[4 June 2007]
“Which female group is the Greatest of All Time?”
I frequently debate this question with my most music-minded cousin and—surprise, surprise—we never agree. But that’s part of the fun. Otherwise, it’s an exercise in futility since I’m never going to convince her that the Bangles are nowhere near taking the title and she’s never going to get me to admit that Klymaxx shouldn’t be in the top 20.
During our recent game of Female Band Death Match, I arrived at a startling conclusion about the R&B group TLC: it dawned on me how great they were! I say “startling” because it never occurred to me, while I was buying all their albums, that they ranked so highly with me. It was automatic. Then again, like Joni Mitchell sang, maybe we “don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone”.
In our Death Match game, all you do is name two groups, artists, or whatever, and then the other person picks a winner. The winning pick keeps getting matched up against opponents until a newcomer defeats them, and then the new winner continues with the contest. Oh yeah, another requirement is that you usually have to be bored or traveling on a long road trip to want to do this.
The game that got me thinking about TLC went like this:
“Okay, Quentin, who do you pick? The Spice Girls or SWV?”
SWV. The Spice Girls sold more records, but SWV had a cuter lineup.
“That’s your criteria? Geez. All right, SWV or the Dixie Chicks?”
Dixie Chicks. No contest. Gimme somethin’ difficult.
“Dixie Chicks or En Vogue?”
Whoa. Now that’s a good match. I’m going with En Vogue, the funky divas. They’re unbeatable.
“En Vogue or Destiny’s Child?”
Wasn’t Destiny’s Child really just Beyoncé? I like D.C., but En Vogue’s got them beat on voices and looks.
“Hmm…En Vogue or TLC?”
I didn’t expect that question to stump me. I froze. Ever since En Vogue released ‘90’s Born to Sing, I’ve been the ringleader of the unofficial En Vogue Fan Club. En Vogue—with the original lineup of Dawn Robinson, Maxine Jones, Terry Ellis, and Cindy Herron—were intelligent, funky, and beautiful. Best of all, their voices were phenomenal.
I’ve always told people, “En Vogue are, note for note, the Best Female Group ever.” And I’ve never minded debating it.
But then there’s TLC. The trio of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas mingled R&B, pop, and hip-hop into an innovative musical cocktail. It began back in 1992 with their debut, Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip, but it took Now & Forever: The Video Hits, to put TLC’s body of work on full display for me. Although the DVD doesn’t contain all of TLC’s videos—we should almost always translate a focus on “hits” to mean “not comprehensive”—Now & Forever‘s chronological approach at least highlights TLC’s growth as a group, as well as their contributions to R&B and hip-hop.
I’ve always liked TLC. Back in the ‘90s, when I first saw TLC’s video for “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”, the first on the DVD, I was intrigued by the group’s flash, their carefree attitude, and of course their colorful clothes. Decked out in bright multi-colored outfits (check out Left Eye in her fluorescent lime green Jiffy Pop hat, gigantic yellow glasses, and orange pants!), the ensemble might seem unusual in today’s market. It takes me back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, back when Kwame wore polka dots and MC Hammer wore those crazy pants that looked suitable for parachuting out of airplanes. TLC’s threads resembled those of Will Smith in the earliest episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and, while it’s hard to imagine any of that coming back in style (although everything seems to “come back”), TLC’s imagery presented three fun-loving young ladies singing songs marked by unapologetic sexual expression and unabashed independence.
Where the Supremes used to sing, “You can’t hurry love”, TLC sang, “When I need it in the mornin’ or the middle of the night—I ain’t too proud to beg”. In the process, they flipped the script on the Temptations, whose “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” exhibited a hefty dose of groveling (“If I have to beg and plead for your sympathy / I don’t mind…”). TLC, by contrast, emphasized the “proud” part more than the “begging” part. “Two inches or a yard, rock hard or if it’s saggin’”, Left Eye chants boldly in the chorus, and I think we all know what she’s talking about. It wasn’t the safest lyrical move, but when you put it in context with the group’s image and their firm stance on promoting safe sex—before Left Eye donned the black stripe under her actual left eye, she wore a condom over the left lens of her eyeglasses—it worked wonderfully as a whole.
