In a world where some men still believe that women are best seen and not heard, TLC made sure that their voices were among the most powerful female voices in music history. With five Grammy Awards, worldwide record sales of over 65 million records and the highest-grossing tour by a female band to their credit, the trio was an unstoppable force throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Even when financial issues in the mid-90s threatened to silence the group forever, they reemerged in 1999 after a five-year hiatus to blockbuster record sales.
Unlike many of today's pop stars, TLC never courted controversy solely for the purpose of grabbing headlines. Instead, they kept fans interested by consistently delivering messages worthy of our attention. During their commercial peak, they gave a strong, socially conscious voice to young, Black women — a voice that was always confidently self-aware, yet never self-righteous.
From the very beginning with, “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” their oversized clothes, infectious energy and penchant for bright colors made them stand out in the then-crowded market for R&B girl groups. Their unique approach to fashion encouraged young fans to explore their own individuality. Add to their tomboy look a few strategically placed condoms and voilå— the stage was set for how TLC would approach the topic of sex for the rest of their careers. Wrapped up in those foil packets adorning their clothes wasn’t just an in-your-face promotion of safe sex, but also a bold declaration of women demanding that sex be on their terms. Unlike much of today's music, TLC championed feminine sexuality that wasn’t exclusively about pleasing a man, but instead, about pleasing themselves.
But TLC didn’t aim to only empower women. Time and time again, they made it clear that they intended to spread social conciousness far and wide. With “Waterfalls,” they helped educate an entire generation about the implications of fast living. The video featured two gripping cinematic vignettes: one presenting the story of a young man who is murdered in a drug deal gone wrong, and the other showcasing a couple engaging in unprotected sex — and subsequently dying from AIDS. Their decision to confront real issues of the day in such a gritty manner reflected an understanding of — and empathy for — the dangers many of their fans could easily succumb to. Sadly, this level of awareness is also virtually nonexistent in today’s music industry.
“Waterfalls” wouldn’t be the last time art imitated life for TLC. One of their most personal statements, “Unpretty,” grew from a poem T-Boz penned about her own insecurities. The emotional video featured a graphic storyline about a woman considering breast augmentation to please her boyfriend. Portrayed by Chilli (who has openly admitted to feeling inadequate because of her bust size), the woman enters a plastic surgery center intending to go through with the procedure, but decides against it after witnessing a painful implant removal.
Notice a theme here? Songs with meaningful lyrics. Videos with actual plots. Women with a unique perspective.
TLC’s absence from the music industry in recent years has left a huge, gaping hole in the landscape of today's performers — one that is begging to be filled by bold commentary that makes the world stand up and take notice. Instead of mere hypersexuality, we suffer for the lack of music that is intelligent, relevant and thought-provoking. As TLC demonstrated, musicians have the power to not only impact popular culture, but to create art that — literally — has the capacity to change lives. But warbling about the most insignificant of topics certainly isn’t going to touch anyone in the way that songs like “Unpretty” did.
The near-absence of strong, smart female voices in pop music is troubling. It’s nice to have a great body, fly clothes and the ability satisfy your partner all night long...but just as there is more to life, there should be more to art. The lack of timeless, meaningful messages in the music also makes these artists disposable. The industry will drain them, and history will remember them for all the wrong reasons (if at all) . Having some of the industry’s leading ladies speak from this position of weakness — that they naively frame as strength — is dangerous. They’re unwittingly reinforcing the old adage that says — to both sexes — that women exist solely for the sexual gratification of men. And socially, that’s a scary place for us to be.