Feb 14

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

Popular81 comments • 7,336 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.



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

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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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

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    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’.

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    Alfred on 17 Feb 2014 #

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

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    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:

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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).

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    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.

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    23 Daves on 17 Feb 2014 #

    #28: That’s absolutely brilliant! I was trying to think what it was the brass section on WDYTYA reminded me of, but that’s really it – cheap library music. It’s a horribly reedy sounding production for a band as huge as The Spice Girls were at the time.

    For my part, in 1997 myself and a housemate decided that WDYTYA sounded like the actual theme tune to a Saturday night entertainment show, and we even imagined that the programme would consist of some up-for-a-laugh good-sport “experts” from various professions trying to impress a panel of judges with their against the clock skills.

    “Contestant number two – who do YOU think you are?”
    “Well, my name is Neil Andrews, and I’m a high end quality butcher from Hastings!”
    “Oh, we’ll soon see about that!”

    We also imagined what the title sequence would consist of (essentially a rip-off of Mick Jagger’s “Let’s Work” video). If anyone’s reading this and wants to buy the rights, I’m open to all negotiations, as I’m sure are The Spice Girls.

    But all this is dodging the topic of what I think of this record. Truth be told, I really don’t like either side. WDYTYA is a Pickwick level approximation of classic disco, and horribly cliched and shoddy sounding. It wouldn’t entice me towards the dancefloor, and at the time it was so overexposed I found it truly infuriating. “Mama”, on the other hand, is inoffensive and could have been overbearingly twee, but really doesn’t hold my attention in any way. As a marketing move, though, it was a deft one and it strikes the right tone. You can picture Pete Waterman kicking himself that he didn’t give such an idea to one of his artists in the late eighties. (Simon Cowell also wanted to get Steve Brookstein to do a Father’s Day record after his X Factor win, but as their relationship soured that release fell through).

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    flahr on 17 Feb 2014 #

    #29 “the earwormy Mama I love you/Mama I care”

    Oh! I guess I HAVE heard “Mama” after all. It’s “Say You’ll Be There” all over again. I want to blame the song titles for being so generic but I suspect it’s probably my fault.

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    Doctor Casino on 18 Feb 2014 #

    I’m with Alfred at #9 – Wow. These things had no U.S. impact. Indeed, though “Wannabe” was topping the charts, and “Say You’ll Be There” seemingly never left VH1 rotation, it was all downhill from this point: WDYTHA/Mama was not released in the US, and only one of their remaining singles (our next bunny) scraped into the top ten. There was no appreciable Spice-mania, they were not touchstones, and interview subjects were not compelled to address them. Still, a couple years on you did have Eminem making a lewd reference to the group, so they still existed in the mental landscape of pop. Perhaps whatever conditions it was that made them an event in the UK didn’t obtain here – or perhaps for some reason the US just doesn’t take to this kind of all-female pop group in general. The exceptions are obvious – TLC, the Dixie Chicks, Destiny’s Child – but none of these quite sound like the Spices, All Saints, the Sugababes (something about the level of treble in the mix, maybe) – and anyway they never seemed to dominate the airwaves, to me anyway. Even as boy bands very similar to the kind that trouble Popular were getting big, bigger, huge in the last years of the Nineties, their female peers were largely solo acts: Britney, Christina, Mandy. Towering over all of them, a few years older, a certain Ms. Carey, who we’ve met here once and only once. The Stateside version of Popular would have to face her down eighteen times – so, there’s another thing that doesn’t translate!

    As for this double A-side, first impressions: “Mama” went by pleasantly, nice sound, can’t quite recall how it went but I think it was a pretty tune. “Who Do You Think You Are” was quite fun, certainly ‘fourth single’ but not a bad one at all, the kind that makes you maybe go “hey, if they’ve gotten to four of these and the well hasn’t run dry, maybe it’s finally time to get the album.” Peppy. Would dance to this, I’d say.