They weren’t condoning reckless sexual activity; rather, TLC stood for the proposition that women shouldn’t be ashamed of wanting to be fulfilled by their friendships and romantic relationships. In “Baby-Baby-Baby”, T-Boz sets the record straight:
Well, you want my heart
And all my time
Well, it won’t be there if you can’t deal with my mind
Cause a girl like me
Won’t stand for less
I require plenty conversation with my sex
Hear that, fellas? That’s “plenty conversation”, not just “What’s on TV tonight?” or “Who was that on the phone?”—puh-lenty. And if we (men) don’t understand it from T-Boz, maybe we’ll get it when Chilli follows up with, “Long as you know that I could have any man I want to / Baby that’s actual and factual / But still I choose you to be with me”, foreshadowing, by 14 years, Beyoncé‘s “I can have another ‘you’ in a minute” line from “Irreplaceable”.
TLC, too, builds on pave-the-way recordings by earlier “divas”—I’m reminded of Cherrelle’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On”, Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately”, and Klymaxx’s assertion that “the men all pause” when they walk into the room. But what’s cool about TLC is how their songs emphasize their right to make choices. Whether it’s a relationship or a friendship (“What About Your Friends”), TLC encourages women to be proactive, saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “It’s a woman’s choice to decide who she associates with—deal with it.” The fact that TLC’s words and music were mostly written by males (most notably Babyface, L.A. Reid, Daryl Simmons, Jermaine Dupri, and Dallas Austin), with raps written by Left Eye, doesn’t dilute the message, in my opinion, but I understand the debate around that issue.
The best part of the “Baby-Baby-Baby” video, directed by Keith Ward and Perri “Pebbles” Reid (now known as Sister Perri), was that it appeared to take place on a college campus, something like an episode of the sitcom A Different World, with scenes of the ladies having group chats with other women in the dorm. These scenes imply that T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli aren’t the only women who enjoy voicing their opinions and beliefs; they are joined by a generation.
It’s unfortunate, I think, that it’s even a big deal to sing about women being motivated, happy, and self-reliant—it should be a given—but the good news is that TLC expressed this reality in fine form. They didn’t cry over boys, they didn’t wait at home for the phone to ring, they didn’t worry that “he” doesn’t love them anymore, they weren’t reading up on the top maneuvers to drive a man wild in bed. They had things to do—important things, damn it!
There are some exceptions, yes, like Fanmail‘s “I Miss You So Much”, but it’s basically like this: if you don’t treat them right, then they “ain’t got no time for you”. End of story, you scrub. You wouldn’t catch TLC singing En Vogue’s “Hold On”, berating themselves for wanting “too much time” and advising ladies to “remember he needs space / be patient and he’ll give his heart to you”. I love En Vogue dearly, and “Hold On” is vocally awesome, but songs like “Hold On” compromises too much in favor of so-called traditional gender roles, in my opinion. TLC, on the other hand, says, “Forget compromising. We know what we want, how we want it, and we’re gonna get it.”
The lyrical departures were accented by their approach to recording songs. While my darlings, En Vogue, and most other female groups, opted for vocal harmony, TLC managed to gather three unique personalities and talents in a single song without merging them together. That’s quite a feat, but one of the rewards was that TLC members stood out as individuals rather than blending anonymously under a band name. T-Boz’s disarmingly raspy voice not only distinguished the group but also contrasted with Chilli’s more conventionally smooth vocals. In “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”, “Baby-Baby-Baby”, and “What About Your Friends”, you almost think they’re singing different songs (T-Boz often handles the verses and Chilli does the backgrounds and bridges), but the tag team works brilliantly. I always thought it would be interesting if Chilli took T-Boz’s place on the main verses, which eventually happened a few times later in the group’s career. But in retrospect, they got it right on the first album.
