Flashback Friday: Fan mail for TLC’s ‘FanMail’

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FanMail forever marks a turning point in my life. In early 1999, my 13-year-old self (that tells you plenty already!) discovered that:

  • the so-called “R&B/urban” section of the record store was the best section
  • none of my peers had made the above discovery, and didn’t seem to agree with me about it either
  • VIBE magazine (which was imported to the UK, but I had to go into the centre of town to find it) was the shit

The first issue of VIBE magazine that I bought was the one with TLC on the cover, lying on a wooden floor.

TLC-Vibe-1999

Although the magazine certainly was not aimed at white boys in their early teens from the provinces of England, the content meshed better with my interests than anything else I could lay my hands on at the time. It didn’t talk down to me, and it informed me about US R&B and hip-hop at a time when my internet access was restricted to half an hour of dial-up a day.

That issue of VIBE saw Left-Eye threatening to leave the group, and proposing “The Challenge”, which involved Arista wholly funding a solo album for each member, and letting the albums loose to compete on the charts. An interesting idea that never came to pass, this tension and Left-Eye’s “busy schedule” (I don’t doubt she was busy, but come on!) account for the prolific presence of Vic-E – an early text-to-speech converter – on the album in lieu of Left-Eye on some of the tracks, such as promo cut “Silly Ho”. Abandoned first single “It’s Alright” featured all three members and a call to all to forget the myriad troubles of the world, but in retrospect its deep bass and underdeveloped melody were better left off the album. As seemed to be a constant issue throughout TLC’s career, label drama prevented the appearance of a “Shout” remix featuring Enrique Iglesias and Sheila E.! Despite the recent crossover success of Ricky Martin, and the burgeoning career of Jennifer Lopez crystallising with the forthcoming release of “If You Had My Love” that summer, this song never made it to the radio – a clear indication of trouble percolating behind the scenes, as it would surely have been a hit with Latin influences riding high in the charts.

I can’t remember accurately if I bought the magazine and TLC’s album, with the exciting lenticular cover that added to the picture’s futuristic feel, on the same day. I just know that I was really excited, and as I got the bus back to my grandmother’s house with the album in my hands and the sun shining down on me, I had an inkling that my life might change. I had only heard “No Scrubs” up to that point, so I didn’t really know what the album had in store for me (remember the days when the first time you heard an album was when you brought it home and put it in the stereo?).

I got home, ran up to my bedroom and put the CD in my CD player, and my world pretty much exploded. The cover’s black background and faint binary numbers, with T-Boz, Left-Eye and Chilli’s blue-tinted faces looming out of what cyberspace looked like in 1999, had given me an idea of what to expect, but the edgy futuristic R&B that began with the title track and did not let up for the first seven tracks exceeded those expectations. Although “Fanmail” the song is ostensibly about thanking their fans for sticking by them (the fans’ names listed all over the CD inlay remains a lovely tribute) as their star exploded due to the blockbuster success of CrazySexyCool, and the varying controversies that accompanied it (Left-Eye burns down her abusive boyfriend’s house! The group is bankrupt at the height of their success! These young black women keep acting as if they are sexually liberated!), the hook “Just like you, I get lonely too” carries echoes of the fibrillating masterpiece that is Janet Jackson’s ode to online dating, “Empty”. Towards the end of the album, the interlude “Communication” and the bleepy instrumentation of the following track “Lovesick” also explored quite explicitly what the future might sound like, and what it might feel like to live in it and be surrounded by and isolated by machinery. “The Vic-E Interpretation” is literally Vic-E comparing the materialism of Western nightclubbers to the simpler motives of the Japanese (who apparently just want to dance) – the disembodied “otherness” of the delivery manages to eclipse the randomness of the statement itself.

The song that this leads into, “Silly Ho”, is a masterpiece that conjures the future in another, superior way – beats that are chopped within an inch of their life à la Timbaland’s early, groundbreaking production, and Vic-E showing up again to intone how a failed suitor has “missed out.” The silent pause that bisects the robot rap feels daring, especially for a buzz single designed to delight and ignite the clubs. Can you dance to silence? How about stabbing pentatonic synths and icy lasers (way before dubstep was ever a thing)? It’s deliriously challenging, and the first time I heard it, I didn’t know what I was hearing. It took subsequent listens to absorb and appreciate the assertive lyrics, thematically similar to what is explored on “No Scrubs” (in a nutshell: Mama don’t take no mess). I love this song.

“No Scrubs” itself has been appreciated and loved plenty; my only regret is that the album version doesn’t include Left-Eye’s rap. I remember this song, together with Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills”, causing a lot of commotion for being feminist, materialistic, hating on men, and a hundred other takes on the messages in the songs that basically say “why should I take care of you if you can’t take care of yourself?” I can’t disagree with that sentiment at all – and I hope that in 2016, it’s not a big deal for anybody to stand their ground and say that. But the controversy of that message being delivered by young black women in 1999 pushed the well-crafted songs to high heights, and also made producer She’kspere’s career. The video was another example of how effectively futuristic imagery was used prominently throughout the album campaign – the group wearing cyberspacesuits studded with oversize bicycle lights (!), romping around the deserted videoscape from Janet & Michael’s “Scream”, and Left-Eye conjuring white squares out of thin air. My final comment about the song is how lovely it was, and still is, to hear Chilli take the reins as lead vocalist for the whole song.

