My family and I lived in Poinciana, a small Floridian community that was once so far removed from civilization that any necessities that could not be acquired at the local Winn-Dixie required a half-hour sojourn into town. Those trips, plentiful as they were, morphed into family sing-alongs with Mom enthusiastically leading our little makeshift traveling band. In 1994, CrazySexyCool, the sophomore album from R&B/hip-hop trio TLC, quickly became a karaoke fixture in our Jeep Cherokee. In between wobbly rounds of “Waterfalls,” Mom would muse, “They’re just so… cool.” The world and I agreed.
From their debut LP, Ooooooohhh… On The TLC Tip, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas epitomized agency with bold lyrics that spoke plainly of sexuality, female solidarity, and self-worth. Their fashion—which largely consisted of baggy pants, visible boxers, large hoop earrings, and, at one time, creatively repurposed condoms—was an amalgam of early ’90s Black fashion that shirked societal ideals of femininity. As a follow-up, CrazySexyCool showcased the growth of a group that embraced both its sex appeal with sultry calls to action like “Red Light Special” and its ability to positively influence the Black community with cautionary tunes like our road-trip favorite, “Waterfalls.”
But all of that lied beyond my third-grade level of cultural analysis. What I did know was that they possessed a confidence that many girls my age—most of whom idolized TLC as much as I did—often faked or craved. We wanted to be effortlessly laid-back like T-Boz, outspoken like Left Eye, and sweet, yet self-assured liked Chilli, all at once. As the girl who was taller, stockier, and way more anxious than the others in my class (things that really shouldn’t negatively impact someone’s self-esteem, but come on, I was a kid), I was none of these things. But I wanted so desperately to be like them, to be cool.
On a September morning while getting ready for school, I saw the music video for TLC’s instantaneous hit “Creep” on MTV. Mesmerized by its jazzy hip-hop sound, I could not believe a group of human beings could be so ridiculously smooth. And while I couldn’t necessarily grasp the song’s subject matter, I readily supported whatever they were talking about. In my eyes, TLC could do no wrong. Before long, I was committing the dance choreography to memory—a choice that would pay off months later when our music teacher announced the spring talent show.
Signing up was not a difficult decision to make: I was obviously going to cut and dye my hair like T-Boz and create a routine to “Creep” with my friend Tee; we were going to rock the same silk pajamas that the girls wore in the video, and ultimately win the entire show. But for some odd reason, my mother found this plan concerning.
“Isn’t there anything else you’d rather do?” she asked, mistakenly trusting me to recognize the underlying cue and reconsider, maybe choose something not so adult.
“Nope,” I responded. “I already know the dance. Tee’s going to wear pigtails like Chilli.” While she didn’t think that was enough of a reason to dance in front of the entire school to a song about infidelity, she did pause when I confessed, mildly embarrassed, “They make me feel cool.” It was an excuse that I’d used before to justify silly things like joking during morning announcements or stealing perfume from Mom’s dresser. However, we both knew that this time was different. So she agreed to talk to Tee’s mother, who supported our act. They drew a heavy line at silk pajamas and drastic haircuts, but offered to help us bedazzle sweatshirts and braid our hair. While I wouldn’t be so quick to compromise my art as an adult, as children we were more than willing to negotiate.
Tee and I rehearsed for weeks in my living room under Mom’s supervision, taking the occasional snack break to just groove to the album while litigating which song was the best. (Back then I’d argue that it was “Switch”; now, far wiser, I understand the correct answer is “Red Light Special.”) More than cementing the choreography, those sessions illuminated the importance of developing the bonds that TLC championed in songs like “What About Your Friends” and CrazySexyCool’s “Case Of The Fake People.” Tee’s and my friendship strengthened through an experience that should have otherwise been inconsequential because it taught us how to lean on each other, respect our creative partner’s ideas, and locate the confidence to put ourselves out there in a way that we hadn’t before. By the time the show arrived, we were prepared to face anything.
Our preparedness turned out to be more beneficial than we could have imagined: The crowd was intimidatingly large, and we had to go after some pretty stiff competition. But we were too proud of our dance and our style (we really knew how to dress up some gray sweats) to not give it our all. We took the stage, chins up and backs to the audience. Any residual nerves I had faded when the crowd cheered knowingly at the sound of “Creep”’s distinctive opening horns. They were already excited, and so were we.
The choreography is now buried beneath decades and decades of memories and way too fuzzy to recall, but I remember it included all the era’s greatest hits: the Running Man, a very solid Butterfly. We had nixed the Cabbage Patch in favor of the far more impressive Bankhead Bounce. We even managed to fit in a couple of cartwheels to really drive home the point that we meant serious business. We ended our routine with our arms crossed and expressions that radiated defiance. TLC’s voices faded, and the crowd stood to their feet, applauding raucously. The feeling of knowing that we had nailed our performance was euphoric. We didn’t win—the judges chose a boy who sang a much safer song than ours, those cowards—but we did spend the rest of the afternoon high-fiving our peers and impressed adults, which was still pretty rewarding.
Years later, I still could not understand how Tee and I got away with performing to something that wasn’t exactly age-appropriate. It wasn’t until only recently, however, that I recognized that moments of total self-acceptance can be far too precious of a commodity to not chase at full speed. My mother saw it in me then and, thankfully, chose not to get in my way. TLC has always preached the importance of owning and believing in your power. I like to think that when the moment presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity to not only stand in my newfound confidence, but also dance like everyone was watching.