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Feb 14

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

Popular80 comments • 6,637 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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Comments

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  1. 1
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 16 Feb 2014 #

    Mum’s the word http://t.co/bQ7rjAsn40 [Popular entry]

  2. 2
    Izzy on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Pretty much agree with this, except that Mel C’s awful, grating ‘do you think you ah-are?’s take it down to a (5). I like generic disco well enough; this’d be better slightly more generic.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 17 Feb 2014 #

    the video for WDYTYA also features a higher number of other faces apart from the Spices, which seems to embody the more generic, bland qualities of the song itself
    The presence of the band (plus their mums) in the video for Mama (along with a restrained and subtle arrangement) adds weight to what could otherwise have been a soppy piece of fluff.

  4. 4
    Chelovek na lune on 17 Feb 2014 #

    I’m afraid I pretty much agree as well: although WDYTYA is at least as much fun to dance to (if, in fact, not more so) than their earlier singles, to listen to it is a bit less rewarding; it’s much less of an event, however competent and affectionate (if unexciting) this nod back to the late 70s is.

    Is it simply that now the Girls have arrived, there is no need (perhaps also no means – certainly not ad infinitum) of making each single quite so special? Is it just that there is too much Geri on the song? Or that some lines and their singers are (in distinct contrast to ‘2 Become 1’) mismatched? – I have to agree with Izzy about that Mel C point….) We’ll see….

    “Mama”, meanwhile……sounds like a pretty good, agreeably melodious B-side, that stays just (but only just) the right side of soppiness. Again, Emma shows off what a lovely voice she has, to good effect.

    Not sure I’d go so far as to call this a misstep – but after an absolutely cracking introductory trio of singles, this was rather ordinary – ‘merely’ pretty good. There have been greater comedowns by acts who made similar initial impressions to the Spices than this; it’s still a bit early to be speaking of feet of clay, but the shoes they are wearing are certainly less magical than we had become used to. 6

  5. 5
    Billy Hicks on 17 Feb 2014 #

    ‘Mama’ is curiously one of the few Spice songs I don’t remember at all, it was ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ that stuck in my head the most and got all the Comic Relief airplay. I actually didn’t mind WDYTYA at the time, it seemed like a harmless bit of pop fun plus as a child the very idea of criticising *anything* Comic Relief-related seemed a bit blasthemous, so I briefly let my usual Spice-dislike slide. At the time I’d go as far to say it was my favourite Spice track up to that point, but now I have no desire to listen to it again.

  6. 6
    JimD on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Always wondered whether Mama’s flutes were an intentional reference to/steal from Talking Heads’ This Must Be The Place.

  7. 7
    Will on 17 Feb 2014 #

    God, I’m amazed at how positive you all are. Mama is where myself and the SGs departed. I found it positively emetic, a blatantly manipulative move to bring it out for Mothers’ Day. And WDYTYA isn’t much better. They both sounded like fourth singles off a fair-to-middling album. 4

  8. 8
    ciaran on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Mama would be a candidate for most forgotten Spice Girls hit although when you have WDYTYA to fight it out with for radio it was never a stayer

    Being heard less Mama was a bit more pleasant at the time but now sounds very boring. This doesnt suit the group at all. Not something other groups could get away with.

    In contrast to Tom I like WDYTYA. Maybe the fact that it’s been with as a constant reminder of late 1990’s nostalgia is causing a backlash. The up-tempo stuff seems to be in short supply after this. Other than a later bunny and stop from 1998 the letting-our-hair-down approach is more or less abandoned.

    3 for Mama/7 for Who Do You Think You Are

    #4 – Not that I would fully agree with the point of ‘merely good’ here but there is possibly an argument for it to be made. Someone made the point when we discussed ‘Call Me’ that Blondie werent as interesting than they were before that record as they were now’ superstars. Maybe WDYTA could be classed as the Spice Girls ‘Call Me’.

  9. 9
    Alfred on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Wow. These things had no U.S. impact.

