You’re 9 years old, it’s 1997, and you’re cruising down the highway in the backseat of the family station wagon while your parents argue over directions. Then, suddenly, your favorite song—“I Want You” by Savage Garden—comes on the radio, and everything melts away.
Anytime I need to see your face,
I just close my eyes
And I am taken to a place where
your crystal mind and
Magenta feelings take up shelter
in the base of my spine
Sweet like a chic-a-cherry cola
You’re feeling it. This is your song, baby. You start belting the chorus:
Ooh I want you, I don’t know if I need you, but
Ooh I’d die to find out
And then your parents veer onto the curb. I’m sorry, is this song about having a wet dream?
Yes. Yes it is.
In hindsight, it’s a harmless embarrassment, and one so common it was recently explored in a short-lived meme: loudly singing lyrics that are obviously about something we didn’t understand at all. But it’s hard not to wonder: Did little boys walking around with the lyrics of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” reverberating in their growing brains fuck them up for good?
There’s no way for me to prove it didn’t. So I might as well explore the songs that messed up my millennial peers the most.
Sum 41, ‘Fat Lip’
“What immediately comes to mind is ‘The doctor said my mom should’ve had an abortion,’” my co-worker tells me, referencing the iconic Sum 41 song “Fat Lip.” “My dad definitely asked me about that when I was 10 years old, screaming it at the family computer.”
Third Eye Blind, ‘Semi-Charmed Life’
“I was really into alt-rock just from the radio,” says a male friend, who now plays guitar in his own (adult) rock band. “I used to secretly listen to it in bed late at night.” What was he listening to? “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind. “It’s all about drugs and sex. But I was a little 9-year-old just loving it.”
My older brother had the same realization much later in life. “‘Semi-Charmed Life’ is totally about doing crystal meth,” he says. “Didn’t know that as a kid.”
How did we not know? The words “crystal meth” are right there and no one seemed to notice.
The sky it was gold, it was rose
I was taking sips of it through my nose
And I wish I could get back there
Someplace back there
Smiling in the pictures you would take
Doing crystal meth
Will lift you up until you break
Another friend says he and his brother would “SING that” as kids. Did he know what crystal meth is? “Definitely not. Sounded delicious though. Like sugary breakfast cereal.”
Honestly, is Stephan Jenkins okay?
Green Day, ‘Longview’
Speaking of meth, Billie Joe Armstrong’s confession “smoking my inspiration” is the cherry-on-top of a classic song about masturbation my editor sang endlessly as a kid, having no idea what these lines meant:
Bite my lip and close my eyes
Take me away to paradise
Some say quit or I’ll go blind
But it’s just a myth
Naughty by Nature, ‘O.P.P.’
The friend in a band mentions loving the song “O.P.P.” What does it mean? Rapper Treach spells it out repeatedly in the lyrics, so it’s weird none of us actually knew what we were hollering as kids—a song about sleeping with another guy’s girlfriend.
O is for “other,” P is for “people’s,” scratch your temple
The last P, well, that’s not that simple
It’s sort of like, well, another way to call a cat a kitten
It’s five little letters that are missin’ here
“It was maybe the first rap song I learned all the lyrics to,” he says. “I didn’t realize as a kid that OPP stood for ‘other people’s pussy,’ so that one is both dirty and misogynistic.”
The Offspring, ‘Self Esteem’
She’s drunk again and looking to score
Now I know I should say no
But it’s kind of hard when she’s ready to go
I may be dumb, but I’m not a dweeb
I’m just a sucker with no self-esteem
“That’s a lot to unpack when you’re 8 or 9,” a co-worker of mine reflects. A lot indeed.
“I used to know all the verses to ‘Shoop’ as a kid, but didn’t realize how sexual it was,” another male coworker tells me. “I just liked the rhythm.” He then adds (out of guilt?): “I think I mumbled it. It’s not like I ever read the lyrics.”
Felt it in my hips so I dipped back to my bag of tricks
Then I flipped for a tip, make me wanna do tricks for him
Lick him like a lollipop should be licked
And don’t forget Big Twan’s verse at the end:
They want my bod, here’s the hot rod (hot rod)
Twelve inches to a yard and have you sounding like a retard
Michael Jackson, ‘Billie Jean’
Another male friend preferred the paternal dilemma presented in “Billie Jean” as a young lad. “My friend had the Michael Jackson Greatest Hits,” he explains. “I would literally belt ‘the kid is not my son’ with my little high voice.”
Aqua, ‘Barbie Girl’
What about a track that is so clearly about objectification that the woman in the song is a literal doll? Yes, I am talking about “Barbie Girl” by Aqua, a song another male friend unearthed from his subconscious for me. Specifically, “the part where she’s like, ‘You can brush my hair, undress me anywhere.’” He doesn’t expound upon this memory, and I don’t push, for fear of traumatizing him — because the lyrics get even creepier.
I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world
Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly
You’re my doll, rock’n’roll, feel the glamour in pink
Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky-panky
You can touch
you can play
if you say “I’m always yours”
Sublime, ‘Wrong Way’
Is it my friend’s fault for belting the song “Wrong Way” by Sublime as a young child, when it’s reggae-inspired melody is so fantastically catchy? No way. “I thiiiiink the subtext is basically about fucking a 14-year-old hooker,” he tells me, before correcting himself: “Not even subtext.”
To be fair, it’s not clear if the narrator actually goes through with it. He’s more determined to rescue Annie, although, he admits, “I am only a man, so I take her to the can.” They run away together, and then she runs away from him. After all, she only wants the wrong way.
Alanis Morissette, ‘You Oughta Know’
A male friend tells me, “I was obsessed with Alanis Morissette and would jump up and down on the couch as a kid singing ‘You Oughta Know,’ which includes these lyrics…”
An older version of me
Is she perverted like me?
Would she go down on you in a theater?
“I just Googled when that album came out,” he tells me. “I would have been 9 years old at the time.”
Maybe there’s just no avoiding it—American pop music will always be dirty, and we just have to rely on kids knowing very little. So who knows what they’re picking up from YouTuber rap battles or whatever kids are into today. As my older brother concludes after spilling his guts, “Raffi gets paid for a reason.”