This may seem bizarre to us in 2017, but Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” wasn’t just a hit in 1999 — it was one of the hits, peaking at No. 9 in a top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 that November that was topped by the inescapable “Smooth” and featured “Mambo No. 5,” “I Need To Know,” “Unpretty,” “Back at One,” and “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” all songs deeply embedded in the ‘90s canon.
At No. 9 in this week’s Hot 100 is Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” which is ... well, it’s kind of musically interesting, and some of the words are at least melodically well-arranged. No. 1 is “Despacito,” as inescapable as “Smooth” and maybe half as good in its bastardized, Bieber-ized version. (The original is much better.) “Wild Thoughts” and “Bodak Yellow” and “Unforgettable” are all there, but there’s also Charlie Puth’s leaden, jaundiced “Attention,” and Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” their latest imitation of a rock song. Yo Gotti’s “Rake It Up” — a song that is as nursery rhyme-y as a strip-club anthem has ever been — at least spares us from Liam Payne’s cringing “Strip That Down” being a top-10 hit at this morning.
Save maybe “Bodak Yellow,” I feel confident in saying, none of this week’s hits will land near the top 10 of this year’s Pazz and Jop poll of music critics — but “Steal My Sunshine” did. In fact, it was No. 3 on the year-end 1999 list, sandwiched between Eminem and Madonna. For an indie-pop song that would turn out to be a one-hit wonder, that’s pretty damn good critical reception.
I say all that to say this: What “Steal My Sunshine” is saying, other than its veiled threat in the hook (“I know it’s up for me / If you steal my sunshine...”), is utterly incomprehensible.
Maybe it’s a riff on Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” but only structurally, with male and female singers trading off (there are far better structural riffs on “Don’t You Want Me”. It’s supposed to be about a rave, or maybe making up after a fight, but the way the vocals are mixed, directly into the middle of the track, and the structure of the verses as AAAAAABB octets makes practically all sound the same — so lines about “lunar tribal speak” and “a gleaming tare in a staring under heat” run together to the point of nothingness. In effect, if not in intent, this is a song of nothingness, words plucked from a haze and set in shade, just to exist and not to be examined.
And that’s perfect. See, “Steal My Sunshine” sounds like summer, its airy production all but a breeze. Its video looks like summer because it was filmed in Daytona Beach during Spring Break, when all the world tries to have summer in April in a state that increasingly seems to have no other seasons, and because everyone was hungover at all times. And it rose to popularity in the summer of 1999 partly because of sleeper hit Go, a movie by Doug Liman — who has directed such disparate stuff as Swingers, The Bourne Identity, and Edge of Tomorrow — including it on its soundtrack.
Stealing my sunshine, then, just sounded — and sounds — like ending summer. Out of the incomprehensible comes a clarity that functions as truth — even though the guy who wrote and performed the song said of it, in 2016, “I don’t even understand how people relate to it.”
Kendrick Lamar is a lot less incomprehensible when he comes to a mic. His words are run through clarity and truth. And his “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is a spiritual successor to “Steal My Sunshine” in a completely different lane.
If you’ve heard “Vibe,” you know it, and you know what it’s about before the first verse:
I am a sinner
Who’s prob’ly gonna sin again
Lord, forgive me
Lord, forgive me
Things I don’t understand
Sometimes I need to be alone
Bitch, don’t kill my vibe
Bitch, don’t kill my vibe
I can feel your energy from two planets away
I got my drink, I got my music
I would share it, but today I’m yellin’...
All about standing on your own and away from haters, right? Lamar wrote it as an explicitly anti-music industry song, and it’s withering in its shots at those who would compromise him and his art — the first two rapped bars are “Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich / Look inside of your soul and you can find out it never exist,” which should be a lethal shot for whomever Kendrick’s scoped.
Except that that really isn’t what “Vibe” does, or what it means.
