The 1990s Girl Group Renaissance
Three decades after the Supremes began their run as the most successful girl group of the 1960s, a new wave of predominantly R&B female acts flooded the music scene. From groups in the street-corner doo-wop mold (En Vogue, SWV) to perfectly packaged pop confections (the Spice Girls) and hip-hop acts (TLC), these performers flourished in the 1990s, delivering girl-power anthems at a time when third-wave feminism was also taking root.
En Vogue jump-started the R&B girl group renaissance in 1990 with its debut album, Born to Sing. When assembling the group, producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy originally wanted a trio in the grand tradition of the Supremes and the Ronettes. But even as a quartet, En Vogue had the polished presentation, shiny bouffant hairdos and tight harmonies that seemed like an homage, if not an outright throwback.
That tribute is clearest in En Vogue’s video for “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” a song Curtis Mayfield wrote for the 1976 girl group film Sparkle. The video opens with En Vogue dressing up as a Motown act, with a nod to the endeavor’s artifice. When the curtain rises on a cabaret stage, the ladies, clad in tight ankle-length dresses and opera gloves, belt the sensual cover with updated R&B style.
In a way, girl groups are never far from their 1960s roots. When Alicia Keys performed a Motown-flavored set at the 2008 BET Awards, it included a supertribute reuniting En Vogue, SWV and TLC to sing their biggest hits. Keys made Motown new again with the help of three groups who had done the same before her.
Producer Wyclef Jean introduced Destiny’s Child as the “young Supremes” during his guest rap on the group’s first top-10 single, “No, No, No Part 2” (1997). For better or worse, the comparison dogged the girls throughout their career.
From the beginning, Beyoncé Knowles helmed Destiny’s Child, while Kelly Rowland claimed the oxymoronic title “second lead vocalist.” The pair created an easy comparison to the Supremes’ glamorous headliner, Diana Ross, and her longtime sidekick, Mary Wilson. This setup all but guaranteed that Beyoncé would pursue a solo career, as Ross had done. When Beyoncé took the Ross-like role of Deena in the 2006 film adaptation of the 1981 stage musical Dreamgirls, it seemed like an admission, perhaps even atonement.
In Dreamgirls Deena is promoted as the group’s lead over soulful singer Effie (representing real-life Supreme Florence Ballard) because of Deena’s good looks and smooth, easy-on-the-ears pop voice. After the film hit theaters, Ross told The Detroit News, “I have not seen it because I know it is not our story, and I know that they have taken images and likenesses of our story.” Evidently, Wilson didn’t mind the resemblance: She titled her 1986 autobiography Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme.
The first single from The Writing’s on the Wall, the breakthrough Destiny’s Child album, was “Bills, Bills, Bills.” If its rejection of mooching misters sounds an awful lot like TLC’s monster hit “No Scrubs,” it’s because the songs share the same writing team, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs and Kandi Burruss (now a Real Housewives of Atlanta star). The songs were so ubiquitous in 1999 they both inspired response tracks from male rap parodists Sporty Thievz, but their “Can’t Pay Your Bills” and “No Pigeons” lack the originals’ sting.
This wasn’t the first time Destiny’s Child was caught clinging to TLC’s coattails. In its preteen incarnation, Destiny’s Child was called Girls Tyme, and when the group appeared on Star Search, in 1993, its performance was TLC-esque: The girls mixed singing and rapping while sporting lots of attitude and bright, baggy clothes.
Some dismissed “Bills, Bills, Bills” as a TLC knockoff, but Destiny’s Child was pioneering its own style with a conversational flow of melody. The group’s slippery-smooth vocals above syncopated beats were as fresh and ear-catching as TLC’s blend of hip-hop, funk, soul and R&B had been seven years earlier.
The two most successful girl groups of the 1990s, TLC and the Spice Girls, were also the best at branding their members’ individuality. Each TLC bandmate represented a distinct musical style: Lead singer T-Boz was funk, Left Eye was rap, and Chilli was mainstream R&B. The title of the group’s 1994 album, CrazySexyCool, drove home the compartmentalization. Each woman embodied one of the traits (Left Eye = Crazy, Chilli = Sexy, T-Boz = Cool), but the ultimate message implied that a well-rounded female should somehow combine all three.
Each step in the evolution of TLC’s image, from hard-hitting hip-hop tomboys to “crazysexycool” pop crossover powerhouse, was cannily calculated, but the Spice Girls were branded more or less by accident. Top of the Pops magazine gave each performer a moniker to match her persona, and the labels stuck: Scary, Baby, Ginger, Posh and Sporty Spice presented an “everywoman” mishmash that broadened the group’s appeal.