  10. 10
    swanstep on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Both tracks are new to me, and each, while pleasant enough and perfectly acceptable fan-service, feels to me like it needed another week or so’s work on the writing. Another chord or two, and maybe some rethinking of lyrics and vocal arrangements, and they could both be career highpoints, potential classics (e.g., WDYTYA stompiness reminds me of all sorts of better tracks from Bohannon’s ‘Foot-stomping music’ to MJ’s ‘Get on The Floor’ to ABC’s ‘Tears are Not enough’ to ‘Da Funk’; WDYTYA could, I suspect, have been pushed much further and been brought much closer to this other level). The vids, however, do wonders, forcing us to embrace our new Spice Overlords, and fitting these songs in as chapters within the overall female-centric, grrl power manifesto. Objectively then these tracks are (high) 6s but there’s a lot of pleasure for fans here, and the Spices commitment to being a full-service pop group is incredibly endearing, so:
    7

  11. 11
    flahr on 17 Feb 2014 #

    I don’t think I’ve ever consciously heard “Mama”. Obviously I’m familiar with the jostling jive of “Who Do You Think You Are?”, although in my head it keeps slamming from the chorus into the parping horns on, I think, “The National Anthem” (something off Kid A anyway). If only.

  12. 12
    mapman132 on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Trivia fact: When this single was at #1 in the UK, “Wannabe” was atop the Hot 100 giving the Spice Girls the rare feat of simultaneously topping both charts with different songs. I believe the Beatles were the last act to do this at the time and I’m not sure if it’s happened since.

    SG releases remained out of sync until their 2nd album that fall. As a result this single was skipped entirely in the US and I had never heard either song until now. “Mama” was rather sweet, although not something I’d need to hear over and over again. I immediately wondered when Mother’s Day was in the UK (2nd Sunday of May in the US) and Tom’s post confirmed my suspicions. WDYTA was good, not great. Taken together they have a victory lap connotation which seems a bit early for a group with just three prior singles but I guess the Spice Girls were no ordinary group. 6/10 sounds right.

  13. 13
    Weej on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Who Do You Think You Are is the Spice Girls version of ‘Fame’ – a song to be used for a montage of the trials and tribulations of turning five ordinary girls into the world’s biggest pop stars.

  14. 14
    Cumbrian on 17 Feb 2014 #

    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.

    That’s Geri isn’t it? At least that’s what the video suggests anyway – with Geri and Emma trading off the first verse, Victoria and Mel B trading off the second verse and Mel C doing the interjections on the bridge and outro. All very egalitarian.

    My memory was that WDYTYA was great, the best thing that they’d done but returning to it, a couple of things struck me. Leading off with Geri as the opening voice is a bad idea (the last two months being the first time that I have invested much time listening to the Spice Girls closely, it definitely seems like there is a inverse relationship between quality and the amount of Geri you get on any given record). Also, it seems very rote – in fact, it could almost be that they have read The Manual and just bashed something out following that. Nevertheless, the chorus is classic, the horns work well for me and I am definitely coming around to the view that Emma might be the best voice of all of them. It’s not as good as I remember but is still decent enough.

    Mama: I remembered this as being bloody awful, mawkish rubbish. It’s a lot better than I thought though. Sensibly using just Emma and Mel B for most of it, it’s not quite as sappy as I thought. The flute works well and the padding out at the end with, what will become, the “X Factor Gospel Choir” is also good for switching up the sound a touch, just as it might become a bit dull.

    I’d have been 8/3 in 1997 – overall, I’d probably give this 7 now. WDYTYA coming down a touch and rescued by the chorus and Mama getting elevated significantly.

  15. 15
    Kat but logged out innit on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Dudes! Not only was this a shameless Mothers Day/Comic Relief thing – it was WDYTYA that the Spicers performed at the Brits, i.e this was the first sighting of The Dress. Permanence in pop culture = assured from that point on, perhaps even more so than the previous year’s Jacko/Jarvis shenanigans.

  16. 16
    Alan not logged in on 17 Feb 2014 #

    That the main track is also “The Freaky Trigger Top 100 Tracks Of All Time No. 49” tells you there is plenty of conditional love for this – less so in recognition for “mama” (all in lowercase). I’ll nod at Pete here…

    All the “just good” Girls Aloud stompers are the children of Who Do You Think You Are, and as a piece of lego songwriting the three distinct parts of the song can be reassembled into countless Atomic Kitten, Sugababes and Pussycat Dolls tracks ad infinitum. Indeed take out the stomping chorus, and it becomes an almost vulnerable stab at pathos.

    Mama is not terrible. WDYTYA I can recall dancing to energetically a LOT.

  17. 17
    James BC on 17 Feb 2014 #

    I think this was when the Spice Girls hit the peak of their popularity and ubiquity. The Brits, the Comic Relief single, breaking Gerry Marsden’s record for three singles and three number one hits. Everyone had a favourite Spice Girl and everyone in every interview about anything got asked what they thought of the Spice Girls and who their favourite Spice Girl was. This was the fourth (and fifth) single from the album and sounded a long way from a barrel-scraper; considering it would have been recorded before they shot to fame it’s amazing how confident WDWTWA sounds, and how it sounds like it has every right to its confidence.