Kendrick is lyrically deft over the airy Sounwave production, but not ripping up the track by any means, and he’s in a mode that makes his bars more clever than cutting. His explanation of his differences from the industry is not much deeper than “You are A, I am B — and I will never be A.” By the end of the second verse, he’s vowing to “break out” of a box he’s been stuck in “and then hide every lock” — but it’s less a call to action or a campaign slogan than an affirmation.
And it doesn’t really fit on Kendrick’s magisterial, exquisitely-sequenced good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Not, at least, in its spot between an album opener that explains who Kendrick is and hints at why chasing Sherane is gonna go poorly and “Backseat Freestyle,” a song so giddily steeped in the joy of rapping with one’s homies long before one could ever arguably be on that even Taylor Swift could feel it. “Vibe” is being on and telling everyone you could never be off; “Backseat Freestyle” is set several years before that.
Yet it ended up being the only genuine “summer” single off good kid.
The (fantastic) “The Recipe,” released well in advance of the album, captured the California summer perfectly, but fell off most dials long before the summer of 2012. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” dropped in July of that year, but is so dark — it’s literally a cautionary tale about drinking — that it almost feels like an anti-summer single. “Backseat Freestyle” was a minor, never-pushed hit. “Poetic Justice” was summery, but got worked as a single in January 2013, and felt as atonal then as “Swimming Pools” as a late-summer single did during its run.
And then, in March 2013, with the critical and commercial success of good kid fully established, Jay-Z — still Jay-Z then, with the hyphen — hopped on the “Vibe” remix. Kendrick tried vainly to keep it somewhat about shunning success (“Trinidad Jame$ in four weeks, but now my album platinum and shit / So what? Y’all keep the numbers”) before Shawn Carter did a very Shawn Carter thing. Jay’s verse begins with the words “Up in the clouds, me and my spouse” — the humblest possible way to refer to being on a plane with Beyonce, I suppose — and touches on him visiting the White House and “sitting next to Hillary, smellin’ like dank.”
The “Vibe” remix is a schizophrenic song — one man pulling it down to earth, one man peering down from the sky, and the female voice present, frequent Kendrick collaborator Anna Wise, just dwelling among them — and it was the good kid song I heard for months on the radio. It didn’t chart as high as “Swimming Pools,” nor was it a runaway hit, but it is the song I think of when I think of hearing Kendrick really blow up on radio — and it took it getting a little more confusing, and better-equipped for the heat haze of summer, for it to get there.
1,300 words into this post, you may be probably wondering what the hell it has to do with the Florida Gators and college football. That’s fair.
But what has the last week taught us about, if not the heat haze of summer, stealing sunshine, and killing vibes?
Jordan Scarlett — and Rick Wells, who was all but an uncredited vocalist on the “They’re Suspended, Too” single Florida released earlier this week — doing something dumb, something like the something dumb the seven other Gators suspended did, cast this week into shadow. But what could have compelled them to do whatever it is that they did — the truth of that thing, we may never know, seeing as it is being masterfully kept from the world by the combination of deliberate obfuscation, polite dancing around of questions, and the privacy rights that cops more or less maintain when not leaking like sieves — except for the heat-induced stupor of a Florida summer?
So many Florida fans have reacted to the actions — and, really, to the discipline meted out by Florida for those actions — by acting as if Scarlett, Wells, Antonio Callaway and the rest have stolen their sunshine, killed their vibes. And, to a degree, I get it: You want to see Florida win, and the things that make Florida winning less likely frustrate you.
No suspension — no suspensions — for something this seemingly inconsequential, this relatively benign, could get me down for the first game of the season. Florida’s had those, time and again, for years now: Suspensions that didn’t even get mentioned publicly until reported in profiles of an alleged murderer, suspensions to the oft-suspended, suspensions that were erroneously reported to the great fury of a coach capable of summoning it. 18- to 23-year-old men do dumb shit all the time — I was one, I know — but so long as the damage done isn’t permanent, and any crimes perpetrated aren’t unforgivable, these things tend to be handled and forgiven and forgotten.
