Culture

Don’t Want No Scrubs: Why TLC Are Still Relevant

Sex, empowerment, safe sex, great tunes and sex.

It’s been 22 years since three young, black women from Atlanta, Georgia first told us that it was okay to ask for sex. Yup, a whole 22 years since Left-Eye, T-Boz and Chilli weren’t 2 proud 2 beg. They burst on to the scene with nothing but coloured overalls, the odd condom accessory and a shit-tonne of attitude. They were, and are, TLC.

To date, only the Spice Girls have sold more records among girl groups. With four albums in the space of a decade, they became the best-selling American girl group of all time: bigger than Destiny’s Child, bigger than Salt-N-Pepa, bigger than the Pussycat Dolls, bigger than The Supremes, bigger than Wild Orchid (shocker). But what was it about the trio of angry 20-somethings that has us still talking about them four albums down the track?

Chasing Waterfalls

Like most girl or boy bands, TLC were a manufactured creation, formed around the talents of the first members, Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopes and Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins. Once Rozanda ‘Chilli’ Thomas was added to the mix, the girls began working with some of Mariah Carey’s top producers: Babyface, L.A. Reid and Jermaine Dupri. When they debuted with ‘Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg’ — the lead single off their first album Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip (yes, that is the correct amount of Os) — it was obvious they wouldn’t be bringing your standard pop fare, a la Lisa Loeb. For one, they were singing about sex without selling it. There were no cute skirts or stiletto heels: they were dressed like Mary J. Blige and rocking that tomboy shtick.

They made it seem okay for girls in the nineties who wanted to wear baggy cargo pants and fly kicks. Their first big tour saw them open for MC Hammer and unlike Hammer, they couldn’t be touched.

I Got All My Sisters With Me

TLC were a sisterhood, but unlike most all-femme acts, they never pretended to ‘always’ get along. They had disagreements, like friends do, and aired them in the lyrics of their songs. Yet ultimately they stuck together, united in their fight against scrubs, ballers and skeezes trying to creep on them at every opportunity. They never made you feel ashamed about ‘friendzoning’ somebody and spoke out about men that had done them dirty – aggressively so. They weren’t the kind of women who wrote a weepy love song about heartbreak. The same way Alanis Morissette thrashed her passion and anger and rejection into her best tracks, TLC added a thudding bass and cutting lines on tracks like Silly Ho (“I can run a scam before he can, better than a man”), Girl Talk (“Some of y’all be killin me, thinkin’ you got powers like Austin but you’re more like Mini-Me”) and So So Dumb (“You’re knockin’ at my door, I should get my gun and gun you to the floor”) were testament to that.

Their private life was public. Bankruptcy, alcoholism, domestic violence and chronic illness all made them tabloid fodder and they didn’t shy away from it. When Left-Eye accused her then-partner of assaulting her, she went a step further and burned their house down. As she rapped in Over Me from their album 3D: “When the house burnt down I took the blame, when the money got funny I took it to court when most of ya’ll chicks wouldn’t have even fought it”. Unlike some of their peers – namely Destiny’s Child and Salt-N-Pepa – they kept God out of it. There was no space for soaring Gospel tracks on their LPs, heaven forbid it could replace a Rodney Jerkins hook. They were in their element talking about sex, the ghetto, sex, “doin it big” because “we pop stars”, sex, body insecurities, sex, break-ups and, er, you know, sex.

Crazy, Sexy Curtain Call

TLC were at their best when they were waxing lyrical about getting laid because they flipped gender norms on their head. Taking the approach of a testosterone-ladden rapper, they made it clear that it was a woman’s right to get hers and get gone (‘holla!’): to get pleasure from a sexual act and use men the same way men had used women for centuries. It was done with a sly knowingness, glorifying the physical act and undermining it at the same time with snide comments about sexual partners. From detailing “2 inches or a yard rock hard or if it’s sagging” to “when you finally get your blood flowin’, it be lookin’ like a pinky with a glove on it”: they got into the nitty gritty.



Essentially, the thing that drew people to TLC like a Kardashian to a Kanye was their fearlessness. They were bold beyond belief: whether they were spruiking safe sex by wearing a condom as an eye-patch or being fearless enough to rock co-ordinated outfits spelling out the band name to a major awards ceremony. Left-Eye’s tragic death in a 2002 car crash didn’t stop them from finishing an album, making a telemovie, releasing a new single and going on their first world tour in nearly a decade. They weren’t afraid to say they were worth more than a guy sitting on the passenger’s side of his best friend’s ride. They didn’t – and don’t – give a f*%$ about what people think of them and were courageous enough to stand by their convictions. That, in a nutshell, is why they’re still CrazySexyCool 22 years later.

Maria Lewis is an authority on film and pop culture. She tweets too often over at @MovieMazz and can be found at marialewis.com.au