Feb 14

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

Popular81 comments • 7,252 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 2 3 All
  1. 31
    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).

  2. 32
    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.

  3. 33
    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.

  4. 34
    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.

  5. 35
    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….

  6. 36
    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?

  7. 37
    Tom on 18 Feb 2014 #

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

  8. 38
    JLucas on 18 Feb 2014 #

    David Bowie’s mother was no fool either.

  9. 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.

  10. 40
    Tom on 18 Feb 2014 #

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

  11. 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?”

  12. 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… )

  13. 43
    Izzy on 18 Feb 2014 #

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

  14. 44
    Rory on 18 Feb 2014 #

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

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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?

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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…

  25. 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…

  26. 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

  27. 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.

  28. 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….

  29. 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).

  30. 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.

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