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How the Music and Media Presence of TLC Shaped My Womanism (Part 2)

(Read part 1 here.)

By the time 1994 and CrazySexyCool came around, I was a freshman in high school. My challenges were different than my middle school years: I was Black and poor on a scholarship to a prestigious independent school, in an environment where affluence and whiteness were the standard. I felt like I was on an alien planet. I sat at The Black Girl Lunch Table. (There were so few of us that we could fit grades 9 through 12 during the same lunch.) As most of us were in chorus and/ or gospel choir, music was a constant point of conversation. TLC was no exception.

With the release of “Creep” in September of 1994, TLC yet again hit the airwaves with a unique message, and a look that no one else had. This new TLC was polished, while very much in oversize clothes and minimal makeup. There were no evening gowns (see: Toni Braxton, En Vogue) or biker gear (SWV, Adina Howard) to show their curves. It was fascinating to me that three young Black women had somehow combined the aesthetics of Hip Hop and grunge (remember the plaid shirts?) withou looking terrible while doing so. My own attempts at similar styling, when not thwarted by my mother or my school’s come-here-looking-like-a-Gap-advert dess code, failed miserably. (I later just decided that being fat and a teenager at the same time meant I would never be fly enough to land my own personal Merlin-Santana-as-Ohagi.) And, the message of “Creep” was not wasted on me (even though I hadn’t quite yet turned fourteen). Why should you be faithful to an unfaithful partner? Of course, as an adult I feel a bit differently. But the weight of this single’s lyrical content still rings true with me. Hearing T-Boz sing “I creep around/ because I need attention/ don’t mess around/ with my affection” sparked within me the notion that I should be as pleased with any future lover(s) as they were with me.

As the ladies’ images had changed ever so slightly, CrazySexyCool was a slicker version of the TLC Tip sound. The liner notes and CD design were nothing like the Cross Colours-themed first album. Further, CrazySexyCool‘s lyrical content explored infidelity from a cheater’s perspective (“Creep”), seeking a new mate when you tire of the old (“Switch”), and even emotional intimacy (a cover of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend”) in ways that I now recognize as necessary to my then-teenage years.

No TLC album would have been complete without social commentary. “Sumthin’ Wicked This Way Comes” describes, in my assessment, the experiences of marginalized persons, namely Black identified POC in the United States. Featuring production from Organized Noize (OutKast, Goodie Mob) and an opening verse from a pre-furry pants Andre 3000, “Wicked” is the album’s most poignant song (even if Left Eye’s rhyme is hella abstract). But the song everyone and their mama knows from this album is “Waterfalls.”

I remember the first time I heard “Waterfalls” on the radio. I liked the message and thought it wouldn’t be as big as “Creep,” because of its deeper-than-most-pop lyrics. I was wrong as hell. “Waterfalls” made its way from the Hip Hop and R&B stations to adult urban contemporary stations in my city — getting much airplay with Left Eye’s rhyme edited out — and eventually landing smack dab in the middle of easy listening and Top 40 playlists! I felt like a special part of my identity — the media I consumed and was fond of — was being twisted and contorted by the pop machine. The song was everywhere. And, if memory serves, urban (read: Black) radio quickly stopped playing “Waterfalls,” signaling what I felt was a concession to pop music as an industry unto itself. I can remember some of my white peers declaring TLC stupid because of this song’s mainstream success. In an already difficult to navigate environment, I felt like my Blackness was under attack … While these same white and/ or affluent peers were deeply and profoundly in love with The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, and quoting Friday ad nauseam. Of course, there’s more to CrazySexyCool than Top 40 singles and the appropriation of Black cool. There’s sex. Plenty of it.

“Red Light Special” kind of taught me what seduction could be. Of course, I wasn’t seducing a single human being and still didn’t know jack shit about anyone’s red light. But, as always, TLC made sex talk lot more accessible to me and my peers than, say educators and/ or parents. The way Chilli purred through “Take Our Time” was nothing short of outstanding to me. I could discern from the lyrics of these songs that it was possible for me (and any woman or girl) to be empowered while pursuing pleasure with any partner. CrazySexyCool showed very clearly that TLC were nobody’s fad or flash in the pan girl group. They’d easily made the transition from new jack swing to the pop soul model that, in my opinion, heavily influenced Destiny’s Child and Electrik Red.

CrazySexyCool taught me that I could define myself for myself and be valued and respected. The ways in which some Black men in the industry co-signed TLC showed me that uncompromised women could be (and should be) affirmed by the men in their communities. The album intro features Phife of A Tribe Called Quest and his “just in case/ I own more condoms than TLC” flipped into rhyme that praises T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli as individuals. As a teenager who had never been kissed, all I ever could hope was that someone who could rhyme would work my name into a song. And let’s not forget how the man formerly known as Puff Daddy was featured on two of the album’s interludes. Yes, Puffy. Before Sean John, before he catapulted to international superstardom on the strength of bad dancing and Biggie’s death. And, the man who epitomized eccentricity in 90’s Hip Hop, Busta Rhymes, had an interlude describing what he wanted in his ‘CrazySexyCool’ mate. Not that I know of one single human being who wanted to be with Busta back then, but, you know. It was important to me. As a child who had continually been told by media at large that my looks were not ever going to be “in,” at all. Ever.

So, in conclusion, I leave you with this: TLC blew the door open. By being their whole selves on a consistent basis, in the face of media and everyday detractors who would gladly write them off. That’s some powerful shit.

I still wish my mom had bought me a sack hat and some baggy yellow jeans, though.

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