In “Fan Mail,” the title track of the most popular album in the country, funky torch trio TLC perform what might qualify as the first stalking song written by superstars for fans. “Welcome,” says a Speak-and-Spelly robotic voice, “we’ve dedicated this album cover to every person who has ever sent us fan mail”— thousands of which persons’ names are crammed into the album art. Within the first few seconds, TLC open up and admit that they get lonely, just like you and me. Draping their silk’n’lace harmonies atop post-drum’n’bass stutter-step beats, the girls slide through my speakers, lean on my shoulder, and whisper in my ear, serving up disconcerting, frothy platitudes that would get me served with a restraining order if roles were reversed. It gives me the creeps as much as Mr. Rogers did when he said on his 1972 You Are Special album that he liked me and wanted us to be alone.
Still, it’s this forthrightness mixed with vulnerability that stakes down TLC’s appeal, which remains undiminished after arson, bankruptcy, motherhood, and three years away from the spotlight. Back in 1992 when they debuted, I remember grimacing at their condom-covered clothes, my hipster-doofus hall-
of-mirrors mind somehow equating bright colors with wackness. But at the record store where I worked two years later, TLC’s second album, CrazySexyCool, was a poisonous pop plague infecting all employees not completely debilitated by self-righteous cynicism. Punk rocker Cynthia raised eyebrows when she bought the cassingle of “Creep”— I think she had a little crush on T-Boz, who was tall and fit and skinny just like Cynthia herself, and whose deep, domineering voice crept over the song’s horny horns, moaning cheating lyrics and “oooh-ah-oooh-ah”s.
Next, “Red Light Special” came out, and my indie-rock mix-tape-making friend Amanda confided she was diggin’ on it. Amanda and Chilli both had innocent-looking exteriors, but you could tell they were bad bad girls (which Chilli aptly demonstrates when she and her sistahs go from sweet–and-sappy to sour-and-smutty in Fan Mail‘s War-sampling low-rider “I’m Good at Being Bad”). By the time “Diggin’ on You” was released, I was full-blown-
infatuated with Left Eye, whose minute size and Minnie Mouse flow complemented her tough-girl demeanor, eventually helping her land a job on MTV’s Star Search clone The Cut (thereby putting her in the running for the extremely competitive title of “most annoying MTV personality”). I mean, Left Eye is so sexy that she once one-upped Jim Morrison by trying to light her boyfriend on fire!
The Spice Girls claimed TLC influenced them, but (despite Dallas Austin) nobody ever complains about TLC being “manufactured” (such a stupid no-shit-Sherlock argument it wouldn’t deserve a response anyway). And compared to the Spice Girls, TLC lack truly distinctive personalities, no matter how hard they try to be crazy, sexy, and cool. Sure, Left Eye is brash, Chilli is sweet, and T-Boz, well, I’m not really sure what she’s supposed to be. But it’s all pretty vague.
Not that their music is devoid of personality— their effervescence can barely contain itself in Fan Mail‘s “Silly Ho,” a funky curveball of a pop collage that’s more RZA than Stockhausen and more Spike Jones than either, combining supersmooth vocals with cheesy Japanese cartoon effects, bubble-industrial digital drill bursts, Miami Bass “whooop woooo” chants, and rapped robo-goofiness worthy of an okay computer. Despite the boatloads of Benjamins spent in the studio, “Silly Ho” sounds refreshingly amateurish in a battery-powered but non-noodly-doodly techno kind of way.
Barely lurking beneath the fiber-optic chips and salsa of
Fan Mail is the presence of
Kraftwerk— those stiff-postured German honkies that black music inexplicably loves to love. The proof is in the digital pudding,
especially when the trio freak a Touch-Tone phone riff during “Lovesick,” whose boop-beeeep busy-signal melody constitutes the most stoopidly catchy hook since baby coos and downtrodden orphan girls helped fuel top 40 hits last year. “Automatic,” the next track, keeps planet-rocking all the way to the moon, interrupting cyborg refrains with Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man” speech.
But for every space jam, there’s something more grittily down-to-earth— for instance, “I Miss You So Much,” which delivers all the beauty we’ve come to expect from a Babyface ballad, turning on our heartlight and letting sun shine in. Still, the midtempo “No Scrubs” does seem a blandly nondescript single follow-up to “Silly Ho”‘s silliness. And “Unpretty” is a bloated self-esteem power ballad whose weighty message collapses into the fluffy emptiness of the arrangement, trading in what should have been a kick in the nuts for a trite daily affirmation to a woman who’s been made to feel like Plain Jane. TLC sound more at home singing sentimental serenades or shoving your face in their collective crotch
(“I need a crunk-type nigga . . . ten-inch
or bigga”) than delivering serious social
statements— which is why, despite its irresistible melody, “Waterfalls” didn’t work so well. Fortunately, on Fan Mail, they spend far more time on the former than the latter, moonwalking through minefields of love, lovemaking, looniness, and loneliness.