Released: 13th October 2003
Writers: Emma Bunton / Yak Bondy
Peak position: #6
Chart run: 6-10-15-18-25-30-42-48-64
It’s not often you hear ‘70s German porn being cited as the inspiration for a pop song. But that’s precisely the world Emma Bunton was taking us into for Maybe, which might just explain why it’s one of the most absurdly brilliant tracks she ever recorded.
Maybe perfectly encapsulates why Emma Bunton bucked the trend of her former bandmates and became the only solo Spice Girl whose second album outsold its predecessor. It’s true that she didn’t have as far to fall as Melanie C and Geri Halliwell, with the sales achieved by Northern Star and Schizophonic significantly eclipsing those of A Girl Like Me. However, the fundamental difference was in the way Emma Bunton approached the creation of Free Me with the ethos of simplicity. Yes, the album was influenced by Motown; however, this was not an artist on some maddening crusade to prove a point so that the material ended up being drowned out by her own hubris. Instead, Emma Bunton came armed with some amiable anecdotes about the album’s creation and worked hard on the promotional circuit to ensure as many people heard it as possible.
From the opening: “Ba-da-da-da-da, ba-da-da-da-da-da” hook, Maybe hurls us into the psychedelic ‘60s, sounding like a playful riff on a Bond theme (although No Sign Of Life remains the actual Bond-theme-that-never-was from Free Me). At least, that’s where most people would probably situate the song. However, its origins lay in the soundtrack to a ‘70s German porn movie, which Emma Bunton and the producers used to guide their creation of the track. And the way she recounted the story while trying to stifle giggles is a perfect example of how immensely likeable the whole campaign came across at a time when pop music was becoming increasingly aloof and po-faced.
One of the things that Maybe does so successfully is to weave the individual parts of the song – verse, pre-chorus, chorus, post-chorus – together and move between them seamlessly. The tone and tempo are constantly shifting so that even as recurring melodies reveal themselves, the track never settles into a predictable pattern. Furthermore, the instrumentation, which moves from twinkly cabaret lounge (“Maybe it’s no-o-o-othing, maybe it’s all just in my mind, maybe I’m fo-o-o-olish, maybe it’s just a waste of time”) to orchestral show tune, gives a delightfully theatrical undertone to the whole thing.
The recording of Maybe with a live orchestra makes it feel like Emma Bunton is cutting loose and – at times – ad-libbing her way through the track: “But I don’t think so (but I don’t think so), maybe I definitely know (oh-oh-oh), why do I keep fooling myself (why-hy), why can’t I let go (why can’t I let go); this is not like me (this is not like me), but now I definitely see (definitely) maybe, oh-oh-oh-oh maybe…”. While this is unquestionably a quality pop song, it also has the essence of listening to the run-through of a stage performance which is terrifically entertaining each and every time.
It wouldn’t necessarily be fair to suggest that Maybe was the singular point where Emma Bunton emerged as a star because, well, she was a Spice Girl, and it came with the territory. Plus, she’d already established herself as one of the strongest vocalists within the group, as well as a capable solo artist with her debut album, A Girl Like Me. Nevertheless, Maybe does feel like that lightbulb moment where a singer totally finds their groove and creates the perfect outlet through which to express it, which was not necessarily a given for the Spice Girls. Having laid the groundwork for the direction of this album with her previous single, Emma Bunton seized the opportunity to run with that sound and have as much fun as possible with it.
This is one of the best examples of a song whose visuals are so perfectly intertwined that it’s hard to imagine them ever having existed separately from one another. The inspiration came from the 1969 movie Sweet Charity and the dance number Rich Man’s Frug. However, most people would recognise the reference – even if not specifically so – from Austin Powers reintroducing the psychedelic ‘60s into popular culture around this time. Maybe captures the essence of the style terrifically well, with the choreography alternating between static, angular poses into arm and hip thrusting marches. In addition, there’s a real cinematic quality to the entire sequence. In some shots – where the dancers in the background are obscured and distorted by beakers in the foreground – the framing of the movements on-screen are almost reminiscent of a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Needless to say, the video is exceptionally well-executed, but what really stands out is how this is so much more than ‘just’ a concept. It’s put together with an attention to detail that is actually pretty rare within pop music (particularly during the mid-‘00s), and even if you were neither here nor there about Emma Bunton as a solo artist, it’s impossible to come away from this without feeling some appreciation for what she was doing.
Commercially, Maybe was always going to be hindered by being released as the bottom was falling out of the singles market and after a wave of indifference towards the Spice Girls had swept through the chart. So, a peak of #6 and total sales of 68,000 copies aren’t a fair reflection of the song’s popularity in the context of Emma Bunton’s career (although it was the biggest selling single of the entire Free Me campaign by a considerable margin). Maybe is generally regarded as being among the best solo-Spice tracks – which is not a backhanded compliment – and one that even non-fans will (begrudgingly) admit is pretty good. It’s telling that Emma Bunton chose to perform this during her solo spot on the Return of the Spice Girls tour, rather than What Took You So Long?
What makes Maybe such an enduring delight to revisit is that despite the song’s immense popularity, Emma Bunton has never tried in any meaningful way to recreate it, despite having every reason to do so. As puzzling as that might be (perhaps there are only so many ways to reinterpret German porn), it has ensured that Maybe remains distinctively unique. Everything about the track is realised so masterfully; there’s a solid case to be made that while Emma Bunton’s solo material was generally presented without all the bells and whistles afforded to her bandmates, she was the only Spice Girl who still truly understood what people wanted from her.