Music videos reinforced the branding. The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” features Sporty in track pants, Baby in pigtails and Posh in a little black dress. TLC’s early videos use captions to categorize the members’ musical styles, and the singers’ nicknames flash on-screen during their verses.
Abrupt breakups and personnel changes were de rigueur for 1990s girl groups. LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett claimed they didn’t know they had been replaced in Destiny’s Child until the “Say My Name” video appeared—without them in it. Lead singer Cheryl “Coko” Gamble left SWV (Sisters With Voices) to begin an ill-fated solo career. And En Vogue continues to limp along following the defection of its two most charismatic members, Maxine Jones and Dawn Robinson.
In TLC’s case, T-Boz and Chilli vowed never to replace Left Eye after her death in a 2002 car accident. But they flirted with the idea: The 2005 reality show R U the Girl? offered the winner the chance to contribute to a new single. TLC brought in another sub for a performance at the 2013 American Music Awards, but rapper Lil Mama, who portrayed Left Eye in VH1’s 2013 biopic Crazy Sexy Cool: The TLC Story, couldn’t do justice to Left Eye’s signature “Waterfalls” verse.
Riding that biopic’s success, SWV soon landed its own reality series, SWV Reunited. Production values have improved in the decade since R U the Girl?, but Reunited seems to be documenting SWV’s continued unraveling instead of a joyous reunion.
TLC and the Spice Girls delivered themes of female empowerment to break through the boy-band barrier of the late 1980s and early 1990s. TLC began as a tomboyish hip-hop group, sister act to “new jack swing” boy bands like Bell Biv DeVoe, who fused hip-hop with R&B; the Spice Girls were a boisterous response to British lad culture. While the Spice Girls emphasized vague feel-good notions of self-acceptance and female bonding, TLC pushed a sex-positive message that earned comparisons to female rappers Salt-n-Pepa, whose hits “Push It” and “Let’s Talk About Sex” had opened the conversation.
TLC clarified that women can wield power in sex not through abstinence or promiscuity but through control. The group’s first album includes safe-sex lyrics, and to promote it the members accessorized their clothes with condoms. They also portrayed the fictitious group Sex as a Weapon in the 1994 comedy House Party 3. TLC’s more mature sophomore chart topper, CrazySexyCool, asserted a woman’s right to cheat (“Creep”) and to request cunnilingus (“Red Light Special”). The trio’s later hit “No Scrubs” enlarged these earlier demands for a condom-wearing, sexually satisfying partner: Give us one who doesn’t need a woman to pay his bills, too.
As the last great girl group of the 1990s, Destiny’s Child reconciled the Spice Girls’ girl-power themes, TLC’s street cred and En Vogue’s slinky glamour into a coherent whole and launched the new millennium’s biggest female superstar (so far), Beyoncé.
Destiny’s Child asserted women’s financial, emotional, social and sexual independence on a slew of hits. In fact, the group was so identified with dissing subpar suitors that when the 2001 single “Survivor” came out, with its shipwreck-themed video, it seemed like another defiant ex-boyfriend rebuttal. But the lyrics actually inform two litigious former members that Destiny’s Child will endure without them. The song’s more passive-aggressive lines supply the immortal couplet “I’m not gon’ hate on you in the magazines / I’m not gon’ compromise my Christianity.”
Since going solo, Beyoncé has sassed indecisive boyfriends, explored double standards between the sexes and advocated female world domination. But in 2013, Queen Bey stepped up her feminist credentials: Her song “Flawless” features an excerpt from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on feminism, and the singer contributed an essay to The Shriver Report entitled “Gender Equality Is a Myth!”
Though often associated with the Spice Girls, the term girl power actually emerged with the riot grrrl movement spearheaded by, among others, feminist punk band Bikini Kill. In 1991 the group emblazoned the slogan on the cover of its self-titled zine’s second issue, which includes a manifesto decrying “bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-Semitism and heterosexism.” With its celebration of difference, Bikini Kill’s third-wave feminism expanded beyond the previous generation’s emphasis on gender equality.
Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna wasn’t thrilled to see the Spice Girls co-opt girl power as simply a sisters-before-misters mantra. “It seems like whenever anything has a chance to become radical in pop culture, they just get the Monkees to do it,” Hanna said, comparing the Spice Girls’ defanged, commercialized feminist posturing to the made-for-TV 1960s pop band. Still, she has conceded that “really little kids may be able to overlook the bullshit and get inspired by them.… It can be cool if little girls are turning it into something that works for them or if people hear ‘girl power’ and they want to know more about it, so they go to the library instead of going to the mall.”