Jan 14

SPICE GIRLS – “Say You’ll Be There”

Popular72 comments • 9,426 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.



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  1. 1
    DanH on 19 Jan 2014 #

    As I said before, this was the first SG song I’d properly heard…by the time it made its rounds to American pop radio in mid 1997, I could no longer live in my self-contained bubble of Beatles Beatles Beatles, as I was entering junior high. I don’t remember hating it a whole lot, and even now, it doesn’t bother me.

  2. 2
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 19 Jan 2014 #

    New Popular entry: “Say You’ll Be There” and a shiny new look thanks to @ghostfoodpro http://t.co/Ls36SC6Kjn

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 19 Jan 2014 #

    listening to this again recently I was pleasantly surprised how positive a contribution each Spice Girl makes to the song – even if the two Mels stand out as better than the rest.
    It’s more of a song than Wannabe and musically richer but slightly more generic. Top video too

  4. 4
    col on 19 Jan 2014 #

    At the time I thought it was their best song and still do: it’s held up well. “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”: very much otm. a 9 for me.

  5. 5
    taDOW on 19 Jan 2014 #

    lol at ‘s-funk’ – the g-funk touches here are fantastic. in the context you put them they’re not surprising but at the time i remember being deeply amused/surprised/entertained by them, 3 years removed from the onset of gangsta paranoia in the mainstream press (tying in w/ early 90s hysteria over the oncoming any day now wave of criminal youth). in 96 it still seemed unlikely that snoop dogg could end up a friendly beloved figure w/ a ‘lol weed’ wink a la willie nelson but the seeds were clearly there. maybe my fave uptempo spice girls, ‘wannabe’ is the manifesto and anthem and i’m not sure if the spice girls are ‘the spice girls’ w/ this as their first single but it’s more charming and effortless imo. 9.

  6. 6
    Chelovek na lune on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Best Spice Girls song bar none, I’d say. Funky. Great arrangement – both musically and vocally. And (unlike Wannabe and another reasonably damn fine bunny to come) not a hint of gimmickry. Rather: understatement.

    A 10, even.

  7. 7
    Tom on 19 Jan 2014 #

    My favourite switches between this and “Wannabe” – on other review days, the marks would have flipped over.

  8. 8
    Billy Hicks on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Pleasant enough but nothing spectacular. I think I liked it *slightly* more than Wannabe as it had more of a tune to it while still remaining fairly upbeat, but I was still eight years old, still put off by the simple presence of the word ‘Girls’ in their name and my back remained stubbornly turned away. A perfect 5 for me, the very definition of average with nothing majorly good or bad highlighting it.

  9. 9
    Tom on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Nerdish mark note: I’ve marked the last 8 singles 1-9-3-8-3-9-2-8. I strongly suspect this is the most ping-pong stretch of marks I’ve handed out, everything alternating between very good and pretty terrible (and – without wishing to spoil anything – it may not be over yet).

  10. 10
    thefatgit on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Oooh! You’ve had some work done. I can read the text without my reading glasses! Thumbs up, FT.

    SYBT’s slinky, funky charms make it my favourite SG single. The video smooths out the Girls’ image-wise. Those alter-egos reinforcing their respective “personalities” and the Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! meets Fox Force 5* underlines their pop-culture-aware credentials. At this point, the Spice Girls were all about female empowerment. One guy in the video gets staked out in the desert like Richard Harris from A Man Called Horse and the other guy ends up strapped to the roof of their Plymouth Roadrunner like roadkill. This is of course, a good thing. But the high-kicking crotch-shots still underline it’s The Man’s money paying for this little fantasy. Anyone could see they were only paying lip-service to feminism.

    SYBT brings the funk, that’s for certain. And the Spicies each bring their own vocal talents to the song, even surprisingly, Victoria. Where “Wannabe” was rude and in your face, SYBT was a much friendlier and more persuasive proposition.

    Is this the first bit of harmonica we’ve had on Popular since “Desire”? Props to Judd Lander, almost half as good here as Stevie Wonder which is better than most. I’m inclined to award a 10 for the song alone. Minus a couple of points for the video.

    *from Pulp Fiction.

  11. 11
    Ricardo on 19 Jan 2014 #

    When all is said and done, I think most of us will agree that the Spice Girls were better as a concept (although flawed) and an image than as a musical group per se – unlike a certain other group of bunnyable five ladies who’ll come much later on in this narrative twice. All in all, the Spices are a great case study in cunning marketing and the very timing of such, really. They are probably even the high-water mark of how things used to work back before the Internet (and reality TV) turned things around.
    Sorry to be the downer here, people. But it’s just my two cents on the whole phenomenon.

  12. 12
    Tom on 19 Jan 2014 #

    #11 Since this comes after a sheaf of 9s and 10s for this single I’m not sure where you’re getting “most of us will agree” from!

