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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Waterfalls" combines contemporary theming with morality

TLC, fully immersed in the social world of the mid-90s, remind listeners they can find a way out of the darkness by being their own light.

From the wide-reaching, largely melancholy narrative of 80s classic "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," I turn to a gem from the next decade with a similar narrative arc. However, the 90s tune in question isn't just a stylistic departure from Tears for Fears — it's markedly more specific focus in its verses, and its artists place a greater emphasis on the control possessed not by police states or massive international forces, but by each of us as humans and the masters of our own destiny.

...Am I being too romantic about TLC's "Waterfalls"? I wouldn't say I am, especially considering the agency T-Boz's lyrics give the subjects of the verses. The narrative seems to almost go out of the way to remind us listeners that the people of which it speaks are ultimately in control, and the decisions they made led them to go astray, in some cases despite the best efforts of those around them. It's an interesting lyrical perspective for a pop song because it puts the onus on the listener to do better than the sung examples... and Left Eye's rap makes it clear that it's more than possible for the listener to do so.

Before I dive into the lyrics, though, I want to draw another musical comparison between "Waterfalls" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World": they approach the heavy lyrical narrative with a calm, major-key instrumental. It's hard to get more laidback and summery than "Waterfalls," between its cool trumpet lines and its watery wah-wah pedal guitars. Yes, there are brief forays into the parallel minor in the intro and before the first chorus, but those are quickly superseded by the statements of E-flat Major by the full instrumental suite, rendering the minor interludes far less memorable and impactful on the song's tonality.

I just find it so interesting how such heavy — and, especially in the case of "Waterfalls," fatal — topics are expressed over bright- or happy-sounding instrumentals. I get that from an industry and economic standpoint, the bright sounds traditionally have tended to win out in terms of plays and sales... but from a narrative standpoint, I have to think it becomes more difficult to create a song that seems cohesive and on point when the lyrical takeaways from it contradict that of the music. It is the singer's job, then, to mediate this contrast through their delivery and inflection. TLC took that job and ran with it, with T-Boz (accompanied by Chilli) using the lower part of her vocal register to sing the verse's sordid tales with a darker tone.

Considering how real and understandable the stories of each of the two sung verses feel in 2021, I can only imagine the impact they must have had on listeners upon CrazySexyCool's 1994 release, especially the HIV/AIDS-based second verse. The all-time great music video only furthers the lyrical messages with its visual interpretation of the verses (which is why I'm saving it for the end of the article).

Then there's Left Eye's rapped verse, which takes the previous darkness and contrasts it with a light that can emerge through one successfully and morally taking control of their life. It's fascinating to hear such a verse coming from Left Eye when one considers where she was in life as CrazySexyCool was being recorded: in rehab in a halfway house, after setting fire to her partner and NFL receiver Andre "Bad Moon" Rison's shoes... a fire which then spread throughout and destroyed their home. In this context, her verse about seeing rainbows and self-belief in the context of faith strikes me as Left Eye attempting to reconcile her inner demons while looking toward a brighter future for herself and those around her — a future which was sadly cut short upon her 2002 death in a car accident in Honduras.

"Waterfalls" fascinates me to this day because of its approach toward contemporary social issues and morality. Even though it's been over 27 years since its release, it's still a very relatable song for a host of reasons, and its infectious beat and chorus mean that relatability continues to be spread the world over.


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