’90s No. 1s Revisited: “Waterfalls”
The eighty-ninth No. 1 song of the 1990s was “Waterfalls” by TLC. This track was the second of TLC’s four No. 1 hits in the ’90s, and it remains their longest-running and best-known chart-topper. It was the third single off CrazySexyCool and helped propel the CD to 11 million in sales, making it the best-selling album by a female group in U.S. history. It landed at the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 year-end chart for 1995, one notch better than their first chart-topper, “Creep,” which had ascended to the summit five months prior.
“Waterfalls” had international and cross-format appeal, reaching the Top 5 in nine non-U.S. countries, as well as the Top 5 of both the U.S. Pop chart and the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and even the Top 30 of the Adult Contemporary chart. It also was widely celebrated by critics and organizations who dole out awards. “Waterfalls” earned a Record of the Year nomination at the Grammys, and its million-dollar video was heaped with praise for its groundbreaking special effects and high-quality performances from its actors, winning four MTV Video Music Awards, including the highest honor, Video of the Year. Incidentally, it was up against extremely tough competition, including “Scream” by Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson.
The track’s most enduring legacy is its highly praised “socially conscious” lyrical content. On the song, contralto member T-Boz narrates two short stories about people who break moral code and, as a consequence, die. “Waterfalls” advises the listener to avoid risky behavior and “please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to,” while admitting that this probably won’t happen. TLC manages to preach without sounding preachy, a skill they would flex again a few years later on their fourth and final No. 1 hit, “Unpretty.”
Let’s listen again to “Waterfalls”:
This song is great, and it’s even better upon a repeated listen. Even stripping out the well-done production flair, the solid underlying songwriting is timeless and genre-less; in fact, “Waterfalls” has been covered and reinterpreted over the years by a wide variety of artists who specialize in genres as varied as Pop, Hip-Hop, Hard Rock, Adult Contemporary and Jazz. That’s the sign of a good source material.
TLC struck a particular chord of coolness that’s very rare to strike. They were accessibly edgy, reflecting time and place with raw honesty while pushing audiences forward with provocative messages, sounds and styles. They were viewed as in-control A-listers, wise beyond their years at age 24-25, controlling their careers and here to make a statement. It would turn out, unfortunately, that they were being financially hosed by their record label, and had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection the week this track went to No. 1 due to their debts.
Does it hold up? “Waterfalls” has, over the years, built and maintained a massive amount of goodwill that makes it impermeable to criticism. It is considered TLC’s signature song, and its rap is Left Eye’s best known contribution to any of the trio’s releases. Left Eye’s subsequent death in a car crash makes the track all the more poignant, if not somewhat ironic. The only aspect of the track that is starting to show its wrinkles — thank goodness — is the reference to dying of untreated AIDS. Such a death is much rarer now than in 1995, and perhaps soon will be entirely a thing of the past.
Dopeness: 5 out of 5 Birkenstocks
’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?