    The shape of the overall Spice Girls story is interesting and the balance between concept and output is part of why – but I don’t think it’s quite as clear cut as you make out. At THIS point in the story, they’re the best example since Frankie Goes To Hollywood of a high-concept pop group selling the concept with terrific records, I reckon.

  13. 13
    JLucas on 19 Jan 2014 #

    I wouldn’t agree with 11 at all. I think the run from Wannabe to Goodbye is just about as perfect a stretch of pop singles as has ever been produced. Even Holler has aged really, really well. Sadly Headlines completely ruins it, mercifully it seems to have been totally forgotten.

    Anyway I think, contrary to her minimal contribution to Wannabe, Victoria walks away with this one. None of the others could have done justice to her wonderfully imperious purr of “Any fool can see the they’re falling…”

    It really could have gone either way after Wannabe, but this was such a smart followup. They would have made no sense the other way around.

    Disappointed by the mild spoiler that Tom won’t be marking any subsequent Spice Girls singles higher than this. I think three of their subsequent singles easily outclass these two. Though they’re all ballads, and I guess for a lot of people that’s not really what the Spice Girls were ‘about’. God but they’re perfect though. All in good time…

  14. 14
    Izzy on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Fabulous record, this was always my favourite of theirs. 9.

    Two things: the g-funk synths never registered as such until now, amusing how something so obvious can sneak by unnoticed in a different context; and I get that Mel C’s performance is crucial on the outro, but jeez her voice, I just can’t stand it.

    Oh, and the video’s great, come on! Which brazen pop act’s ever got away without being eye candy when required? I do recall chuckling at Victoria’s dancing though, the same lame slinky move in every shot.

  15. 15
    JLucas on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Also, a note on the vocal issue. I’ll discuss this again, probably at length, on future entries, but the ‘Only Mel C could really sing’ fallacy must really rankle on Emma Bunton. It’s less obvious on the uptempos where they very much have an equal share, but on almost any of their ballads, if you really listen to them, she’s basically the lead singer, with Mel B trading lines with her on the verses and Mel C responsible for the more showy ad-libbing.

    For my money, she’s by far the most natural and easy-on-the-ear vocalist in the group. In the marvellous ‘Wannabe’ book by David Sinclair, pretty much all of the Spice Girls producers, including Jam & Lewis from the ill-fated Holler sessions, single her out for the highest praise. A lovely and underrated voice.

  16. 16
    Tom on 19 Jan 2014 #

    #13 Sorry for the spoiler! The marks are decided on review day after writing the review – so who knows. Ballads in particular seem to get me hard when I sit and pay attention – “Jesus To A Child” being a good example.

  17. 17
    Ricardo on 19 Jan 2014 #

    #12 OK, so you’re right on that front. Still, as this story develops, I think you’ll find more people agreeing with me. In many ways, musically speaking – and forgetting “Headlines” -, I think their biggest flaw is that they’re too much of extremes. Spice feels underproduced at most times, and out of the singles “Say You’ll Be There” is probably the worst offender, as it sounds so much like a low budget version of what already sounded throwback in the American R&B universe by 1996. Spiceworld, on the other hand, is the exact opposite: overproduced to the tilt – but that was to be expected, as they were by then world-beating mega superstars with all the budget an old school record contract could afford.
    But I do agree with the view that “Say You’ll Be There” is most probably their best song. I even gave it a 6, and won’t mark it higher for the reasons I’ve already explained. It’s just that the song is strong enough on its own to withstand these failures, something which, for me, doesn’t nearly half happen most of the time with the rest of their output.

  18. 18
    23 Daves on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Their best single by far, so far as I’m concerned – from the very first moment you heard it you knew that there was no way on earth they were going to be one hit wonders (which many of my friends had already decided was the most likely outcome). The power of the video and the single’s hooks combined just meant this couldn’t lose.

  19. 19
    Mark G on 19 Jan 2014 #

    You know, up to now I always thought this was one girl talking to another.

    Anyone else?

  20. 20
    mapman132 on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Hmm, things are looking a bit different here….guess I’ll get used to it :)

    Just as “Wannabe” was released about 1/2 year later in America, so too was “Say You’ll Be There”. Thus we experienced it in the summer of 1997 when it peaked at #3. Although “Wannabe” was the bigger hit and more memorable song overall, this song seems to have the definitive Spice Girls video for some of the reasons previously mentioned. BTW, this would not be the last music video to take inspiration from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (see: Killers, 2005).

    6/10 for me. My own Spice Girls favorite is yet to come.

  21. 21
    Kat but logged out innit on 19 Jan 2014 #

    In the late 1980s the Girl Guide movement gave themselves a post-capitalism image makeover – new uniforms by him off the Clothes Show, letting Snowy Owl do her hair like she was in Strawberry Switchblade (she was a hairdresser, so fair enough) and of course revamping the Brownie Guide Handbook (last updated in 1968!) so it had cosy pictures and an Identifiable Protagonist: blonde, blue-eyed, gormless Emily. The reader would follow Emily on her journey from day 1 until she buggered off to Proper Guides at the end, along with her supporting character chums.