21 years ago, another Florida player stood accused of a crime similar to those the Gators not in Dallas this Saturday afternoon allegedly committed. That player was Fred Taylor, who had already previously used a stolen credit card with other teammates to order just over $70 of pizza, and his coach, Steve Spurrier, suspended him for four games to begin the 1996 season.
Spurrier defended Taylor, too, and implied that he wasn’t actually out of chances at that juncture.
'There's all kinds of categories for messing up,'' Spurrier said. ''There's violent acts and stupid acts. Most of Fred's have fallen into the stupid category.
''I don't put him into the category of some of those other players around here that got into fistfights and had some violent actions going on.''
You may know the rest of Fred Taylor’s story. It ended well, for him and for Florida.
And maybe that was different, because Taylor missed games against Louisiana and Georgia Southern and Tennessee and Kentucky, not a season-opening clash against Michigan, or because Florida’s 1996 team was loaded with talent that would cohere to win the school’s first national championship, or because 1996 did not have a Twitter or a Facebook or anything but the most rudimentary of message boards for Jolene Fan to express her displeasure with how stupid Taylor was, how selfish he is, how he’s throwing away everything he and the team worked for.
Or maybe it isn’t, actually, different, not really.
I have been working in online sports media for money for nearly a decade, and I’m not even out of my 20s yet. And I’ve been a consumer of it for maybe 15 years, dating back to a time when ESPN really was a subsidiary of go.com, when an AOL sports trivia chat room was a refuge for an awkward kid who didn’t know any fans as devout or dorky his own, when someone in that chat room mentioned reading Deadspin and I checked it out.
What originally attracted me to the communities arrayed around sports online was the bonhomie. There was a camaraderie to the Deadspin comments section, snarky and cynical as it could be, and an ethos to The Big Lead, and a standard at The Sporting Blog, where I got my start as a paid writer in 2009. This was in a time before “Don’t read the comments” was de rigueur, when you could hope that people would read and discuss thoughtful posts, when nothing was so popular that it occasioned blowback.
Bit by bit, that all evaporated.
Cynicism became cruelty. Writing done for the joy of it became labor exchanged for money. Hanging with friends in virtual sports bars begat everything being “for the boys” in ways that have chased out the women — and the “boys” not within the smallish demographic target — who had always quietly been a part of the communities I enjoyed.
And as the world of sports got smaller and pettier, so did the world, spilling over in a year when spite and distrust and lies and slander overwhelmed a system that we were too blind or hopeful or naïve to believe could withstand such an assault. I heard people say things about candidates that they’d said about their team’s rival’s star player, saw the same sort of tribalism and retrenchment that I deal with daily. I sought refuge in sports, as much as I could, as my own life was uprooted and upset, and I couldn’t, for the first time, find it.
Then came Florida’s stupid baseball team, and its stupid, ridiculous run to its first national championship. Like virtually every Florida team to break through before it, that championship squad wasn’t supposed to be the one that won — but it did, and it did in appropriately satisfying and nouveau riche fashion. The Florida teams that have become the last teams to win first national championships in Division I football, men’s basketball, and baseball all defeated established powers to do so — and those established powers had a combined 18 national championships to the Gators’ zero at the times those championship tilts commenced.
Florida breaks through when I don’t expect it, or even necessarily want it. For much of the last year, running Alligator Army has been more burden than blessing, and covering baseball into the late hours of summer nights was — is — not my favorite thing to do.
What came at the end of that season, though, was almost precisely my favorite kind of work: Appreciating and marveling at and reveling in greatness. And it was a reminder that being invested in sports will always, even in the brief moments when it is mere distraction from a world fraying at its seams, allow me an opportunity to do that.
I don’t know if Florida will beat Michigan in a manner that exhibits greatness today. I don’t know if Florida will beat Michigan, period. I do know that I plan on enjoying the damn game, regardless, and not letting this and that slight and sling diminish my joy.
Today, at least, my sunshine will not be stolen, and my vibe cannot be killed.
May today bring you pieces of that same peace.