In any event, the TLC formula gave each vocalist proper time to shine. On top of that, Left Eye, who I think had the most beautiful eyes in the music biz, brought the rap and hip-hop vibes, posturing like a rapper or a breakdancer while dashing off verses that tested the boundaries between spoken word and emceeing. They kept their triple threat combination untouched, through bankruptcy and internal squabbles (like when Left Eye challenged T-Boz and Chilli to a solo album challenge) until Left Eye’s death in 2002. Respect for Left Eye’s legacy, along with the distinct flavor brought by each of the members, explains why the idea of filling Left Eye’s spot with a new voice might arise more ire than the breakup of Destiny’s Child.
In the meantime, their image underwent a makeover for their second album, Crazy Sexy Cool (1994). There’s a striking difference between the T-shirt-and-baggy-pants look of “What About Your Friends” and the silky nightgown come-ons of “Creep” and “Red Light Special”. The “craziness”, “sexiness”, and “coolness” of the album title translated quite well into the videos, in addition to representing the trio—I pick Left Eye for “crazy”, Chilli for “sexy”, and “T-Boz” for cool, although T-Boz and Chilli could easily switch spots.
The “cool” aspect, in particular, dominated the mood of the videos, with images softly fading and emerging rather than abrupt cuts between shots. From an album standpoint, I much prefer On the TLC Tip to Crazy Sexy Cool—maybe the latter was a little too cool for me—but their videos definitely reached another level.
To prove this, one need only take a look at the heavyweight of this collection, the “Waterfalls” video. Actually, it’s a short film, in the Michael Jackson tradition of “Thriller”, “Bad”, and “Remember the Time”. It demonstrated, through its vignettes, the importance of prudent decision-making. The “Waterfalls” cast included stage powerhouse Ella Joyce, Bokeem Woodbine, and Shyheim. At the outset, the ladies of TLC, thanks to some impressive special effects, rise from a body of water like the liquid metal assassin from Terminator 2. The ladies are grooving to the song’s fluid backdrop, as we encounter, like viewers of a silent film, a mother (Ella Joyce) urging her son to avoid the trappings of street life.
We see the camera shot of Ms. Joyce pleading with her son through her window while his reflection in the glass responds. I love that shot; it makes the son, on his way to meet his demise, look like a ghost. It’s this same sort of reflection-in-the-glass shot in The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, that clued me into the fact that Grace Stewart (Kidman) and her kids were ghosts rather than real people. At the same time, the song and video covered the dangers of promiscuity, “His health is fading and he doesn’t know why / Three letters took him to his final resting place”. It’s a sobering work of art and a definitive “talk to the hand” to anyone who says you can’t find important messages in mainstream music.
The “short film” trick plays out again in “Diggin’ On You”, another Crazy Sexy Cool selection, but it falls flat since the visual concept revolves around a relatively mundane concert performance and the music consists of catchy but mediocre songwriting from Babyface. Come to think of it, I wasn’t thrilled with the Babyface songs on Crazy Sexy Cool, or the album as a whole for that matter. It’s wildly popular, that’s for sure, but I only still listen to a few songs from it, mainly “Creep”, “Kick Your Game”, and “Waterfalls”.
I thought “Red Light Special” and “Diggin’ On You”, in particular, were weak singles. In video, however, I do respect “Red Light Special” for its reversal of gender roles—the men are the ones showing off their bodies while the ladies watch. It makes me confront my double standards: I don’t mind watching Beyoncé do that butt-bounce thing she’s famous for (I know it’s tough to watch, so I guess I’ll take the hits for the team) but I’m not as enthusiastic about checking out the biceps and the perfect abs on these guys in “Red Light Special”.
