Ain't Trickin' Me
Suddenly and sadly, Lisa Lopes is gone. Details remain imprecise, but the basic facts are these: she was driving a rental car in Honduras in Thursday 25 April, tried to pass another vehicle, and crashed. Out of 8 (or maybe it was 9) people in the Mitsubishi Montero, including her brother and sister, Left Eye was the only fatality. According to Reuters, "investigators" say the accident was "caused by speeding." She will be buried Thursday, May 2, in Lithonia, Ga., at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.
As soon as word got out that Left Eye was dead, the news-and-entertainment industry kicked into a depressingly familiar gear. MTV, VH1, MTV2, and BET featured somber newsbreaks and invitations to "log on" to whatever website, as well as the expected video tribute packages. These images are simultaneously wonderful and excruciating to see -- Left Eye looking jaunty with neon green cap and baggy pants in "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"; floating in those fabulous silk pajamas for "Creep"; or sitting on one sofa after another with group-mates Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, explaining that rumors of their impending breakup are untrue. The images rotated throughout the weekend, preempting previously scheduled programs, and even, over on MTV2, trading preemptive slots with Alice in Chains videos, which have been in semi-regular rotation following the death of Layne Staley.
As has been noted repeatedly over the past few days, Lopes was the "feisty" or "crazy" member of TLC, along with the "sexy" Chilli and "cool" T-Boz. Their "story" has abruptly become news, again: the Atlanta-based group broke with 1992's "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," off their multiplatinum debut, "Oooooohhh... On the TLC Tip." And the lyrics were refreshingly and often hilariously forthright: "If the lovin' is strong, then he got it goin' on, and / I ain't 2 proud 2 beg (no) / Two inches or a yard, rock hard or if it's saggin' / I ain't 2 proud 2 beg (no)." Needless to say, the radio/MTV edit usually excises this last couplet, yet these same venues celebrate TLC's pioneering efforts regarding women's self-expression.
Combining r&b, pop, and hiphop, TLC crossed over genres, genders, and generations, and gave LaFace Records (run by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Antonio "L.A." Reid) its first humongous hit. With success -- surprise! -- came controversy, much of it having to do with the girls' candor concerning their chosen industry, especially, shady management deals and pressures to conform to image and lyric standards.
Their arrival on the music scene was exhilarating, not least because they addressed topics -- sexuality and sexism, for examples -- that pop-oriented girl groups traditionally avoided or finessed. What's more, TLC's self-assertions came packaged to sell. Bopping in t-shirts and suspenders, they performed an emotional continuum, from youthful innocence to womanist desire, commending male and female sexuality. Around the time of "Ain't Too Proud," Left Eye initially defined herself as the rapper and as "street" (compared to her girls, anyway) and, probably too preciously, mirrored fellow Philadelphian Will Smith, but with a twist: she taped a condom to the left lens of her glasses to draw attention to safe sex practices, and so earned the nickname that stayed with her for life. She rapped energetically, if somewhat cryptically, about sex: "Realize the realism of reality treats / Us both the same. / 'Cause satisfaction is the name of this game. / So I choose to explain, it's evident: / Left Eye don't mean the rest of my body is irrelevant."
Quite. It was immediately clear that nothing about Left Eye would ever be "irrelevant." She was early on vocal about her criticisms of business as usual, and she surely had her own raft of personal issues to sort out. Her disagreements with Chilli and T-Boz made for gossip, but -- bless her -- Left Eye would not back down. As much as the women may have argued, however, they also supported one another, at least in public, which is where solidarity counted. They knew they were up against a system designed to break them down and remake them. And they always fought the system more than each other.
It appears that their difficulties either did not affect or perhaps eveen improved their art. Each of their albums was progressively stronger, more expressive, and more sophisticated in conception and execution. Their second, 1994's CrazySexyCool revealed a "new," more "mature" TLC, won two Grammy Awards, and not incidentally, went 11 times platinum.
All the hype about their sleek, freshly sexed up surface, however, only drove home the point that image is a function of marketing fantasies. Lopes observed at the time that TLC's early "childish" appearance was plainly contrived, as they were all in their early 20s when performing "Ain't Too Proud" in their delectably bright kiddie outfits, but fans and label executives still like to think they watched the girls "grow up" over the 3 years between the two albums.
On its face, the grown-up TLC was all about sultry, stylized come-ons. For the "Creep" video, all three girls donned pajamas and jiggled in front of vigorous fans; shot from low, canted angles, they gazed seductively into the camera, inviting but also challenging. "I creep around because I need attention," they sang. "Don't mess around with my affection." Set off by hard-bodied male dancers and color-coded sets, the girls (who had clearly spent some serious time in the gym) slink like fashion models. The video is brilliantly, self-consciously high concept, and the group's New Look turned them into international superstars.
Along with the smash singles, CrazySexyCool features a graceful cover of Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and the sly "Red Light Special," in which the group challenges those who would objectify their super-toned physiques, to consider their own cultural conditioning: "Take a good look at it, look at it now. / Might be the last time you'll have a good round. / I'll let you touch it if you'd like to go down. / I'll let you go further, / If you take the southern route." Tweet, take a listen.
