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How TLC defined feminism in '90s R&B
By
Amanda Parris

Published

July 21, 2017

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Amanda Parris is the host of the new CBC Radio 2 show Marvin's Room.
Listen to Marvin's Room, July 21st 2017

Marvin's Room with Amanda Parris on CBC Radio

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This week on Marvin's Room, we're looking back at TLC's feminism in '90s R&B.

In the early '90s, before Keri Hilson proclaimed her “Pretty Girl Rock,” before Destiny’s Child celebrated being an “Independent Woman” and even before the Spice Girls declared their "girl power” to the world, R&B feminism was fundamentally shaped by three young women from Atlanta.

T-Boz, Left-Eye and Chili took the world by storm with their pioneering fusion of R&B, hip-hop and pop. They may not have defined themselves as feminists at the time, but their work — more than any other girl group of the time — frequently centered on women's empowerment in nuanced and layered ways.

Here are six songs that demonstrate the way TLC defined feminism in '90s R&B.


'Ain't Too Proud to Beg'

The first single from TLC's debut album, Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, can best be described as after-school special meets late-night orgasm. The song depends on sensuality, but is immersed in playful flirtation and upfront honesty. In the video, the singers wear giant pacifiers and colourful condoms on their clothing as they proudly sing about a femininity that isn’t afraid to be vulnerable in its sexuality while always being safe and well-informed.


'Hat 2 Da Back'

They may not have used the term "gender non-conformity" in their lyrics, but the freedom to define one's own gender identity is exactly what TLC advocated for in this song. Celebrating trends that were frequently criminalized at the time (i.e. baggy pants and wearing a baseball cap backward), TLC unapologetically owned their right to define their own style.


'Creep'

Cheating isn’t an activity usually celebrated in girl-power anthems, but the debut single of TLC's second album, CrazySexyCool, found T-Boz rationalizing her infidelity by proclaiming an unapologetic and non-negotiable need for affection. Unlike so many songs in R&B about cheating, this is not a ballad about heartbreak, a meditation on a broken relationship or a guilty confession. Rather it’s a statement of fact: TLC are creepin' and that is that.


'Waterfalls'

The song and music video are unflinching explorations into two of the leading social issues of the day: the war on drugs and the AIDS epidemic. Despite TLC's label fearing the topics would be too controversial for mainstream audiences, TLC fought for their vision and were vindicated when "Waterfalls" became their most successful song. After Left Eye’s death, the final lines from her verse were inscribed on her casket: “Dreams are hopeless aspirations, in hopes of coming true, believe in yourself, the rest is up to me and you.”


'No Scrubs'

Considered one of the best songs of the '90's, this is a not-so-subtle dating advice anthem. According to Chili's smooth vocals, scrubs are men drunk on their own misguided sense of self-importance who don't know how to value the true worth of the women they desire. With a laundry list of warning signs to look out for, TLC angered countless men and gave women an anthem for the ages.


'Unpretty'

TLC tackled the unrealistic beauty standards placed on women with “Unpretty,” their ballad on self-worth. While the song addresses the oppressive standards that come from the outside world, its true focus is the self-hate many women internalize. “Unpretty” marked the introduction to a late-'90s TLC that was all grown up.


The Marvin's Room Playlist for July 21, 2017

  1. TLC, "Creep"
  2. Kim Davis, "Sometimes"
  3. Ray Charles, "I've Got a Woman"
  4. Big Black Lincoln, "Georgia/Creep Slow"
  5. Aaliyah, "At Your Best (You are Love)
  6. Rochelle Jordan, "Low-Key"
  7. Marvin Gaye, "Trouble Man"
  8. Bilal, "Sister"
  9. dvsn, "Hallucinations"
  10. Nao, "Bad Blood"
  11. Drake feat. Majid Jordan, "Hold On We're Going Home"