Jan 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Say You’ll Be There”

Popular73 comments • 9,940 views

#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.



1 2 3 All
  1. 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.

  2. 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’.

  3. 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.

  4. 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’.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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)

  8. 68
    Kat but logged out innit on 22 Jan 2014 #

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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 72
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    One of their better singles imho, but still only a 5/10 for me.

  13. 73
    Mr Tinkertrain on 1 Mar 2022 #

    This one had to be a hit really, otherwise Wannabe would most likely have been dismissed as a novelty. Fortunately it’s a better song with plenty of attitude and a memorable video. It’d get an 8 from me but Mel C’s added vocals towards the end have always massively irritated me, so it gets knocked down to 7.

    Other chart highlights: one of my all-time favourite songs, Beautiful Ones by Suede, hit the top 10 in this track’s first week at the top. All of the 10s for that one.

1 2 3 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page