And then came “I’m Good At Being Bad”, the apex of the rollercoaster ride that FanMail had been up to this point. Lulled into a false sense of security by gentle strings and a melodic verse, the dirtiest bassline bounds out of the speakers as TLC sing about being cockhungry and loving it. A fun memory I have of this song is that my mother and I used to enjoy playing the album in the car. (My mum is pretty cool.) It was the summer, so we used to ride around with the windows down – but if we were stuck in traffic and “I’m Good At Being Bad” came on, she would roll the windows up so that people walking by wouldn’t hear the lyrics!

A point of note is that on the original pressing of the album (which I have, so I didn’t know any differently until very recently), “I’m Good At Being Bad” interpolates the hook from Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby”. These parts of the song have been chopped out if you try and buy more recent versions of the album, or try to buy it on iTunes. The length of the track is about a minute shorter, because apparently TLC didn’t get the appropriate permission to use the song. Likewise, with the “Whispering Playa” interlude, the original version had Rick James’ “Cold Blooded” in the background of the ‘club’. This was subsequently replaced with one of TLC’s own tracks, the Japanese FanMail bonus track “U In Me”. The more you know.

Other FanMail ‘bonus’ content includes the track that was used to promote the FanMail Tour, “I Need That”, which was recorded exclusively for a website called MP3.com (ah, these were simpler times indeed!) and sounds very similar to “If They Knew”, which did make FanMail and transitions from the beat-heavy onslaught of the first few tracks into the smoother one-two of “I Miss You So Much” and “Unpretty”. The ballads of FanMail put aside futuristic soundscapes for more organic instrumentation, which matches the vulnerability of the vocals and subject matter. They also allowed TLC to explore other genres; “Come On Down” has a country feel, while “Unpretty” is mainstream pop with sweet acoustic guitars and shuffling snares. The most explicit example of the cold space sonics receding to the authenticity of real (or at least realistic) instrumentals comes at the end of the album, when Vic-E’s voice begins to falter at the end of “Automatic” (which includes portions of Neil Armstrong’s Moon Landing broadcast – is cyberspace perhaps as isolating as outer space?), giving way to the organic warmth of closing song “Don’t Pull Out On Me Yet”, very much anchoring the album back to Earth.

“Unpretty” and “Dear Lie”, as well as being the album’s other singles, are the most emotionally vulnerable songs on the album. The former, adapted from a poem written by T-Boz (that was included in her Thoughts spoken word project), talked about the pressures placed on her (and by extension, on women) by society to maintain a certain standard of beauty at all times – in the public eye and out of it – and how what’s on the outside doesn’t and cannot summarise the whole of the person within. Meanwhile, “Dear Lie” lyrically explores the very simple concept of being held hostage by a lie, and daring to reveal the truth and free oneself in the process. These songs, while not sonically risky in the way that the uptempos are, dare to reveal what’s behind the ground that the women stand in support of feminism.

As the FanMail album campaign continued, the prominent futuristic imagery slowly receded. The “Unpretty” video sees the girls walking into a control centre (that, by the by, includes a font that is suspiciously similar to the font used for the Unown in Pokémon’s Ruins of Alph?!) studded with video screens, before they sit and meditate on hovering platforms – perhaps this is to mean that even inside of the futurism resides human spirituality and human experience that is the soul of the whole enterprise. We watch Chilli realise she doesn’t need a boob job nor the man who wants her to get one, and a young woman tentatively takes a step towards recovering from an eating disorder. As with the song itself, the video is uplifting and restorative. By the time we get to “Dear Lie”, we’re firmly anchored in the real world as the girls inhabit a hotel corridor and conquer their demons.

FanMail was apparently created under significant professional and personal pressure (as well as Left-Eye’s precarious membership of TLC, let’s not forget that Chilli had a son with executive producer Dallas Austin before the two of them split up – but still worked together closely). But in this case, pressure truly did create a diamond. Against all the odds, FanMail pretty much equalled the success of CrazySexyCool – 2 US number ones on the Hot 100 apiece; 21 million sold worldwide (CrazySexyCool is only slightly ahead with 23 million); it even managed to hit #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart (CrazySexyCool peaked at #3). What’s more, TLC expanded their sound to include stuttering, futuristic beats, while still holding onto the sassy attitude and sincere slower material that CrazySexyCool did so well. Maintaining and pushing forward with feminist values, proclaiming their independence (“My Life”), and ultimately savouring a loving, sexual relationship without apology (“Don’t Pull Out On Me Yet”), nearly every song had something to say that was worth listening to. FanMail is the gift that keeps on giving – my 13 year old self didn’t take it off repeat for a week, and 17 years later it still sounds catchy and fresh.

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