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    taDOW on 18 Feb 2014 #

    casino ridiculously wrong about america not taking to girl groups but i will grant there haven’t been many in this pure pop mode. tbf there hasn’t been much of anything in this pure pop mode until arguably recently, even during the late 90s teenpop boom it was only a facet of the landscape (and not nearly as dominant in the hot 100 as you might think). r&b and adult contemporary dominated american pop during the 90s and an act that could bridge both could do very very well on the charts (whitney, boyzIImen, tlc, MARIAH). spice girls were generally neither and came from a european lineage of pop, both conceptually and in terms of the actual music, one reason i thought ‘well this will never break in america’. by the time ‘who do you think you are’/’mama’ hit it was apparent i was wrong – ‘wannabe’ had hit in america and it obv it wouldn’t be the last (some real ‘america has fallen for england’s newest sensation – the spice girls!’ action going on, the last kind of brit invasion fever of that kind i can recall though there have been english acts since that have had bigger careers or even been bigger pop phenomenons)(hello adele). ‘who do you think you are’ and ‘mama’ were all over the radio in europe (though my memory tells me that ‘who do you think you are’ got the focus/airplay early and ‘mama’ got it at the tailend) but were never even released as singles in the us due to the delay in spicemania. that delay made the spice girls experience in america even more concentrated than it was in the uk and i think played a role in how quickly it went away. 1997 had been the year of the spice girls and when 1997 was over to an extent so were they. when i saw them in atlanta in 98 the peak as radio act had definitely passed, they had become strictly an act for the fans and aficionados but not much broader appeal, similar to one direction now i’d argue, and to me it seemed super apparent that the story was nearly over, in some corner of my mind i’m sure the comparison to the sex pistols tour of america came up. their mark had been made however and american boy bands that had nearly been pitched solely to european markets began to get pitched to american radio and mtv (now having figured out there was a ceiling to electronica’s penetration in america and probably having observed how well these teenpop acts did on the box, where the later spice girls singles also did very well), christina aguilera switched from an ac track to a teenpop one and britney decided to make a pop album cuz ‘pop came back’ even though up to that point she’d wanted to make an album like her favorite act, sheryl crow.

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    Ed on 18 Feb 2014 #

    @18, etc Surely the worst example of anti-mum rock: Pink Floyd’s ‘Mother’, from The Wall. In a career with many low points – as well as some great highs – this feels like the absolute nadir:

    As Punctum pointed out on TPL recently, that ghastly Andy Summers song on Synchronicity is another particularly egregious example, conflating anti-mother sentiments with general all-encompassing misogyny.

    Spotting others is complicated by the tendency of Classic Rock types to refer to any woman over 21 as “mama”, regardless of whether she’s an actual mother or not. That confusion is exploited artfully (I think) in ‘Maggie May’, carelessly (I assume) in ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’.

    As for Genesis, your guess is as good as mine. IIRC, their ‘Mama’ is one of the songs condemned by Patrick Bateman for being over-complicated, but I am sure he would have liked its theme.

    And Tom @21, if you’re thinking of Jim Morrison, I’d like to offer a (limited) defence. He didn’t want to *kill* his mother….

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    Ed on 18 Feb 2014 #

    I remember in En Vogue and Salt’n’Pepa’s 1993 ‘Whatta Man’ – a long list of the qualities of the ideal man running over several verses – the final line jumping out at me: “Never disrespectful ’cause his mama taught him that”.

    The first example of a pro-mother lyric in the charts?

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    Tom on 18 Feb 2014 #

    Junior’s “Mama Used To Say” presents Mama’s advice as pretty good.

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    JLucas on 18 Feb 2014 #

    David Bowie’s mother was no fool either.

  39. 39
    Rory on 18 Feb 2014 #

    Ed @35: a bit unfair to consider Pink Floyd’s “Mother” anti-mothers-in-general, isn’t it? Surely it’s anti-specific-mother, the mother in question being a character in the story of The Wall. Even if we assume generic intentions, its message is essentially that of Larkin’s “This Be the Verse“, minus dad. And the only reason it’s minus dad is again because of the specific story of The Wall, i.e. Pink’s father was killed in WW2.

    I liked The Wall as a teenager, but never assumed for a moment that “Mother” was talking about my mum.

  40. 40
    Tom on 18 Feb 2014 #

    #35 haha no I wasn’t thinking of the Lizard King – it was a botched Kray Twins gag.

  41. 41
    Tom on 18 Feb 2014 #

    (The generation gap anti-Mum rock I had in mind was “Mother’s Little Helper” though)

    Significant pro-Mum or at least Mum-sympathetic moment on Popular – in fact a key lyric in a song I gave a 10 to! – “Made our Mothers cry / Sang along, who’d blame them?”

  42. 42
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 18 Feb 2014 #

    John Lennon’s “Julia” is of course central to the Julia Lennon Theory of Creative Input. (“Julia” was his mum, whose death when he was 12 – she was run over as he was waiting for her to return home, acc.some versions as he was watching – was understandably a catastrophic event for him; and the theory notes that the people who get credited for a song – or who are listed as present in the time of its genesis – or for an oeuvre are not necessarily the ones who bear most pertinant responsibility for its shape… )

  43. 43
    Izzy on 18 Feb 2014 #

    There’s also ‘Mother Mary’ in Let It Be, of course.

  44. 44
    Rory on 18 Feb 2014 #

    #43: That opens up a whole other world of music.

  45. 45
    swanstep on 18 Feb 2014 #

    @Rory, 39. Exactly, with the slight proviso that Waters does have the general level where he’s gloomily exploring paranoia about any possible source of comfort. ‘Mother’ in that sense could be any putatively lovey-dovey impulse up to and including the welfare/nannying state.

