how tlc’s 'fanmail' predicted internet anxiety
20 years ago this week, TLC warned us of an unhealthy relationship with technology.
It was 1999 when TLC released FanMail. Hurtling toward the new millennium, the album arrived in tandem with panicked and paradoxical promises that the dawn of the 2000s would either bring with it a technological apocalypse or a utopia of holographic interfaces and robots serving us dessert.
Across the pop charts, music captured this new futurism: ‘You’ve got mail’ pings were all over songs, Britney released Email My Heart and NSYNC’s Digital Get Down spoke of Skype sex before it even existed. But no one captured the feeling of Y2K quite like TLC’s FanMail. Five years on from their number one album Crazysexycool, TLC’s new record was the first to poeticise the internet and the twin feelings of anxiety and excitement that came with a newly limitless connection.
Into the future was exactly where TLC needed to head. The years leading up to FanMail had been tough for the trio. Left Eye burned down her ex-boyfriend Andre Rison's house before checking into rehab and, due to a profoundly crappy recording contract, the group had declared bankruptcy at the height of their success. So for TLC, the future begins before the music even starts. The FanMail album cover depicts Chilli, T-Boz and Left Eye as three digitised, disembodied cyborgs from another dimension. Scrolling down across their cold blue faces is Matrix style binary code. Uncasing the disc and placing it into your Sony Walkman, the album fuzzes into existence with the sounds and themes of cyberspace.
Narrated by Vic-E, a sentient robot system and forbearer to Lil Miquela and other CGI Models currently hacking into Instagram, FanMail's opener and title track begins with the prescient exploration into how instant communication can somehow leave you feeling more isolated than ever. At the beginning of the eponymous title track, we hear Vic-E whining in a synthetic haze: "This is a journey into life, love, and the future of music / TLC would like to thank you for your support / and just like you / they get lonely too."
Then, in her distinctively croaky voice, T-Boz sings about the uncertainty which comes with waiting on an email from a guy: "I got an email today / I kinda thought that you forgot about me." As the track escalates, T-Boz confesses: “ Every day I think I'm gonna meet ya / can't wait ‘til the day I see ya." It’s as though the more time we stay in the digital -- tapping Real Housewives of Beverly Hills GIFs into screens and scrolling through pictures of women in beige cycling shorts -- the more we want to immerse ourselves in the real. You get the feeling T-Boz never met this guy, his face forever an avatar which would never materialise IRL.
TLC’s depiction of longing and loving in an online world was just the beginning. In Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her, Theodore is heartbroken when he finds out his girlfriend -- a disembodied AI robot named Samantha who he speaks to through his smartphone -- has also been programmed to love hundreds of other humans. Through his pain, we see the limits of digital communication as a medium for human connection. So too with David Fincher’s The Social Network, which ends with Mark Zuckerberg sat alone in his apartment sending a Facebook request to his ex-girlfriend before anxiously stalking her profile for signs that she still needs him.
In music, Drake’s exploration of cyber-anxiety has imbued his work with a digital melancholy that can only come from WhatsApp-ing strippers at 4am and taking girls on yachts only to get upset when he realises they just want to Instagram themselves in a sailor hat. It came as no surprise when in 2016, Drake covered the title track of TLC’s FanMail, exchanging the automated sound of Vic-E with his own auto-tuned vocals.
Since then, he has continued to explore how social media can leave you feeling antisocial. Emotionless, from 2018’s Scorpion, is an exploration of the inevitable upset that dawns with the realisation that social media has caused us to become preoccupied with our public image. Nostalgic for his high school crush and her Motorola RAZR, the Champagne Papi wistfully regrets that he knows "a girl whose one goal was to visit Rome, then she finally got to Rome, and all she did was post pictures for people at home".
The Vic-E’s interlude on FanMail is the origin of these woes. An 18 second indictment of the modern obsession with appearances, Vic-E tells us how "people use material things to increase their chances of a pickup / such as diamond Rolexes, Prada bags and Versace outfits / I guess it makes them feel special." The interlude captures the disparity which now exists between the lifestyle we see on Instagram and the reality: from Fyre Festival using influencers to sell an experience which didn’t exist, to the Moscow-based photography studio that rents out grounded private jets so aspiring Instagram stars can pretend to be flying in one.
As a counter to this often unfulfilling way of living, TLC championed self-worth in the face of criticism. Fanmail’s number one single Unpretty takes aim at shallow men who make women feel uncomfortable with their appearance. The message is that we don’t need plastic surgery to be beautiful, you just need to love yourself. “My outsides look cool / my insides are blue,” sings Chilli before they all chime in together: “You can buy your hair if it won't grow / you can fix your nose if he says so,” before concluding that nothing will make you feel better about your appearance until you work out what is making you feel "so damn unpretty". The song is just as relevant today, where digital filters that narrow your nose and swell your lips has encouraged many to get plastic surgery.
20 years later and the hyper-connected world TLC prophesied is now a reality. Chilli messages her fans on Twitter sending them love heart emojis and retweeting their gushing compliments. When one fan added T-Boz on Facebook she rang him and he uploaded the conversation onto Youtube. “You’re so crazy. I can't believe I am talking to you,” he screams down his flip phone. “I can't believe I am doing it myself,” she replies. Tragically Left Eye died a few years after FanMail was released. The other girls planned to bring her back as a hologram; an idea that never materialised.
In the last interlude of the album, Communicate, TLC impart their final message, a transmission from 1999 that feels as relevant as ever. Left Eye might not be around today but you can still hear her voice over the tapping of clunky keyboard keys:
“Communication is the key to life
Communication is the key to love
Communication is the key to us
There’s over a thousand ways
To communicate in our world today
And it’s a shame
That we don’t connect
So if you also feel the need
For us to come together
Will you communicate with me?