Feb 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Who Do You Think You Are?” / “Mama”

Popular79 comments • 5,657 views

#762, 15th March 1997

Wdytya-ukcd The Spice Girls’ determination to get 4 out of 4 singles to Number One – breaking a long-standing record – means this package heaves with reasons to buy. Not just a double A-side, not just a Comic Relief charity record, the single came out the week before Mothering Sunday. It’s remarkable nobody had thought of this trick before – or maybe they just didn’t have the songs. “Mama” is the first Number One since St.Winifred’s School Choir to be designed as a present for an older relation – a chilling precedent, but the Spice Girls sniff out a better angle than just sap, tingeing their sentiment with a regret for past filial beastliness. That – and the pensive flute figure that breaks up the cotton-wool arrangement – make “Mama” waft past in a pleasant haze, not a cloying one.

If our putative Mum flipped her present over, she’d find no less welcoming a track – “Who Do You Think You Are?” picks up the music of her youth and offers a bustling, aerobic take on it. The Spice Girls’ first big step into mining pop styles for pastiches, it’s an efficient, off-the-shelf version of disco: big on the horns and wah-wah, light on the glamour or romance. Established as the dominant group in British – perhaps even global – pop, and with still no viable domestic rivals, the Girls used pastiche to assert their heritage. Many of the their singles from here on constitute a tour of pop’s histories and geographies, with some album tracks – like Spiceworld’s big band workout – extending their arc even further.

Since there wasn’t a consistent modern Spice sound to delve back from, this shouldn’t have mattered: the point of the group was always the group, and the Spice Factor in their singles so far has been a matter of attitude – camaraderie, self-assertion, and good advice. On “Who Do You Think You Are?”, the group come together with force and gusto on the chorus, but the verses are the Spice Girls at their most disconnected yet, trading lines and aphorisms as if they’re in competition.

(It’s also a post-Spectator interview single, and the first verse – “The race is on to get out of the bottom” etc – is the most Thatcher’s-children their records ever get. Though it’s best not to make too much of that: the second verse is the nemesis to the first’s hubris, and besides, when Mel B sings “Giving is good, as long as you’re getting”, there’s a cackle in her voice which suggests she’s not talking about the social contract.)

On their first singles, force of will, fizz, and inspired musical choices have deflected any criticism of the somewhat kit-built production. But “Who Do You Think You Are?” is consciously generic disco, which means no inspired or even unusual choices, so the stiffness and cheapness of the sounds have nowhere to hide. It’s a single with the dancefloor imperative of disco, but none of its style or cheek. The mix of vocal personalities, and the drive of the chorus, keep things compelling – and the wistful “Mama” is “Who Do You Think You Are”’s perfect foil – but this is as close as they’ve come to a mis-step.



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  1. 51
    Ed on 18 Feb 2014 #

    @48 That’s a very good point. As you say, there does seem to be a greater prevalence of pro-parent attitudes among black musicians – Junior, En Vogue, 2Pac – and the Spice Girls are working in that tradition.

    Outkast even wrote one of their best songs about Andre 3000’s girlfriend’s mum. And Kanye West has some lines in ‘Never Let Me Down’ addressed to his girlfriend’s dad, promising to take care of her. I wonder where she is now?

  2. 52
    Ed on 18 Feb 2014 #

    @48 again: Hypothesis: generalising from the Bo Diddley / Yardbirds case, tropes that for black musicians are about economics and society will for white musicians be about sex.

    Certainly the Oedipal themes identified in a few 60s and 70s songs already on this thread would seem to bear that out.

  3. 53
    Nanaya on 18 Feb 2014 #

    Paul Simon’s “Mother & Child Reunion”, anyone? And “That Was Your Mother”. He seems to mention mothers quite a bit.

  4. 54
    Doctor Casino on 18 Feb 2014 #

    TADOW: “casino ridiculously wrong about america not taking to girl groups but i will grant there haven’t been many in this pure pop mode. ”

    That was the only point I was actually trying to make, though! Girl groups of various kinds have always been huge in America, but not THIS kind. How exactly to pin down the “this” is hard without devolving into “mostly white membership, more than 2-3 members, a lot of them singing all at the same time, and they don’t play instruments” but this is obviously also kind of dicey. I stick with my “too much treble” above but I think your “European” is also basically correct. The list of UK number ones never looks more alien to me than when it approaches being a continuous rotation of boy and girl *groups* of this type, almost none of whom had hits in the US. And yeah, since you capitalize Mariah, I point you to the statistic I threw out above re: her US/UK success. There’s definitely something different! Whether it’s the African-American audience, the lower profile of club culture, or something else, I couldn’t say.

