revisiting the girl power of 90s r&b

In the month TLC’s classic track Waterfalls turns 20, it's time the ‘Girl Power’ mantle was returned to its rightful owners: the kick-ass women who emerged in the same decade as critical parts of the US R&B and hip hop scenes.

by Emma Finamore
27 July 2015, 12:37pm

The Spice Girls' Wannabe, encouraged a generation of British girls to expect a certain amount from their men - with the apt reminder that they've "gotta get with your friends", remember? - all valid but practically cotton candy when placed next to the material of their R&B peers, who were busy demanding good sex, high intellect and - above all - respect.

TLC was one of the most prolific and outspoken of these peers. When their second album, Crazy Sexy Cool, broke in 94, its lead single Waterfalls was a revelation, touching on violence and AIDS. At the time, such issues that were rarely reflected upon in either pop or R&B. "Believe in yourself, the rest is up to me and you," rapped the incredibly tough-but-vulnerable Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes, in a stirring monologue to self-determination, which would ultimately be engraved on her own coffin.

Later, No Scrubs tackled men head on, deciding that "I'm lookin' like class and he's lookin' like trash," berating them not just about cash, but for not having their own independence, for not demonstrating feelings: "If you have a shorty but you don't show love, oh yes, son, I'm talking to you." Left Eye rapped about all her "señoritas", finding strength in female friendships.

Unpretty was an anthem I held dear as a goofy and slightly chubby 14-year-old, speaking frankly about eating disorders, self esteem and body image - even plastic surgery. It's still really powerful but it's their earlier 1992 single Baby-Baby-Baby from debut album Oooooohhh... On The TLC Tip that's their real Girl Power call-to-arms. "I can do anything I want to, time and place I choose to," the girls say, wiser than their years. They're in total control, and know what they want, "I require plenty of conversation with my sex."

Award-winning rappers Salt-N-Pepa flew the feminist flag too. In Ain't Nuthin But a She Thing they told the girls at home "it's a she thing and it's all in me. I can be anything that I want to be," and celebrated how they could "bring home the bacon". The video joyfully featured female mechanics, astronauts and police officers as they told their fans, "you can do anything".

They addressed, head on, uneven gender standards, but in a male dominated format: Rap.

"Got to break my neck just to get my respect / Go to work and get paid less than a man / When I'm doin' the same damn thing that he can / When I'm aggressive then I'm a bitch / When I got attitude you call me a witch / Treat me like a sex-object (That ain't smooth) / Underestimate the mind, oh yeah, you're a fool Weaker sex, yeah, right, that's the joke (ha!) Have you ever been in labor? / I don't think so, nope."

Salt-N-Pepa were ground-breaking in 1990 with Let's Talk About Sex - an almost public service encouraging to (yep, you guessed it!) talk about sex: staying safe, doing things your own way. The ultimate anti-slut-shaming anthem.

They released Whatta Man in 1994 with En Vogue, celebrating the good men that are "hard to find", turning the male gaze on its head and (almost) objectifying the boys: "My man is smooth like Barry, and his voice got bass/ A body like Arnold with a Denzel face." Brains, brawn, someone who can "touch me in the right spot"… these are women who don't just want it all -- they flat-out demand it.

When not teaming up with Salt-N-Pepa, En Vogue were addressing Western standards of beauty with Free your Mind, Aaliyah was sticking up for the other woman in If Your Girl Only Knew - as well as looking like a total boss in the video - and Lauryn Hill was telling us to respect ourselves in Doo Wop (That Thing): "Babygirl, respect is just a minimum."

Hill also took issue - loudly and boldly - with Eurocentric received ideals of female beauty: "It's silly when girls sell their soul because it's in, look at where you be in hair weaves like Europeans, fake nails done by Koreans."

And she wasn't letting the men get away with anything either: "Money taking, heart breaking now you wonder why women hate men, the sneaky silent men, the punk domestic violence men."

Missy Elliott, who was writing, rapping and producing before anyone even knew who she was, celebrated female independence and autonomy - "Girls girls get that cash if it's 9-5 or shaking ya ass, ain't no shame ladies do ya thang, just make sure you ahead of the game" - and celebrated her non-conformity: "cute face, chubby waist, thick legs, in shape."

She reclaimed gendered insults with She's A Bitch. In the video, women in black leather and spikes sporting bald heads troop with Missy as she looks directly into the camera, unapologetically un-"feminine", daring the viewer to question her power. It's also one of the most expensive music videos of all time. Dope.

On their way to ruling the world, early Destiny's Child were already refusing to be taken advantage of, with Bills, Bills, Bills, and Kelis burst through with her celebration of female anger in, Caught Out There: she wasn't crying about the loss of her man, but letting forth a primal scream of rage and frustration. In the track's video, a pack of incensed women join our flame-haired heroine in her anger, marching to the beat of her drum. "Hate" is a strong word and she's not afraid to use it, how many times has it occurred in a pop song?

The themes tackled by these women; demanding financial independence, fidelity, socio-economics, celebrating their own beauty but (more importantly) their own talents and achievements - were more real and inspiring than anything produced by the Spice Girls. And what came right at the end of the 90s? Destiny's Child's Independent Women. I can't think of a more literal crowning glory at the end of a golden decade for real women in music, not just girls.


Text Emma Finamore

girl power