Music

A Love Letter to R&B Girl Groups of the ’90s

When else was it cool to wear almost the exact same outfit as your friends BUT NOT QUITE?

Illustration by Minna

What do you think about when you think about girl gangs?

If you were a teen during the ’90s R&B girl-group renaissance like I was, or even if you’ve more recently been exposed to some of their music, you may very well think of groups like En Vogue, Xscape, Sisters With Voices (SWV), TLC, and, later, Destiny’s Child. Ladies who riffed and swayed their way into my living room (via the Box, of course) and my heart. I simultaneously looked up to them and identified with them, coveting their impeccable style and undeniable sex appeal while marveling at how accurately they captured the adolescent intricacies of my boy-crazy mind.

Like their cultural predecessors from the Motown era—the Supremes, the Ronettes, the Marvelettes—these groups were in many ways adhering to a classic model: talented, beautiful black women singing what were for the most part straightforward rhythm-and-blues tracks with gusto and showmanship. But they were also doing something new: their songs tackled themes like sex and relationships from a female perspective. These ladies, with their soul-baring harmonies and midriff-baring crop tops (always paired with baggy pants), were able to redefine the R&B genre, and to reach new audiences for crossover success.

And did they ever deserve it. They were all so talented! Yes, even the groups that came together less-than-organically, with the occasional help from music industry manipulation or aggressive stage moms, were brimming with talent.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the video for Xscape’s “Just Kickin’ It.”

I knew smooth when I saw it. The women in that video rocking bandanas and baggie jeans and winding hard and slow to the beat, well, that was smooth. And it wasn’t just a pop-culture sugar rush; that song stirs a deep nostalgia in me. When I first heard them, the lyrics “Kick off your shoes ’n’ relax your feet / Party on down to the Xscape beat / Just kick it” connected perfectly with a vision I had of a perfect day spent hanging out with my best friends, talking about crushes. That song made me feel nostalgic before I knew what nostalgia was.

Some were better known than others. 702’s “Where My Girls At?” is one of those songs that blew up 10 years ago, but can still make the occasional cameo in my pre-party or cleaning playlist. It gets stuck in my head every time.

Total is that group whose song you’re always singing, even though you may not even know whose song it is. (They’re the ones singing the hook on “One More Chance” with Biggie, for example).

All Saints’ “Never Ever” is THE best song to sing in the shower. (Don’t believe me? Try for yourself! The harmonies are on point.)

And MoKenStef’s “He’s Mine” makes me feel guilty even as I love to sing along, as does TLC’s “Creep.”

Destiny’s Child had the most breakout hits, but how can we forget the beginning? I knew I loved this song before I knew I loved DC.

These groups weren’t explicitly political like some of their hip-hop contemporaries, but there was a message of empowerment in their music nonetheless. En Vogue, TLC, and Destiny’s Child consistently dished out sage and pertinent advice wrapped in gorgeous, matching (but not identical) packages (see here, or here) (I mean seriously, when else was it cool to wear almost the exact same outfit as your friends BUT NOT QUITE?).

If I was feeling trapped in a bad situation, En Vogue reminded me I just needed a “positive change” and to “free [my] mind.” TLC encouraged me not to “go chasing waterfalls” or “mess with scrubs.” And SWV taught me to admit when I was “so weak in the knees I [could] hardly speak.”

Female singing groups had (have) to work hard to be defined outside of their sex appeal and their connections to male artists and record executives. Eventually, we know that stars like Beyoncé Knowles and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes (RIP) emerged from the ’90s girl-group renaissance as icons, and their cultural influence is a given these days. That’s fair; every genre has its breakout stars. But for me, there will always be something especially powerful about what these trios and quartets were putting out back then. It wasn’t just about their music, style, or talent, though all three were groundbreaking. A big part of their musical and cultural power came from their girl-gang status. By making music together, they were defying cultural stereotypes and expectations of jealousy and hatred among women, and making sisterhood look damn good. That’s why ’90s R&B girl groups are my favorite girl gangs of all. ♦

23 Comments

  • Taylor November 4th, 2011 3:21 PM

    Forever and ever, amen.

  • Amber November 4th, 2011 5:37 PM

    I love you for this.

    TLC were the best. They always looked so comfy. I remember listening to “Waterfalls” on the jukebox at Round Table Pizza with my middle school crew.

    Using the word “jukebox” just made me feel old. Must go watch “Wizards of Waverly Place” to reclaim feeling of youth.

    R.I.P. Left Eye

  • Ariwilleatyou November 4th, 2011 5:43 PM

    If Left Eye wasn’t already your life… do watch the entire thing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jy0ZsAT2ESE

  • Anna F. November 4th, 2011 5:59 PM

    This post is MARVELOUS. I think I was too young for most of these bands, but I loooved Destiny’s Child. I still jam to Survivor on the regular.