    You are right, though, about the halfhearted attempt to cast them as a “new British invasion.” That fizzled pretty hard…

  5. 55
    Baztech. on 18 Feb 2014 #

    Surely a great example of a mum song is The Divine Comedy’s “Mother Dear”; albeit with a tinge of tongue-in-cheek. But it always feels like you could wrap up a CD with just that song as a mothers day present and your mum would be reasonably chuffed…

  6. 56
    lonepilgrim on 19 Feb 2014 #

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Neil Reid’s ‘Mother of Mine’ from 1971. The subsequent album by the 12 year old singer reached Number 1 in the UK and has been given a perceptive and sympathetic response from Punctum here

  7. 57
    taDOW on 19 Feb 2014 #

    @48 see the prominent love and respect given to their mothers by biggie and tupac (tupac in particular scoring one of his biggest pop hits w/ ‘dear mama’). when eminem hit one of the things that made him stand out as particularly outrageous (and also worked as a marker of his whiteness, to an extent having the ability to afford some bratty rebellion towards yr mother is a mark of privilege) was his disrespect towards his mom.

  8. 58
    mapman132 on 19 Feb 2014 #

    #54 “Fizzled pretty hard” is an understatement. After one very big outlier later this year, there would be no more UK artists atop the Hot 100 until 2006. This is definitely worth a full discussion, but in a later thread….

  9. 59
    Paulito on 22 Feb 2014 #

    @ 21 etc: An entirely different (though no less sentimental) “Mama” hit the top 5 for Dave Berry in 1966. Definitely a pro-mum number, though very much rooted in the MOR tradition rather than rock n’roll culture (Berry was at home in both, although in his best work he finds a very distinctive cabaret-tinged niche in between these two worlds).

  10. 60
    hardtogethits on 22 Feb 2014 #

    In full support of #48 and others above, I’m surprised no-one (afaics) has pointed out that the word “Mama” is an emblem of the appropriation of the attitudes etc. I can’t believe that any of the 5 Spice Girls would routinely have addressed their respective mothers as “Mama”, as they do here. As such, I question the song’s sincerity, whilst at the same time questioning whether I’m entitled to do so. I would have thought their mums would have liked to have been called “mum”, as I bet they nearly always were in the preceding years. But I suppose it’s up to the 5 women in question, isn’t it? Or isn’t it? This is a public display of emotion, not a personal homage.

    “Mama always told me save yourself” is effective. I wonder whether “My mum always told me” or “Me mam always told me” would be equally so.

    See also The Word Girl. Kinda, sorta.

  11. 61
    Cumbrian on 22 Feb 2014 #

    Or, they just needed a two syllable word for Mum, so that it would scan properly and didn’t want to use Mother.

  12. 62
    lonepilgrim on 22 Feb 2014 #

    two days after ‘Who do you think you are?’ hit Number 1, John Major announced the General Election of 1997. A coincidence?

  13. 63
    hardtogethits on 23 Feb 2014 #

    So why not “Mummy”* (or “Mum, dear” or “Dear Mum”).

    * see Supertramp (1979), Wham! (1983).

  14. 64
    Tom on 23 Feb 2014 #

    My suspicion is it’s the two syllable thing and they wanted something which was trans-Atlantically applicable – “Mama” ducks the Mum/Mom problem.

  15. 65
    Paulito on 24 Feb 2014 #

    As for WDYTYA, I have to agree with those who have commented on its disco-by-rote arrangement, cheap sound (esp. that tinny Tesco Value “horn section”) and structural awkwardness – that leap from the bridge to the (weak) chorus is none too smooth.

    But the song would probably get away with all the above if it weren’t for Geri Halliwell; as Cumbrian said earlier, it was a mistake to let her take the first lead on this or any other track. She stinks the place out, going off-key in the very first line and employing a series of overwrought inflexions in an attempt to mask her vocal limitations and sound ‘sassy’ (“as long as you’re GETT-TENNNGG”). Her performance here prefigures bunnied horrors from her solo career and amply demonstrates that she, not Posh, had the worst singing voice of the five.