    My friends and I took merciless pleasure in ripping do-gooder everygirl Emily to shreds, scribbling all over her face and writing thought bubbles for her, e.g. “Who farted? ME”. One section involved explaining to the six-year-old audience what a ‘promise’ meant and how important it was in terms of being a Proper Brownie (it was a big deal). The convoluted set-up is that Emily wants someone to wait for her after Brownies, for no explicable reason at all. Linda, the oldest chum, is distracted (possibly by lipstick and nylons) and says to Emily that she ‘might’ wait. Helen, the sporty one who does cartwheels says she will ‘maybe’ wait. Crafty textiles queen Karen says she will ‘probably’ wait. It’s only drippy babyish Sue, whose superpower is Being Nice, who ‘promises’ she’ll wait and thus Emily is satisfied she’s telling the truth. All that she wants from Sue, is a promise Sue will be there.

    Though of course I crossed that out and made it look like Sue was telling Emily to ‘go away you smell of poo’.

  22. 22
    flahr on 19 Jan 2014 #

    I looked at the title and thought “I know I must know this one, but I can’t remember for the life of me how it goes.” And of course I did remember for the life of me, but even now I’ve just listened to it – well, I can still remember how it goes just fine, it’s not a Barry Garlow song – but I can’t connect it to the title. I know they sang “say you’ll be there” during it. I can even remember them saying it. But it doesn’t seem like the title. If this had been called “I’ve Given You Everything” (but is that not imperative, too subservient for grrl power?) or, I dunno, something else, it would make more sense in my head. As it is it would be like “Don’t Look Back in Anger” being called “She’s Walking On By”.

    As it happens I think “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and “Say You’ll Be There” are exactly as good as each other. What a convenient segue. I can’t remember how good that is, though, so no mark from me yet (/ever???).

  23. 23
    Tom on 19 Jan 2014 #

    #19 it works as a reading! It feels like a stretch but maybe that’s just me as a het dude imagining dude-centricity. I think it would still work better as about romantic/sexual love than not – it would also be a bit of a shift from “friendship never ends” to policing the conditions for friendship.

  24. 24
    Rory on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Nice new design. But (there’s always a but) I’ve noticed a few teething troubles:

    – The ‘Setting Sun’ entry notes 100 comments at the moment, but when you click through to them shows only 25 – numbered 1-25, but they seem to be comments 76-100 – with no way to see older ones. On the Boyzone entry I notice that there are links back to early pages of comments at the bottom of each page, in batches of 25, but each page numbers its batch of comments 1-25 (when again they might be 26-50, 51-75, etc). This won’t do our references to each other’s comments any good.

    – Having commenters’ names in all-caps is going to mess with commenters doing tricksy things with capitalisation (taDOW springs to mind).

    – Could we retain the link to On Marks Out of 10 in the sidebar? I refer to that all the time to make sure there’s some consistency to my own scores. I’ve retrieved it from my history and bookmarked it, but new commenters won’t necessarily know about it unless it’s prominently posted somewhere.

    – I can’t spot the Log In link. I had to pretend to Register and then follow the tiny log-in link at the bottom of that page. I notice that when I do, the comments numbers are doubling up – the one above this is 23 23 (the first in a blue circle, the second in text). And in ‘Setting Sun’… aha, now the comments there are numbered 76 to 100, but in text only (without the blue circle numbers), and now I’m getting the links back to earlier pages of comments.

  25. 25
    Tom on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Thanks Rory – useful to know about glitches. I know the comments are being worked on as a priority.

  26. 26
    flahr on 19 Jan 2014 #

    #9 – anyone would have thought you were in your 20s and hearing everything as either THE BEST THING EVER or THE WORST THING EVER at the time or something ;-)

  27. 27
    Rory on 19 Jan 2014 #

    The “Latest Comments on Popular” sidebar loses a lot by hiding the names of the relevant thread in the link title tag, requiring mouseovers to see them. Being able to follow thread activity at a glance has fuelled many a comments marathon, I’m sure.

    (I’ll comment properly on “Say You’ll be There” eventually! I’ve only heard it once so far. Liked it, though. Starting from a 6, and may move up with repeated exposure.)

  28. 28
    Steve Mannion on 19 Jan 2014 #

    Thanks for redesign-related comments. It might be good to add any further ones to the recent ‘reader question’ post to avoid going off-topic on Popular itself. I’ll pick feedback up from there. Cheers!


  29. 29
    Another Pete on 19 Jan 2014 #

    The brief harmonica solo has a touch of Morecambe and Wise’ not now, Arthur! skit about it. That’s a terrible faded print job on the single’s cover. I just thought it was the one Tom used but just image searched it and they were all like that.

  30. 30
    mintness on 19 Jan 2014 #

    “Throwing far too much emotions at me”.

    Why? For pity’s sake, WHY?

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