Lastly, there are the videos from Fanmail (1999) and 3D (2002). “No Scrubs”, directed by video guru Hype Williams, absolutely hijacks the space-age imagery of Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” video, so the song itself (an anti-ode to fellas who think they’re fly while sitting on their broke asses) gets a thumbs up while the video gets a thumbs down for originality, at least until Left Eye interjects her rap and martial arts-looking dance moves. Left Eye’s part in “No Scrubs” is marvelous eye candy and I’m glad to have the video version because the version on my album doesn’t have the Left Eye rap. Now, honestly, I’m uncomfortable with Chilli grabbing a chunk of her own backside during the second verse, but ooooohhh, on the positive tip, Fanmail granted my wish of allocating more lead vocal spots to Chilli (but, like I said, I’m still convinced everyone played the right spots on the debut album).
The video for “Unpretty” takes a mostly successful second swipe at the epic style of “Waterfalls”, immersed in a folksy, meditative feel as it seeks to bolster self-esteem. Visually, the video reminds me of a cross between the Final Fantasy X-2 videogame and something P.M. Dawn would do. The visuals are defiantly pretty, almost in an over-the-top fashion to compensate for its title, perhaps to emphasize the importance of the song’s theme. The “Unpretty” video confronts internal and external notions of beauty, encouraging us, and especially women, to be at peace. Scenes of a girl overeating and wishing for a thinner body give way to scenes of her finding comfort within herself. In the mirror, the look on her face connotes her realization that she should appreciate her gifts instead of being depressed. Scenes of Chilli stuffing her bra and considering breast enlargement to please her boyfriend are resolved by Chilli’s realization that she didn’t need to change her body to please her boyfriend; she needed to change her boyfriend. Right on, Chilli.
And then there’s “Girl Talk”, which brings us to a point we never wanted to see: TLC without Left Eye. Having the group fall apart and go separate ways would have been traumatic enough, but to have a car accident silence Left Eye’s talent so abruptly, like the plane crash that stole Aaliyah from us, is tough to swallow. “Girl Talk” isn’t a bad song at all, and with Left Eye’s vocals intact, you wouldn’t think anything had changed with the group. Her absence from the video, however, is jarring, since it occurs during her rap. Moreover, she was always visible in the group’s videos even when she wasn’t being heard, as in the video for “Creep”.
TLC at the Grammys
Now & Forever should be important to hardcore TLC fans, but it needed to be more forthcoming to woo a wider audience. First of all, we only get 10 videos. The omission of the “Hat 2 Da Back”, especially, video is unforgivable, an oversight almost as devastating to me as the exclusion of “Smooth Criminal” from Michael Jackson’s HIStory collection. Casual fans might have been more impressed with a “complete” package, because, I presume and hope, they’re not going to buy this bare bones collection and then also purchase a more comprehensive set later down the line. You’re better off buying the special Now & Forever/The Hits CD set from a few years ago (it’s an import)—disc one contained 19 songs while disc two offered five of the ten videos featured on the Now & Forever DVD (“Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”, “Waterfalls”, “Creep”, “No Scrubs”, and “Unpretty”).
Second, the so-called “features” aren’t worth the time it takes to look at them and realize there’s hardly anything there. The “Behind-the-Scenes” footage is much more in-front-of-the-scenes and superficial than I expected, featuring some words from the “T”, the “L”, and the “C” about their sound and their individual styles, but they’re not saying anything you wouldn’t have figured out from watching the videos. If I didn’t need to get familiar with it for this review, I wouldn’t have watched it more than once—again, I’m taking that hit for the team (Go, Consumers!).
Worse, the other feature, the “Photo Gallery”, is a complete waste of time, as skimpy as it is. If there were more photos or if the gallery contained rarely seen photos, then it might have been worth perusing.
Finally, for a video set touted as a “tribute” to TLC, the DVD booklet is awfully small. It’s a single sheet of glossy paper, folded in half, with song and video credits and “thank you"s. That’s it. No biography, no liner notes, nothin’. I think music fans would have been willing to pay for a better product. C’mon now, this is TLC! Where’s the tender, loving care?