Song 268: TLC, “Waterfalls” (1995)

TLC [CrazySexyCool]

A few days ago, I was waiting in a subway station. It was crowded and loud, but I could faintly hear a guy singing a melody that sounded vaguely familiar. Then I realized, without being able to make out the words, that he was singing “Waterfalls” by TLC.

I don’t mention this to somehow impress you with my subway listening skills. I mention this to point out how indelible this song has become, how everyone knows its very simple, but very effective melody. There are only three chords in the whole song, but you never think there should be more, or that the song is too repetitive. Even without the (excellent) whistles and bells of the recorded version, the song is never boring. It just is.

When I walked closer to the guy in the subway station, I saw that he was playing guitar, singing, and tapping a tambourine with his foot. It was an arrangement that complemented the song’s sad vision of the urban status quo (one made even more stark by the fact that the guy singing looked like he had seen better days).

Like “One Time,” “Waterfalls” isn’t cynical about poverty. It’s realistic, and if anything, it’s slightly more optimistic than the Roots track in that it leaves much about the characters’ circumstances up to individual decisions, leaving some room for hope. Then again, the song’s pivotal line—”I say the system’s got you victim to your own mind,” buried in Left Eye’s rap—ascribes blame to that same rigged game, the one that blocks the narrator of “One Time.”

Am I thinking too much about “Waterfalls,” a song we all love belting out at karaoke nights and in our cars during traffic jams? Probably. But that’s the great thing about music: you hear it in a subway station, and all of a sudden it’s new again.

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