    I disagree with the above about Mel C’s ad-libs. I find them very effective, adding an indelible hook to what would otherwise be a transitional filler section of the song.

  18. 18
    anto on 17 Feb 2014 #

    I think ‘Mama’ was the first Spice Girls tune to be played regularly on Radio 2 and this was still when it was more about Desmond Carrington than Sara Cox so another new avenue for Spiceworld.
    There is nothing much to object to in either of these songs – ‘Mama’ is sweet but not icky and surely it makes a nice change to come across a hit acknowledging how great our mums are as opposed to the roles she’s too often (unfairly) ascribed in pop – spoiling the kid’s fun/source of grown-up angst. ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ is certianly better than the TV series of the same name.

  19. 19
    JLucas on 17 Feb 2014 #

    As a big Spice Girls fan (I place them second only to ABBA in terms of perfect pop groups, and due to the sentiment of having grown up with them I possibly love them slightly more), I slightly resented Mama for a long time, feeling that it was a step too far into hallmark schmaltz that made them all too easy to dismiss as cynical cash cows by the type of people who spent the next few years doing exactly that.

    However, time has been very very kind to Mama. The chorus is a bit too on-the-nose, but the verses have a lovely sincerity. Apparently during the writing sessions each of the girls was told to go away and write a few lines about what their mothers meant to them, which were then put together for the lyrics. The use of the actual mothers in the video is very sweet too, and quite poignant in the case of Mel B who is now estranged from hers. Not so keen on the group shots with the kids, which are a bit St Winifreds, but it does contain my favourite bit of unintentional comedy thanks to Victoria Beckham’s highly enthusiastic miming during the gospel sections near the end.

    Who Do You Think You Are is just classic Spice Girls for me. Not as iconic as Wannabe or as smart as Say You’ll Be There, but the best example of whole-group vocals. They were obviously no En Vogue, but when they all sang together on the uptempo songs, they could achieve a sort of manic energy that’s incredibly infectious. Structurally, I do think it was highly influential on some of Girls Aloud’s material too. And yes, the BRITS performance is their most iconic moment and really marked Geri’s arrival as the star of the group, for better or worse.

  20. 20
    Will on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Re 17: So ubiquitous by Spring ’97 they were on the packets of the nation’s favourite brand of crisps.

  21. 21
    Tom on 17 Feb 2014 #

    The Dress! Gosh – for some reason I thought it was earlier, but of course it wouldn’t be, it’s a BRIT Awards thing. And yes, that means we’re hitting Peak Spice.

    #18 Yes, I agree, a bit of pro-Mum pop is welcome. Not all Mums are amazing but most do an excellent job under the circs. There was something of a swing towards positive pop about mothers – Tupac’s “Dear Mama”, and it became fairly common for boybands to do a Mum song, the Backstreets had one about how their Mum was their biggest fan (many an indie band could relate, I’m sure).

    Cod-sociological explanations might include a rise in single-parent families (tho I dunno how much this was a real thing, rather than propaganda) and on a more basic level the waning of the generation gap, which might explain pro-maternal feeling in pop specifically: not that 60s singers didn’t love their mums (and only kill their own) but the idea of making songs specifically for/about them wouldn’t have crossed many minds. (“Your Mother Should Know” nods at the idea, I guess).

  22. 22
    AMZ1981 on 17 Feb 2014 #

    #WDYTYA marks the peak of Spice Mania – between 2 Become 1 and this not only were they everywhere but they HAD to be everywhere. It felt that wherever you looked the Spice Girls were doing a walk on, raising V signs and shouting girl power. I’ll be blunt – my sixteen year old self was starting to detest them at this point. WDYTYA seems to be their most enduring song though – it’s certainly the one I hear most frequently eighteen years on.

    It also – albeit with a relative lack of opposition – held down the top slot for three weeks, the first time we’d had back to back three weekers since How Deep Is Your Love/ Firestarter a year before – not bad for the fourth single off an album most fans surely had. Boyzone held back the release of their latest single (also mined off a long available record) and still got stuck at two so there was no longer any doubt who the biggest pop act of the moment were.