  46. 46
    Ed on 18 Feb 2014 #

    @39, @45 Maybe. But isn’t the whole point of The Wall that it’s Waters learning from his own experience to bring us some broader insights about human psychology and society, and the way they interact? After all, who could possibly be interested if it was just some super-rich rock star griping on about how miserable he is? ;)

    That’s at the heart of my problems with ‘Another Brick in the Wall Part 2′, actually: the way it generalises from Waters’ own no doubt miserable schooldays into a full-on anti-education diatribe.

    We’re a long way from the Spice Girls here, though.

  47. 47
    Ed on 18 Feb 2014 #

    @37 Ha: shows how much I was conditioned by rock conventions. Not having listened closely enough, I always assumed Junior was ignoring his mum’s advice, like in ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’. But you’re right: she was giving some valuable guidance.

  48. 48
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 18 Feb 2014 #

    I’m going to make a generalising jump that may not entirely be merited: but on the whole I’d expect to find a good deal more respectful attention to the wisdom of earlier generations in black pop music of (nearly)* every kind than in the white pop that drew from it. Because of course (at least in the 40s/50s/60s), those white kids who were embracing black music – esp. in the UK – were attempting to break from what they felt was the suffocating and compromised stranglehold of their inherited culture and the values their relevant elders would like to pass on. This can mean that the identical trope in a mimicked song can mean one thing in one context, and quite the opposite in another.

    (Most famously perhaps, the phrase “I’m a man” as sung by Bo Diddley and by white kids copying The Yardbirds. But I’d like to see this disparity explored within equivalent mum-tropes…)

    *Interesting partial exception: the blues, which was often (not always) a music of flight and refusal, in regard to its local communities and pieties; of solitary young men on the move, sometimes pursued by hellhounds. Rap as it entered its most contentious gangsta-phase was pertinently often built round samples from the music the rappers’ parents fell in love to.

  49. 49
    Rory on 18 Feb 2014 #

    #46: I can imagine “Another Brick in the Wall” giving 1979 parents the vapours, but as a then-11-year-old it seemed like the musical version of the attitude in my weekly comics or other reading matter. I know now that it was a darker vision of school than the cheekier one in Jennings or Cheeky, and was borne out of the awful school experiences of many people my parents’ age, but as a child fortunate enough to be attending school after the abolition of corporal punishment I missed all of that. I must have assumed that the darker side of “Another Brick” or even Cheeky Weekly was just for effect, or perhaps that school was different in the UK. The main source of torment in my school wasn’t the teachers but our fellow pupils.

    Now that I’m older, and can read between the lines of “Another Brick” better, and can place it in the context of The Wall and Waters, I still don’t see it as an anti-education diatribe (and I work in a school of education, so one might think I might). It just captures, for me, the miserable experience of boys who went to school in the 1940s and 1950s. My own father, two years older than Waters, has told me some of his own stories of colonial schooling, and they were pretty grim. Many male teachers in those years were returned soldiers, messed up by the War in all sorts of ways, and taking it out, some of them, on their pupils. They weren’t still teaching 11-year-olds by the late 1970s, thankfully. My male teacher in 1979 was a great guy who encouraged a friend and me to write and perform sketches for our grade 6 co-ed class, and told us about a funny TV show with a giant hedgehog. No dark sarcasm in the classroom.

  50. 50
    Rory on 18 Feb 2014 #

    It occurs to me that we could be discussing this in the perfectly good “Another Brick” thread… hey ho.

  51. 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?

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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…

  55. 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…

  56. 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

  57. 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.

  58. 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….

  59. 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).

  60. 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.

  61. 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.

  62. 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?

  63. 63
    hardtogethits on 23 Feb 2014 #

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

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

  64. 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.

  65. 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.

  66. 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.

  67. 67
    flahr on 24 Feb 2014 #

    “Mama, just killed a man…”

  68. 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!

  69. 69
    Cumbrian on 26 Feb 2014 #

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

  70. 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)

  71. 71
    Patrick Mexico on 5 Mar 2014 #

    There are no words for things like this..


  72. 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

  73. 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!

  74. 74
    Miss Halliwell on 18 Mar 2014 #

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

  75. 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).

  76. 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.

  77. 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…

  78. 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…

  79. 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…”)

  80. 80

    Which other artists have released songs that sounded incredibly calculated to be big for Mother’s Day? Or Father’s Day, for that matter. I hear rumours Ed Bunnyan’s Supermarket Flowers was, but that’s not 100% proven, so in this case, sorry Ed.

  81. 81
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    Not a particular fan of the Spices, but I feel this is one of their better singles. 5/10 for the total package.

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