CrazySexyCool's highflying single, "Waterfalls," written by Lopes and anointed with an expensive and startlingly innovative video directed by F. Gary Gray, made TLC wholly mainstream. The track's worldly, wistful "message" seemed born of the group's own dealings with various upsets, stresses, and resounding resolutions to survive, advising, "Don't go chasing waterfalls. / Please stick to the rivers and lakes that / You're used to." Which is not to say that T-Boz, Chilli, or Left Eye were so inclined to feel constrained by limits, whether sensible or just obligatory. As their dazzling digital-water bodies in the video made clear, the women of TLC were part fluid-fantasy, part unstoppable-Terminator. Creative in the face of expectations, they found ways to make their own sense, as Left Eye's closing rap sums up: "I say the system / Got you victim to your own mind. / Dreams are hopeless aspirations in hopes / Of comin' true, believe in yourself. / The rest is up to me and you."
This sense of self-reliance, and faith in someone else, was put to several tests during this year. For, even as their celebrity accelerated -- and they were everywhere this year -- the group's interpersonal and individual difficulties made headlines, ranging from their communal bankruptcy to Lopes' run-in with the law. As you've no doubt heard more than once over the past few days, she admitted to setting fire to the home of her boyfriend, former Atlanta Falcons/Oakland Raiders receiver Andre Rison, and subsequently entered rehab for treatment of alcoholism (a 6-month term she described later as a "piece of cake" compared to her "boot camp" of a childhood, living with an alcoholic and, by all accounts, fearsome father).
Perhaps the most remarkable and bracing aspect of Lopes' story -- which certainly has involved aspects of potentially career-ending scandal -- is that she was never cowed by it. Not once. As she has described this particular event many times in many interviews, she was drunk and mad, and tried to burn some of Rison's stuff, in a tub. The mansion's destruction was unintentional, but the footage -- shot from one of those rollicking news choppers, no less -- showed again and again. Unfortunately and inevitably, it's become a much-replayed image of this past weekend -- spectacular and singular, it sets off Left Eye from her peers in all kinds of ways.
Still, she made it work for her. She took time to think through this troubled part of her life, addressing the incident and her feelings about it in a track she produced fro the b-side for the 12" version of "Red Light Special." "My Secret Enemy" is one of the writer's more insightful and dazzling works. The lyrics and production alike are different from most everything TLC has done before or since, and suggests Lopes' (for the most part, unpublicized) style and ingenuity: "Now as I look at myself, I'm seein' someone familiar / Starin' back at me through every deep crack that's in my mirror. / And as I think to myself, / I'm hearin' somebody else scream at me (shhh....)." The chorus repeats: "Sing the blues, / We end up on the news." Frustratingly, life in a fishbowl is, by definition, difficult to escape.
For 1999's triple-platinum Fanmail, Chilli, T-Boz, and Left Eye pulled themselves together and made history yet a third time. The album earned them two more Grammys, much critical acclaim and fan adulation, and momentarily squelched stories of their self-implosion. Moreover, the single, "No Scrubs," set up for every sort of self-affirming r&b-pop girl groups, from Destiny's Child to Blaque (the TLC-like group that Lopes herself created and produced) to (Puffy's own) Dream, to call out their men for being no-count. TLC, however, took this idea to another level in the video, where they played robo-futuristic fighters, kickboxing and jabbing at the camera, warning all needy baby boys to stay out their womancentric universe. "But a scrub is checkin' me, / But his game is kinda weak. / And I know that he cannot approach me / Cuz I'm lookin' like class and he's lookin' like trash." In other words, come correct or don't come at all. And I'm not even talking about bills.
The next single off Fanmail, a record they dedicated to "To any person who has ever sent us fan mail," was the anthemic "Unpretty," in which TLC threw down with the culture that rejects and pathologizes imperfection, particularly in women. Exposing -- explicitly -- the difficulties of dieting and straight-up grisliness of plastic surgery (exactly what you do to your body to "enhance" your breasts, from the cutting to the inserting), TLC became models for anyone feeling the effects of "mainstream" beauty standards. T-Boz and Chilli sing the cunningly fed-up chorus:
You can buy your hair if it won't grow.
You can fix your nose if he says so.
You can buy all the make-up that Mac can make. But if you can't look inside you, Find out who am I, too,
Be in a position to make me feel so damn unpretty.
Left Eye adds in her rap, "So how do I bring out the me nobody sees? / The forest for the trees, how 'bout the woman behind the weave, / The light from within this life is the only real remedy. / Or find the reflection you see to be so damn unpretty." In speaking so directly to fans concerning the ugliness (the selfishness, blindness, and cruelty) that undergirds conventional beauty, TLC might have earned the wrath of fashionistas, advertisers, magazine editors, even label executives. The girls' own gorgeousness likely allayed any concerns about their protest, but it was unusual for three young pop divas to take on the so-called beauty-entertainment industry, even for a minute.
