It’s bothered me for a while now that my Very Serious Reviews so far weigh heavily towards the positive, the average rating that I give being four-and-a-half out of five stars. To correct this, I decided I’d review my Most Hated Song of All Time: TLC‘s 1995 chart-topping hit “Waterfalls”. Along with evening-out my stats, this review satisfies my goal of thematically tying together my Very Serious entries for this week, the theme being “Things That Girls Like.”*
But this review isn’t about girls liking TLC, it’s about me despising that trite, overdone, sickening public-service-announcement of a song.** The mere thought of the song produces fits of nausea, so you can imagine what happens when circumstance is cruel enough that I actually hear it. Unfortunately, preparation for this review required that I not only hear the song multiple times, but also that I read the lyrics. Suffice to say, I’m feeling pretty vitriolic by now.
Musically, “Waterfalls” epitomizes “uninspired.” 1970s-style funky guitar, bass and keyboard grooves– typical for R&B and hip-hop songs of the era– overlay supremely standard sequencer beats. By adding an annoyingly sentimental horns track, the producers accomplished the feat of lifting the song out of R&B to plant it squarely in Pop. As far as lyrics go, the song is more or less a cautionary tale. Actually, it’s two cautionary tales; one about the dangers of drug dealing and another about the ultimate cost of sexual promiscuity.
In Verse One, we’re told the story of a loving single mother who worries about her drug-dealing son. They don’t say the words “drug” or “dealing” in the song, but the video spells out for us: making his money “the best way he knows how” involves the son bringing a small brown paper bag to a street-corner meeting with a menacing group of guys (one of whom is played by Bokeem Woodbine) who kill him with an invisible gun, steal the bag and leave his “body laying cold in the gutter.” There isn’t anything especially notable about the verse, which isn’t saying much about it, other than that it comes out cleaner than Verse Two.
Here’s a plot summary of Verse Two: A guy has sex with a girl, who gives him HIV. If only the lyrics were that succinct. Instead, the verse is composed of a convoluted succession of seemingly-unsequenced statements that gradually coalesce into a subject-skewing narrative.
Parsing this verse– especially the first half– is maddening. Is “little precious” a reference to the guy or the girl? Common sense tells me it’s the girl, but lyrics are confusing on this part. In any case, one of the pair has a “natural obsession for temptation,” which must be a nice way of saying “nymphomania” but it just doesn’t sit well with me syntactically; as with much of the song, it reads like a fumbled translation of a foreign language. Okay, so she gives him “lovin’ that his body can’t handle” (in the long run, that is; i.e.: an incurable immune deficiency virus), which he naively mistakes as beneficial for him. One day he suddenly discovers his own poor health, and the verse culminates with “three letters” taking him “to his final resting place.” The letters, of course, are not “SUV” and the resting place isn’t a room at the Ritz-Carlton.
I don’t have anything against HIV awareness, but the way the message was presented in “Waterfalls” was heavy-handed and hackneyed, even for the mid-nineties. It pandered to contemporary hyper-concerned parents and cause-seeking teen would-be vote-rockers, but talked around the subject just enough to avoid making any kind of vaguely political statement. And don’t try to sell me anything about “artistic” and “subtlety,” because I won’t buy it. It’s blurriness is transparent and its banality is exceptional.
There’s one more way in which Verse Two suffers: as it progresses you develop an intense feeling of anxiety about the future, but can’t figure out why. A chorus later, the source of your fear reveals itself as Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes‘ obligatory drivelous rap part, full of appeals to God and nonsensical platitudes such as “Dreams are hopeless aspirations in hopes of coming true.” Her flow is cloned from the , but with a voice sounding like an ancient weather vane on a long-abandoned barn creaking in a light breeze. Don’t get me wrong; I do say “one love” and look to the sky every time her name is mentioned, and hope she’s having a good time hanging out with , , , and Princess Di.*** But I can’t pretend that her rapping abilities resemble anything close to real talent.
You may be surprised to hear that the litany of criticism you’ve read so far doesn’t deal with the biggest problem of TLC’s “Waterfalls”. I’ve been saving the best (read: “worst”) for last. So, with no further ado: What the fuck does “chasing waterfalls” mean? Seriously, the premise of the song’s chorus transcends ridiculousness. I know, I know… it’s some kind of metaphor. But metaphors are supposed to have at least a modicum of internal logic. “Don’t go chasing waterfalls”? How can you chase something that stays in one place?
I suppose they were trying to distinguish the song from ‘s 1980 track of the same name that opens with the line “Don’t go jumping waterfalls.” But if they were going to rip off McCartney’s totally-sensible song (which, by the way, is a much better song and has a better video), they should have done it wholesale instead of producing the gibberish they’ve so graciously bestowed upon civilization. Alternatively, they could have taken his line “Don’t go chasing polar bears”, another good piece of advice from a man who actually knows how to write a song. Another model they might have used, at least if they had a time machine to travel into the future, is ‘s hilarious spoof “Phony Calls“, which also offers sound, logical advice.
“Waterfalls” was a cheap attempt to sell parent-approved records to average teenagers. To the detriment of us all, it worked. The single sold over a million copies in the U.S., it achieved high rankings in twenty-two different charts from sixteen countries, and the song and video had major rotation in their respective media. Perhaps if it wasn’t so ubiquitous I wouldn’t hate it so much. Somehow, I doubt it. Just a single listening would probably still have cemented it as my Most Hated Song of All Time.
*This doesn’t include, for reasons that should be obvious, the A Very Serious American Hero podcasts.
**To clarify: This is a review of the song, the video being relegated to a role as reference material.
***In an underground bunker, secretly pulling the strings of international politics and economics.