’ll Be There’ – things like the Dr Dre and Stevie Wonder bits show me that the production team knew what they were doing, had a good sense of pop history, etc (I’m still actually surprised that it’s possible to play harmonica like that and not actually be Stevie Wonder). It’s catchy. So I guess it’s a 6-7 for me now?

  11. 61
    Tom on 21 Jan 2014 #

    #59 Gosh, lots of possible points to make here, some of which are certainly better made by someone with a stronger grounding in feminist ideas than me. Still, here’s my basic understanding:

    Re. presentation of girl pop stars as sexy: the people buying the records may or may not be men but there are an awful lot of men involved in the decisions that get the records in front of those people. Who do I sign? Which records do I stock? Which do I promote? Which do I play? All of these gates are kept well before a band gets in front of the public to any meaningful degree.

    Plus “buying the records” may have little to do with it – we’re not yet at the point where the consumption of images and videos happens on an unbundled, individual level – if you encounter a pop video you’re encountering it on a video channel or bundled show like TOTP, and the audiences for those are assumed to be mixed-gender. So the question then becomes “are men more likely to switch off a woman performer than women are a man?” – I don’t know, but a look at the history of male reactions to female representation in other media suggests they might be. So you should probably look at the presentation of women in pop videos (at least pre-YouTube) in terms of male eyeballs not just female sales.

    All that said, the Spice Girls made the repeated point in early interviews that they aren’t models, they’re relatively ordinary looking women (and certainly among the men I knew (me included, unfortunately) they were continually judged on looks as well as anything else – it’s just about possible men don’t buy pop records because of how the singer looks but this lofty impartiality certainly doesn’t carry over into ANY OTHER aspect of how men act towards or speak about women in the public eye).

    The Spice Girls’ POV would be that the presentation wasn’t for men in the first place – being high-kicking action girls in a Russ Meyer B-Movie pastiche is awesome fun, quite as much as drinking cocktails underwater or dressing up as a dandy highwayman. It’s not about looking good, it’s about feeling good.

    As for why boys don’t buy records purely on looks – assuming they don’t! – I can think of a couple of reasons. One is that they don’t need to – boys grow up in a world where they are constantly being presented with (and sold to by) images of attractive women, where part of being the hero is getting the girl, etc. The other is that the kind of fantasies boybands promote – not just sex but devotion, commitment, etc. – aren’t ones boys are encouraged to have. Socially mainstream boy fantasies generally involve power, independence, exertion, etc. Which plenty of music also fuels – in ways that are just as ‘unrealistic’ but often more critically acceptable.

  12. 62
    Steve Mannion on 21 Jan 2014 #

    On a related note this is around the time I think I had my first crushes on a woman primarily known as a DJ/producer (DJ Rap) and a woman based on the sound of her voice alone (India who’d worked with Masters At Work for a few years but hadn’t been particularly visible until their Nu-Yorican Soul project emerged around this time). DJ Rap had a foray into a more pop sound herself but it wasn’t a patch on her ardkore anthem ‘Spiritual Aura’.

  13. 63
    tm on 21 Jan 2014 #

    #61 I’m not suggesting men or even most men are buying records from a position of lofty impartiality. When I said No man I know ever bought a record because he fancied the singer, I meant it literally and honestly, not as Clarksonesque rhetoric. I can accept that, going to Comprehensive school and then the male-dominated Imperial College, my sphere of friends may be blokier than average. Perhaps it’s truer to say I can’t imagine any man I know ADMITTING to buying a record because they fancied the singer. Actually ammend that again …any straight man… I’ve got gay mates who I can recall noting attraction as a factor. To be honest, what I’m probably describing is the dreaded Rockism, the need for a certain type of music fan, generally male and straight, to define themselves as A Person Of Impeccable Taste, refusing to admit that such trivialities as attraction or sexuality could influence their listening. I’m certainly not celebrating this mode of listening though obviously, the 15 year old me would and did. The fact that I chose the lamest corporate bloke-indie to express this I think neatly underscores how wrong I was and within even a couple of years I’d be embarrassed at how wrong-headed I once was (while holding equally wrong headed but different opinions.

  14. 64
    tm on 21 Jan 2014 #

    Also, I’d never suggest girls or women buy records purely on looks but it’s taken as a given that it’s a factor in how girls and women relate to pop but I honestly think you’d have a hard time getting men to admit to it (generally speaking I would agree that this is because of the reasons you describe above) and as I’ve said, I realise these are sweeping statements and it’s of limited use to say ‘men do this, women do that’.

  15. 65
    Cumbrian on 21 Jan 2014 #

    I could be well off base here but isn’t there a pretty long tradition of males buying music based on the appearance of the performers – just that it’s usually men that they’re buying not women? Examples – The Who dress as mods, mods recognise The Who as belonging to their tribe, go out and buy records. Similar with The Jam. Baggy as a genre is named after the clothes that the performers wore (isn’t it?) and the image of The Roses and The Mondays seemed to be just as important as the music to some listeners. The clothes, haircuts and image of Blur and Oasis were also important to some listeners.

    So image is likely important for some male listeners, just as it is for some female listeners. Is the point then that image is dealt with in different ways/imposed on female performers in different ways due to the male-centric set up of the music business?

  16. 66
    tm on 21 Jan 2014 #

    I’d definitely agree with that: I was just about to say it’s not that looks overall are irrelevant to men but that most wouldn’t admit to buying a record because they fancied the singer. I doubt Oasis, The Who, The Jam etc would have sold nearly so many records had they been pot bellied guys in stained t-shirts.

    Being Cool is Important (capital I) in pop but I reiterate my original point that there’s an imbalance in that it’s still (in 1996 and now) easier for men to do cool without having to do sexy. Not that sexy is bad (As Nigel Tufnell would point out…) but obviously it should be a choice, for performers and audiences and as Charlotte Church complained in her keynote speech it’s often just the industry’s default mode to sell a female artist whether she wants it or not.

    That said, I’m inclined to agree with Tom that no one was pushing the Spice Girls around and the high kicks and catsuits where as likely their idea as The Man paying for the video.

  17. 67
    tm on 21 Jan 2014 #

    And even by 1996 there WERE plenty of women doing cool without having to do sexy (at least not sexy on the industry’s terms)

  18. 68
    Kat but logged out innit on 22 Jan 2014 #

    #67 Everything comes back to Skunk Anansie in the end.

  19. 69
    tm on 22 Jan 2014 #

    Had they hit by 1996? I remember 97 as the year people got sick of soppy bawling britrock and everything went a bit punky but then I remembered Fat Of The Land as 97 too so it’s possible I was playing catch up as I emerged from my shameful britrock torpor.

  20. 70
    Tom on 22 Jan 2014 #

    FOTL is 97! The gap between Firestarter and its LP release was enormous – Breathe is basically the start of the actual album campaign.

  21. 71
    Alfred on 23 Jan 2014 #

    This is at least as good as “Wannabe” and might’ve been as huge in the States if released first; it sounds like En Vogue in 1996 w/out the harmonica solo.

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