And yet, as the popularity of Fanmail was making them hot tickets all over again, Left Eye, T-Boz, and Chilli appeared to be ready to take a break. Lopes had adopted Snow, now 9, the daughter of a friend no longer able to care for her, and was (again) discussing marriage with Rison. She had recorded a solo album, Supernova, that never quite made it to a Stateside release, including a track that featured Tupac called "Untouchable," that lays out her newly focused spirituality: "Much in between ashes and dust. / We must believe trickin' thee, ain't trickin' me. / I got tricks up my sleeve. / They tryin' to market. / I'm tryin' to make my mark before I leave."
While this album never quite made its planned U.S. release schedule on Arista, import versions and the streaming version that Lopes made available last August reveal distinctive creativity and Left Eye's unflagging energy. On "Hot!," she reintroduces herself: "She's the one you thought would never do a solo LP. / Yeah now, what chick could outsell me? / Drama comes in dozens and I know you love it. / A rose is still a rose so I rose above it." And later: "Imagine Einstein in Carmen Jones' body." Glad to.
Recently, Lopes' evolving self-confidence was making more headlines than her difficult past. Sober and devoting herself to regimens of mental, psychic, and physical health, Lopes gazed out from the cover of the September 2001 Honey, intensely and quite splendidly undaunted. "It doesn't make any sense for me to fight what people already think," she told Craig Seymour. "I can only do what I do. And maybe one day they'll say, 'You know, that girl ain't so crazy after all.'" Some months ago, she signed with Suge Knight's Tha Row label, with whom she intended to release Supernova at last in 2002, using the name "N.I.N.A.," or, New Identity Not Applicable.
News of this latest adventure inspired derision (Suge Knight? What was she thinking? A Diddyish neonym? Please). Well, the girl was crazy, and you loved her for it. At the same time, Lopes was working on a fourth record with Rozonda and Tionne (a record that you couldn't help but anticipate, with high hopes), and she was looking forward, not back. When she died, according to the scraps of information available, the 30-year-old Lopes was visiting the place she loved best in the world, spending time at a spa in La Ceiba, and working on several projects, including a clothing line and a book of journal entries and poetry.
But if the memorials and tributes following her death have pointed to these "positive" final moments, they have also lingered on the macabre and sensational (that damn fire: if I see that blazing-shot one more time, who knows what craziness I'll be forced to act out). The trotting out of every findable picture recalls the increasingly distasteful conflagration of promotion and profits that came after Aaliyah's death. The comparison has been made by everyone who's talked about Left Eye. In both cases, media outlets were quick to publish photos of the crushed vehicles (Aaliyah's plane, Lopes' car; for a brief time, unfortunately, a photo of Lopes' body in the morgue was available on the net, but someone came to his or her senses and took it down). And in both cases, the televisual legacies left by the artists have been culled down to half-hour and hour-long bits, replayed for days. The fire business though, and the crazy business -- that's Left Eye's burden alone, and Aaliyah keeps on as a more easily beloved "angel." Most importantly, the comparison does justice to neither. And Left Eye is her own kind of heavenly body.
Even if the shock of Left Eye's death is exacerbated by the business surrounding it, this doesn't mean that such rituals can't be useful. You know what to expect: within hours of a musician's death, favorite and even some dug-up singles hit the airwaves, radio call-in shows lurch into overdrive, and website traffic increases: on 26 April, the forum on Lopes' website, Eyenetics.com, had to close down altogether, so overwhelming was the collective effort to share condolences.
The mourning cycle for Lopes included such rearranged schedules and sites, to accommodate testimonials (or better, testimonial-bites) from celebrities (usually bland/shocked and loving/respectful, rendered via phone calls to 106th and Park or appearances on BET Tonight), as well as regular folks. Many of these occur on email forums, on BET.com, MTV.com, and elsewhere, and are typically doting and sorrowful, with the occasional disruption, of the "her music sucked" variety.
And of course, television does its self-congratulatory, prodigious bit. From the top of the hour news items on Today and 30-second segments on CNN, to the rotating videos, images of the deceased permeate. (Imagine the combination horror and joy that must have rolled over the MTV producer who found Lopes' 1999 interview -- "I personally do not believe in death. I believe in transformation.") In between vids and archival footage, the veejays remark on her importance, and Mountain Dew and the Cover Girl get sold. On Friday, the 106th and Park crew took calls and comments, and even found an artist to paint an on-the-spot portrait of Left Eye, in the eerie-blue manner of the Fanmail cover art. Chilli and T-Boz repeat that they had lost their sister (and it's hard to imagine how difficult this loss must be for them), and other artists (Usher, Melanie C) recall her talent and commend her outsized spirit.
The Lopes videos are all TLC videos, and as such, overtly represent the group's transformations and struggles to define themselves, as a crew and as individuals. No matter how glam the impression or how glossy the package, though, you can't help but see Left Eye's defiant gaze. She did her part, she carried her burdens, and she loved so much of her life.
However else you remember Left Eye, it's her effort and her engagement, her absolute refusal to back down, that are most unforgettable. That, and, as she reveals in CrazySexyCool's "Sumthin Wicked This Way Comes," her relentless bigheartedness and capacity for hope: "A-yo, if we could all agree / To lettin' our souls become free / Of that sweet bitterness, / Then whose chest would have the most seeds?"