    I remember reading a style guide for how to dress like them in one of my old tween magazines. “Wear matching outfits but not totally matching outfits.”

  • Anna F. November 4th, 2011 6:02 PM

    Oh no wait, I also remember All Saints! For a while Blockbuster was giving out free post cards with one different member on each card. I remember begging my grandma to drive me to every Blockbuster in the city so that I could track down all four (they went fast)

  • Cahhhhhs November 4th, 2011 7:16 PM

    I remember 702. Whenever it’s 7:02 (AM or PM), I always find myself wondering, “where my girls at?”

  • Rita Unicornia November 4th, 2011 8:31 PM

    awww awesome post! I loooove rookie!
    I’m also a blogger, I’m Rita, a 14 year old girl who has a blog about another girl, Coco, who happens to be half blythe doll half human, I’d like you (who’s reading this) to follow and tell me what you think :)

  • Pashupati November 4th, 2011 8:31 PM

    I didn’t think R&B could be so melodic and powerful.
    Well, I must admit I didn’t seek to know, and thought “melodic and powerful” R&B bands would be almost unknown and I wouldn’t discover them by searching.

  • PeggySue November 4th, 2011 10:22 PM

    I am weeping with joy over this post.
    ‘Never Ever’ was one of the music videos that played before the Spice Girls movie I had on video (and used to watch religiously) and ‘No Scrubs’ was the official anthem my first school camp (I went to an all girls high school).

    R.I.P Left Eye <3

  • Dylan November 4th, 2011 11:09 PM

    YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES!!!!

  • Charlotte November 4th, 2011 11:48 PM

    I am not at all ashamed to say that TLC is one of my favorite bands EVER. I recently discovered a TLC shirt at a thrift store, and I have to fight the urge to wear it every day.

  • Stephanie November 5th, 2011 3:58 PM

    Great post! Love love loved TLC and En Vogue especially. Thanks for pointing me to some other stuff I hadn’t heard!

  • Kaetlebugg November 5th, 2011 7:55 PM

    So this is a bit later, but “Bootylicious” is definitely my favorite R&B girl group song, not least because it features Stevie Nicks, proving that girl gangs and sisterhood can transcend generations and genres!

  • folklaura November 5th, 2011 9:46 PM

    http://youtu.be/0uOzZRgJsX8 never forget!

  • Juniper November 5th, 2011 9:46 PM

    I was just listening to Destiny Child’s song “Girls” today and thought about Rookie and your Girl Gang theme. It’s the perfect song!

  • Tessa November 6th, 2011 12:22 AM

    YOU BROUGHT UP THE BOX! SUCH A GEM! I am so glad someone else knows what I’m talking about besides my childhood girlfriends. It used to fuel us during our sleepovers in 5th grade. How fantastic!

    OH man, these groups….good times. Destiny’s Child, I still cannot help but think of that white video for say my name with their different coloured outfits!

    • Anaheed November 6th, 2011 1:00 AM

      I spent my first date with the dude who became my husband watching the Box and requesting the same video (“Afro Puffs” by the Lady of Rage) over and over and over.

      • Tessa November 6th, 2011 12:33 PM

        That is so solid! I always remember Kelis’s ‘I hate you (So Much)’ with that clown hair! And Pink just came out on the scene! Every baby sitter I ever had loved me, because I was like 8 and was like “let’s kick on The Box’”

        Channel 107 forever!

        http://teafortessa.blogspot.com

      • Anaheed November 7th, 2011 12:31 AM

        Aaaaaaaaaah KELIS 4EVS. God, we should interview her.

  • Filia-Zissy November 6th, 2011 10:26 AM

    Unfortunatly I was born in the 90′s so I missed some nice things like those amazing girlgroups and the release of Harry Potter. I love the style of the 90′s and 0′s (do you call it 0′s? The time between 2000 and 2010? I mean the early 2000s.)

    http://filiasenchantingworld.blogspot.com/

  • Chandler November 7th, 2011 2:37 AM

    I love all of these posts.! And really, how great is it to wear the same things as your best friends. I did it when I was three and I will start again! Haha:)

  • chelseybell November 7th, 2011 8:37 AM

    My oldest sister used to make all three of us girls dress up like members of TLC, so this post was beyond awesome in my book.

  • Unibrowsmith November 9th, 2011 12:14 AM

    Aw man! You had to bring up “The Box”!! I used to watch SWV, Whitney Houston, Nate Dogg and Warren G and so many other videos on there!! Holy 90′s I feel old, but thanks for this!