Listen to this track by Atlanta Georgia R&B pop proponents TLC. It’s “Waterfalls”, a smash hit single and signature track featured on their second record Crazy Sexy Cool which went an incredible eleven-times platinum. The song made monumental waves on the charts, and was also notable for becoming the number one video on MTV, holding that position for a full month. TLC was the first African-American group to hold that position by 1995.
“Waterfalls” is notable for many other reasons besides this, of course. For one thing, it was the best song that Prince never wrote, complete with a full-on Sly & The Family Stone-style vibe matched with hip-hop aesthetics a-plenty. Group member Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes can be thanked for writing it, with a co-write credit to Marqueze Etheridge of Organized Noize who also produced it. Another notable trait about this song is its subject matter, dealing in the dangers of drugs and unprotected sex, very vividly represented in the aforementioned video.
Maybe a third aspect of this song in the light of that is that it should really sound more preachy and judgmental than it does. It certainly seems to have a political edge to it, being among the first to deal head on with the AIDS epidemic. Maybe too, it reflects something of its writer’s inner voice as well.
TLC are a stand-out group of the 1990s and into the two-thousands for a number of reasons. But I think the biggest one was the fact that their influence on other bands was almost immediate. Destiny’s Child, Missy Elliott, Nelly Furtado, and Alicia Keys among others were their contemporaries. Yet those peers cited TLC as a common influence in parallel, too. That’s pretty significant. This is not even to mention the fact that they are, according to sales figures, the most successful female group in history. All the while, TLC was a tough group to be in, with their highest achievements marred by health concerns, legal issues, money troubles, and tension within the group, too. This song’s writer was at the heart of much of that tension, driven by a tough background characterized by abuse and alcoholism, and with a self-destructive streak of her own.
“Waterfalls” is certainly a social commentary song. It deals in undeniably political issues, brought forth even more so by the images in the video. To me, the bold AIDS reference notwithstanding, the most powerful image is that of the pleading mother unable to stop her son from plunging into a life of crime and from his death. That’s certainly an enduring reality for many mothers today. Even in the lines of the song, it’s that sense of helplessness that stops this song from being a sermon. “You’re gonna have it your way or no way at all”; we’ve all cared about someone in our lives with this attitude, knowing that whatever advice we give them, they’re still going to take the most destructive path. To me, it makes sense that Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes was able to tap into that emotional space so deftly as a creative person with an abusive past trying to manage her tendencies to self-destructively chase waterfalls instead of sticking to the rivers and the lakes that she was used to, and moving too fast.
Her own personal narrative aside, I think it’s this core truth that makes this song so powerful; that we cannot make choices for other people, as much as we love them. We sometimes can’t make them understand that even if we can’t support a decision of theirs, it doesn’t mean that we don’t love them just as much as ever. It sheds light on the other side of that equation too; that there are people in our lives who don’t know how easy it is for them to hurt us. That encapsulates one of the key dangers of love, with the strength of love coming from vulnerability. Disappointment, sorrow, and even mourning are often the conclusions, despite our pleading and our efforts to make our loved ones understand that their choices, their lives, are connected to our own.
Even during the height of their success, TLC struggled on several fronts, including in at least one case a run-in with the law. Lopes in particular seemed to be in a spiral with a high-profile incident of setting her boyfriend’s house on fire and the ensuing legal issues soon after. Tragically, and despite an attempt to draw herself back from the edge, Lopes was killed in an automobile accident in Honduras while on a personal retreat.
After a hiatus in the mid-two thousands, TLC are an active group today as a duo. They never replaced Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. They’re releasing a new album, due this summer and expected to be their last.
You can learn more about it right here.