Top of the Pops: FanMail

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August 13, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

Fanmail

TLC reminds me a lot of the 90s Utah Jazz. There’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, the Karl Malone of the trio, who is the fiery and bombastic false-face of the group, who supplies them with a little more toughness and credibility. Then you have Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, who provides actual leadership and is the one who fully brings things together, the lynchpin of the group, much in the same way that John Stockton did for the Jazz. Finally comes Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, the Jeff Hornacek of the bunch, who provides the soothing comfort with her soft touch.

The triumvirate realized where their different strengths lay back in 1994 with their sophomore album CrazySexyCool, which is an album that feels very much inspired by the personalities of the group, “crazy” being Left Eye, “sexy” being Chilli, and “cool” being T-Boz. With their follow up album, and last to feature an alive Lopes, FanMail is an album that depends entirely on the “cool” part of the trio.

Released five years after CrazySexyCool, and after major financial fiascos, mismanagement and abuse from their record label, bankruptcy, and a bout of arson, FanMail is probably the best album that could have arose out of those situations. Being an album of more uneven contribution, a fact which caused Left Eye to make controversial and disparaging comments about her bandmates, it’s the songs led by T-Boz that prove to be the most entertaining, as she has more emotional range than Chilli, and can convey both confidence, on such tracks as “Silly Ho” and “Good at Being Bad” and introspective and caring, as she does on tracks like “Come on Down” and “Dear Lie”.

But, I’d be remiss of me if I didn’t first mention the two biggest hits from the album: “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty”. The former is, along with “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morrisette and Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” three of the top ten favorite songs of every woman out there. The latter is a more subdued ballad that speaks to the pressure of maintaining physical beauty that women have to live with which are thrust upon them by men. Both are primarily sung by Chilli, whose beseeching, almost teacherly tone that she sings with convey that these are “message” songs, warning women everywhere to be weary of deadbeat assholes and the superficial standards of beauty that they set for women.

FanMail is the sound of sex-positive feminism, inasmuch as these are three self-sufficient and strong women who need no man to define them, but at the same time, they are all comfortable with their sexual nature and demonstrate it in order to illustrate their independence. They don’t fear sex, nor see it as a male-driven social construction with which to confine women into submissive gender roles; they use sex it display their own power and their own agency. Despite the title of the album, and it being dedicated to their fans worldwide, the central theme of FanMail is gender relations, specifically sexual relations.

Early on in the album the “Whispering Playa” interlude, which segues into “No Scrubs” targets creeps at the club who can’t accept “No” for an answer and wind up making fools of themselves because of their inability to respect a woman’s freedom. Not only are the aggressively persistent assholes called out, but in the track “Silly Ho”, so too are the girls who throw themselves at any guy they meet, waiting desperately on their calls, and needing to be taken care of. Not only does the group have men who disrespect women in their crosshairs, but they also target women who fail to respect themselves.

On “I’m Good at Being Bad” T-Boz poses the imposing question “What you gonna do with a bitch like me”, only to contrast it with the line “Now don’t get me wrong, cuz I’m not a ho”. TLC sets themselves apart from the hos since they are not giving in to anyone’s demands, nor are they desperate in their pursuit of sex, but when they use the word “bitch” to describe themselves, a word that is used to degrade women, in pop music, it’s to the effect of reclaiming it from detractors by using it to empower themselves as no nonsense, and self-reliant women. This is exactly what FanMail is about, women with no illusions about themselves or the world around them, and are therefore ready to claim their stake in this world.

Other standout tracks include “Shout”, which along with “I’m Good at Being Bad” lists the criteria necessary to satisfy them sexually…and if you can’t that’s on you then, and “Come On Down”, the most sensual and oddly maternal track on the album. It’s the most strictly R&B cut on FanMail, and really does the album a favor by breaking up the continuously hip-hop feel to the album. It’s another song about sex, but it’s not about fucking, it’s about tenderness and care, and it’s the best ballad on the album because it presents another side to TLC, that even though they can be tough and blunt at times, they are still caring and loving, all without losing their confidence and their cool. With lines like “Come on down, where the water tastes sweet” and “Dive into my ocean, bring your love to me”, I’m assuming they’re referencing their vaginas.

For all the great songs like “Come On Down”, “No Scrubs” and “Lovesick”, just to name a few, the album is extremely dated though. Released in 1999, it’s a slave to that faux-futuristic pop sound that was popular at the turn of the century. But, even though it’s dated, that doesn’t mean that FanMail has aged poorly. Thematically, the issues that it deals with, feminism, social injustices, and gender relationships, are more prevalent in society now more so than they have ever been. The biggest issues plaguing the album are that Left Eyes rap verses don’t quite fit into the body of most songs that they’re included in. Very much in the same way that Metallica recorded the guitar solos for St. Anger after the songs themselves were written and recorded, it seemed as if Left Eye recorded her verses separately, and after 90% of the songs had already been completed. They seemed like an afterthought that no one was really concerned with.

Even though the songs on FanMail share sonic and thematic similarities, it’s a very uneven album, where the songs that don’t immediately stand out, will never stand out. There’re the great songs, and then there are the repetitive songs like “Automatic”, “If They Knew”, an uninspired sequel to Janet Jackson’s “If”, and the closing track “Don’t Pull Out on Me Yet”, songs that merely regurgitate what we’ve already learned about the group and the album. “Dear Lie” and “I Miss You So Much” sound so similar that I originally thought I had somehow accidentally pressed rewind. Not only that, but neither really have any place on the album as they both break up the flow of the album by being overly sappy ballads.

For what FanMail does, it does it very well, even if it at times does falter, it’s quick to regain its footing, most of the time do to T-Boz’s cool charisma, and confident assertion in herself and in her execution. When T-Boz is the focal point saying things like “Some asshole left me in distress”, as she does in “Lovesick”, the album is at top form. It’s only because of lesser imitations and needless and basic ballads that prevent the album from being a completely enjoyable listen. Knowing of the tragedy that would claim Lopes life just a few years later, FanMail serves as the perfect and ultimate image of what the group was all about, what they represented, and ultimately, why they were as important and influential as they became. Without TLC, and especially without FanMail, there might not be a Queen Bey.

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