  16. 66
    hardtogethits on 24 Feb 2014 #

    There have been at least 10 original* UK Top 10 hits, by UK artists, including 3 number ones, using the word “Mama” in the title**. Having lived in the UK for a few decades, I can’t recall anyone I’ve never known anyone*** using the term “Mama”, either to address their mother or as part of an interjection – so I conclude it’s clearly been imported into the language of UK Pop, but not into everyday speech.

    By contrast, there haven’t been ANY Top 10 hits by UK Acts to use the words “Mum”, “Mam” or “Mummy” in the title – but pretty much everyone I’ve ever known has referred to their Mum by one of the three. “Mother”**** afaik has just been in the title of just one original* UK top hit by a UK artist.

    Why is this? It’s because, as you say Tom, even the most British of pop often yearns to be Trans-atlantically acceptable. Maybe that’s fair enough, but I find it pretty objectionable in the case of “Mama I love you, Mama I care”. If I said that to my Mum, my Papa would tell her not to speak to her like that.

    *ie not cover versions
    ** as others have pointed out, there’s plenty more in lyrics, rather than titles.
    *** no, it’s not a small sample, cheeky, and I went to very multi-cultural schools prior to age 11.
    **** which appears very occasionally in interjections and infrequently as a form of address.

  17. 67
    flahr on 24 Feb 2014 #

    “Mama, just killed a man…”

  18. 68
    Lazarus on 26 Feb 2014 #

    ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is unique, I’m sure in name-checking three future number ones in its lyrics: Mama, Mamma Mia and Figaro!

  19. 69
    Cumbrian on 26 Feb 2014 #

    Finally, the reason why Orbital’s “Satan” didn’t get to #1. They should have named it “Beelzebub”.

  20. 70
    Pink champale on 26 Feb 2014 #

    LADY MADONNA people! Though I guess a tribute to mothers in the abstract not the particular (and of course Paul lost his very young)

  21. 71
    Patrick Mexico on 5 Mar 2014 #

    There are no words for things like this..


  22. 72
    enitharmon on 5 Mar 2014 #

    You’re really going to hate this lot, Patrick! http://www.coconutters.co.uk/index.htm

    In action here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9A9nYz4h0A

  23. 73
    Patrick Mexico on 5 Mar 2014 #

    Haha. I don’t, I know these lot well. Only 20 miles down the road from Clitheroe.. this MUST be the origin of Papa Lazaru et al!

  24. 74
    Miss Halliwell on 18 Mar 2014 #

    “Giving is good, as long as you’re getting” was sung by Geri, not Mel B ;)

  25. 75
    Kendo on 1 Jun 2014 #

    “Mama” is too treacly and twee in my book. And its insistent, anodyne aural assault reminds me of the brainwashed ants in The Once And Future King approvingly droning about “that Mammy-Mammy-Mammy song” for being so “Done”. As for the A-side, that’s just bland and unmemorable. I never really liked the Spices and this is about as good as they ever got. 2 (3, if I’m generous).

  26. 76
    Girl with Curious Hair on 21 Nov 2016 #

    For what it’s worth, “mama” is a fairly common word in various European languages. It’s used in my native language, Bosnian, and it crops up in French (as “maman”) and German too. So if they did use that particular word just for the marketing potential, it may have been a more global concern than just chasing the US market.

  27. 77

    anecdata: oddly enough my hackney-raised niece (now 9, but younger when this habit began) has taken to calling her mum “mama” — certainly not picked up from any of her immediate family (who all say “mum”), but she goes to a very multicultural school…

  28. 78
    Mark M on 21 Nov 2016 #

    Re60/76: Geri’s mother is Spanish so she could well have referred to her mother as ‘mamá’ – which however isn’t pronounced in the way that it is in the song…

  29. 79
    Ed on 22 Nov 2016 #

    Just discovered – late, I know – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ spectacular ‘Shop Around’, possibly the ur-text of Mom/Mum Pop.


    Like many of Robinson’s greatest songs, the lyric is particularly brilliant in the way it plays with the idea that he’s an unreliable narrator. Are we meant to believe that his mum really told him to “play the field for as long as you can”? Maybe, maybe not.

    (FWIW, the lyrics sites transcribe it “My mama told me…”)

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