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What '90s music taught us about sex

Editorial Staff

By Dave Shumka

Puberty is a nightmare for everyone, from the kids experiencing this greasy transformation to the parents and teachers who have to explain sex to these horrified children. But kids like me who grew up in the early '90s had it especially rough. Not only did we have to deal with bovine-looking uterus diagrams and condom-clad bananas, we were also bombarded with a ton of explicitly sexual songs on the radio and TV, from artists like Salt-N-Pepa and Gillette.

There was nothing we could do. These songs would just come on the radio while our parents were driving and we would sit there silently. Change the radio station, and you acknowledge the discomfort. Do nothing, and you're stuck in traffic with your parents for three minutes, listening to a ballad about knocking boots (which is what we called it in those days).

When I say “explicitly sexual,” I don’t mean graphic. I just mean this was a period in which sexual metaphors and euphemisms were largely discarded in favour of literal language. While listeners of previous generations could draw their own conclusions from Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” my generation could only interpret Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” as a song about sexing someone up.

Sure, my older siblings had George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” to deal with, and kids born a few years later would have to decode the meaning in Missy Elliott’s “Work It.” The early '90s had a real explosion of sex songs. Here is how these songs filled in the gaps of what we learned in sex-ed class.

'Let’s Talk About Sex' by Salt-N-Pepa

What we learned: This song seems to be more about the talking than the sex. In fact, the first minute is all preamble about whether they should actually talk about sex. I guess the lesson was that sex isn’t as important as love, and it's OK to talk about it. And of course, since it was the early '90s, there was some talk about safe sex. Actually, this song was pretty straightforward, even for a confused tween. Maybe it was “Shoop” that stirred up all my hormones.

'I Wanna Sex You Up' by Color Me Badd

What we learned: “Sex you up” means “intercourse,” right? Or something close. The direction “up” doesn’t apply to the actual mechanics of sexing, right? I always thought these guys looked so smooth with their gigantic suits and manicured beards. I worried I was never gonna be like that and no woman was ever gonna let me sex them up, although from the looks of this video, I think I was fine with that. It made it look like sex is super serious and not fun, and the repeated line “Making love until we drown” was pretty worrisome, and the line “We can do it 'til we both wake up” implied some kind of bizarre fugue state. I guess I’ll stick with snapping girls' bras. At least that’s something I understand.

'Short Short Man' by Gillette and 20 Fingers

What we learned: Size matters, and when sex is the only thing on your mind, it’s like she’s singing just to you. I can honestly say, as a 13-year-old boy I wondered if I would ever measure up to the standards of this awful woman who also sang “Mr. Personality.” She’s so mean! Why did I care what she thinks?

'People are Still Having Sex' by LaTour

What we learned: The clinical spoken word and robotic beat made the song so emotionless, I remember thinking, “This is what sex must be like in Europe.” Can’t really explain why. Thanks to this song and my knowledge of time zones, I realized that at any time of day, someone on the planet is having sex, and that was incredibly exciting. I was still under the impression that sex could only be had at night (the love-making hours).

'Justify My Love' by Madonna

What we learned: The lyrics and the video made sex seem like some exhausting burden. Also, this was way too much to take in. I was a little boy who wanted to know a little bit about sex and this was the PhD program at Sex Mask University.

'Waterfalls' by TLC

What we learned: TLC was one of the safe-sexiest groups around, from Lisa Lopes’s condom glasses in “Hat 2 Da Back” to the HIV reference in “Waterfalls.” I was always confused by the line “She gives him loving that his body can't handle,” and the fact that it referred to the disease. I thought it referred to some kind of vigorous love-making, but even I knew that the quality of the experience had nothing to do with the likelihood of contracting a disease. I was like an idiot savant when it came to bedroom stuff.

'Detachable Penis' by King Missile

What we learned: This one’s pretty funny. I mean, the idea of a detachable penis. That’s ridiculous! Right? They’re not supposed to be detachable, right? Like, that’s super uncommon, isn’t it? Is mine supposed to be? How? Oh, it’s all a joke? I knew it.

'Sex Type Thing' by Stone Temple Pilots

What we learned: Even as a clueless kid, this song seemed phony. The title “Sex Type Thing” was so vague, it’s like they couldn’t quite identify it. Thanks anyway, STP.

'Cursed Female' by Porno for Pyros

What we learned: Oh, man. I don’t get sex at all. Is that what’s even going on in this video? Or did the band name cause me to jump to that conclusion? This was the most confusing thing I’d ever seen in Grade 7. Apparently sex has a stark and sinister side. Remind me not to ask my teacher about this.

Follow Dave Shumka on Twitter: @daveshumka.