    Finally it has been noted that this was the 1997 Comic Relief single – for this one the charity simply approached the biggest pop act of the moment and attached themselves to their latest single; something they hadn’t done before and wouldn’t do again until 2011. In previous years Comic Relief attempted to do something original (I am acutely aware this gave us The Stonk – no need to point that out) and the next Comic Relief single along set the blueprint of a well known pop act doing a slightly goofy cover version.

  23. 23
    anto on 17 Feb 2014 #

    btw – As the Spice Girls political interests were now in the public domain – Christine Keeler poses on the front cover?

  24. 24
    thefatgit on 17 Feb 2014 #

    I think, and I’m not certain, but I’m willing to risk getting shot down in flames, that WDYTYA was the first SG single with an proper dance routine for the kids. Wannabe might have done, but I don’t remember it. SYBT definitely didn’t. Anyway, as mentioned upthread, the Spicies were inescapable at this point. I’ll comment further once I have listened to both songs.

  25. 25
    JLucas on 17 Feb 2014 #

    I wouldn’t make too much of the Spice Girls as Thatcherite pop narrative really. A classic example of Geri’s motormouth running away with her. Mel C quickly distanced herself from the association, and Emma and Mel B have never struck me as especially politically-minded either way. I believe Victoria’s family identified as Tory voters, but her own sympathies could well have shifted over the years, if indeed she had much interest in it at all.

    I’m not sure what the boys at Absolute who co-wrote the song with them made of it, but I’d be surprised if there was much of a political undercurrent to any of their songs.

    Of course you could argue that their willingness to endorse just about anything during this period was the ultimate symbol of pop-as-capitalism, but realistically they were just making hay while the sun shone.

  26. 26
    iconoclast on 17 Feb 2014 #

    OK, to my ears, and I’ll keep this short:

    “Mama” is a pleasant enough but rather generic-sounding arrangement which is ruined by a lyric which really, really didn’t need to be written. FIVE.

    WHYTYA is better, a serviceable and quite fun disco pastiche, but it sounds like a B-side to which they’re not really committed. SEVEN.

  27. 27
    Rory on 17 Feb 2014 #

    #21 I guess Genesis’s 1983 namesake wasn’t the sort of single you’d pick up for mum in lieu of a box of chocs.

    On a first listen last night, sans video, I found “Mama” a bit treacly and WDYTYA just average, a 4 and a 5 respectively. But a day later I’m warming to both, and unexpectedly finding “Mama” the better of the two. WDYTYA feels a bit disco-by-numbers still, but “Mama” has an air of honesty it would feel curmudgeonly to hate, even if it isn’t something I’ll listen to often. On music alone they sound like album tracks, but the videos do a fair job of selling them as singles.

    Overall, my least favourite of their singles so far, and it doesn’t quite reach a six for me. A solid five, though.

  28. 28
    Another Pete on 17 Feb 2014 #

    WDYTYA has that generic ‘brass’ led disco sound (see also Dance (with U) by Lemar) that use to accompany a BBC1 continuity announcer giving you a run-down of Saturday night’s viewing. You can almost hear them telling you ‘It’s a night to forget for Charlie in Casualty at 8:30’.

    There are two videos for WDYTYA, the Comic Relief one clearly for UK audiences and an international one that seems just as generic as the disco backing in comparison.

  29. 29
    thefatgit on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Right, I’ve given both a listen and my theory about dance routines aren’t especially evident in the WDYTYA video. So it must be the BRIT Awards performance, my daughter and her friends were imitating at every given opportunity.

    Whilst there’s an obvious dip in quality compared to what we’ve seen, both these songs aren’t as bad as I remembered them. “Mama” isn’t the sentimental Hallmark-fest I was expecting. The harmonies work well (one suspects some clever Pro-Tools applications at work here) because this song doesn’t have a “2 Become 1” string-heavy climax. The girls are multi-tracked into a gospelly wall of “whoas”, as they repeat the earwormy Mama I love you/Mama I care and Mel B punctuating with I’m loving you/you’re loving me. We’re not all that far off Hey Jude territory here.

  30. 30
    Kat but logged out innit on 17 Feb 2014 #

    #28: Saturday night telly soundtrack OTM – and not a good era for it either. At my swimming club’s summer disco that year we had two ‘entertainments’ put on by the kids – one was the younger girls (11-13ish) doing Wannabe in full stereotypical-Spice getup and the other was the older boys (15-18ish) doing a Chris Tarrant Man-O-Man style press-up competition with their tops off (this didn’t seem dodgy in the slightest seeing as we saw them in swimming trunks for at least 3 hours every day anyway). I sulked at the back of the room throughout it all.

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