On October 21 at 9pm EST/ 8pm CST, VH1 will debut CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, a R&B bio andthe latest in its RockDocs franchise. The film stars Keke Palmer, Lil Mama and Drew Sidora, as Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes” and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, respectively as the trio who comprised the best selling female R&B group of all time.
My first reactions to news of this film included an eye roll and heavy sigh. “TLC” (surviving members plus Lil Mama) has been on a full-fledged comeback for “a new generation of fans,” says Watkins, including a new album slated for release next month, the absurdity of which won’t be dissected here. Though her tragic and sudden death in Honduras happened over 10 years ago, it seemed too soon to make a movie that would try to depict Lopes’ life or her role in the group. As a fan, loss was still too fresh (much in the same way fans of a certain age still note the day of Aaliyah’s passing, which happened a year before) and the enormity of the TLC legend was too large and too important to try to surmise between commercial breaks.
Then I saw the teaser and my interest piqued:
At the 40 second mark, the movie recreates a watershed moment of my childhood. That MTV interview, which I taped using my parents’ living room VCR, got countless hours of replay in my house. As is true today, there was no ignoring the gravitas of these girls who looked like me, dressed in their brightly-colored comfy clothes. The combination of combat boots, baggy pants and slouch socks was arresting — and completely different from the girls that made it onto BET’s Video Soul at the time; despite being on TV, they looked like young women from my own neighborhood. The choreography and the music were exciting. Their silliness with one another was endearing. They were pretty, they were smart — and the rapper was from Philly, like me!
I was hooked.
It was 1992, I was seven years old, and thought I didn’t know it at the time, the group’s debut album,Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip and its follow up CrazySexyCool, were grooming me as a feminist.
In promo pictures and interviews for Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, there was no avoiding the large yellow circle that covered the lens of Left Eye’s glasses. It pushed the first conversation I ever had with my parents about condoms and AIDS – a message I later took to my peers at my Catholic school. (Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with administration.)
Within days, I had “Hat 2 Da Back” memorized, pumping me with messages that it was okay to “be me for me and not what I’m supposed to be.” It invited me to ignore convention and feel comfortable with who I was. The album examined sexism (“His Story”), championed self-empowerment and independence (“Depend on Myself”) and setting standards (basically the rest of the entire album.)
Despite being blissfully unaware of what “two inches or a yard rock, hard or if it’s saggin’” meant — or, perhaps because I was — my parents let me listen to that CD day in and day out. A tiny sponge, I absorbed its message, and it shaped me.
By the time CrazySexyCool came out in 1994, I was none of those things. I asked to pop the CD into the car as we rode from Circuit City; it is one of the few times I’ve ever loved a record at first listen. A true R&B album, its premise was in the title. I had a new way of being to aspire to, without having to choose one trait in favor of another. TLC taught me to be cohesive.
These same girls were now women, like me, talking about female sexual empowerment, and still weaving in the message about loving yourself enough to enjoy sex safely. “Waterfalls“ revisited the subject of AIDS in a way that was poetic and haunting. “Diggin’ On You” chronicled any and every schoolyard crush I had at the time. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” had an Andre 3000 feature echoed the same social awareness as the Tawana Brawley reference did on their first album. There was homage in the remake of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” And in later years, a revisit with “Red Light Special” and “Let’s Do It Again” would make ecstasy a destination vacation.
The new iconography was divorced from the first album with baggy play clothes giving way to on-trend plaid flannels, roomy denim, and midriff baring tops, and the occasional futuristic look for live shows. They were smart and the authenticity in their work commanded our attention — fans wanted to know what theythought; their sexiness was understood, not overstated.
Though this argument is usually saved for hip-hop debates, R&B music also suffers from a lack of balance. R&B and pop music have a particular stronghold on young female audiences. Somewhere, it’s become more profitable to sing about unrequited love for a man, than to have women championing the man that respects them, and the love she has for herself. Interviews are heavily regulated by crafty publicists who want to stay on message about the album to avoid complicating the artist (the brand, and more accurately, the product) with her own humanity. Thoughtful commentary about contemporary issues has begun to fade, even from the “deep album cuts.” (Word to Solange.) Hemlines gets shorter as talent gets smaller. Costuming no longer becomes part of a provocational art package used to stimulate discourse; it is the medium through which sexuality becomes commodified, designed to titillate instead of excite.
A break, here, to have the obligatory pop culture writer’s mention of Miley Cyrus (as somehow all roads women in pop culture lead to her these past few weeks, as she and her management intended it). Her recent appearance — I don’t think I’d call that a performance — at MTV shows just how formulaic, detached, and dangerous the industry has become in its presentation of pop starlets and sex. “Somewhere in America Miley Cyrus is still twerking,” and there is a another 7 year old girl, watching that shorthand approximation female sexual empowerment and devouring it whole, however uncomfortable, without context or further explanation.
Who are the superheroes of today’s female R&B and pop music?
TLC, like their iconic contemporaries (Janet Jackson, En Vogue, Aaliyah and others) pushed boundaries through simple things authenticity, charisma, integrity, and talent. Their music videos and features in magazines like Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, VIBE offered tiny glimpses of who any one of us could be, if we simply felt comfortable being ourselves. And that’s an incredibly wonderful gift to give to anybody, especially little girls and young women.