A Million Miles of Fun: Listening To Len's "Steal My Sunshine" 20 Years L-A-T-E-R
The 1990s, particularly the musical culture that defined the decade, was marked by a lot of things: irony, disaffectedness, angst. But "randomness" might be the most crucial component. '90s radio was a Wild West of jock jams, Pearl Jam and Nirvana imitators, ska, big band swing, the tail end of New Jack swing, the front end of Timbaland and people of all walks of life who rapped with varying degrees of success, sometimes over loud guitars. And Cake. At least the 2010s developed social media as a support network to espouse complicated feelings over something like Rebecca Black (or "OId Town Road," for that matter). The '90s did not provide memes to bring people together and help make sense of "Tubthumping." We were all alone. But we made it.
Len's "Steal My Sunshine" was one of the decade's last true non-sequiturs. It doesn't matter that the mysterious Canadian outfit put out two albums before "Sunshine" home You Can't Stop the Bum Rush or has since apparently released two others. Len, definitively, in the public eye, came from nowhere, to whence they returned, but not before offering history some butter tarts. (If you've been wondering for 20 years, the Canadian treat resembles mini pecan pies sans pecans. They're better than you think.)
No one knows who "Len" is supposed to be, least of all Marc and Sharon Costanzo, the brother and sister who became one-hit wonders under that moniker. That's asking dangerous questions, like who Harvey Danger is or what the "182" in Blink-182 stands for. Let the chaos be and it will reward you with pop bliss. So we are avowedly not going to steal everybody’s collective sunshine and run "Now the funny glare to pay a gleaming tare in a staring under heat / Involved an under usual feat / And I'm not only among but I invite who I want to come" through Google Translate.
We are going to celebrate the Costanzo siblings’ giggly homemade boredom, though, because it gives that of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas a run for their (piles of) money. You Can't Stop the Bum Rush is a pinnacle of randomness, the cherry (or smoked salmon) on the Dadaist sundae that is the 1990s. Musicians on this thing include hip-hop pioneers Kurtis Blow and Biz Markie, Poison guitarist C.C. Deville, Broken Social Scene plug Brendan Canning and future croaky alt-rap cult hero Buck 65, who also appears in cartoon form on the cover, second from left. The only thing more unlikely than this combination of people is the album bearing a hit single, which of course sounds like none of the above-named artists. (In this ridiculously entertaining interview with Marc Costanzo, he says Sum 41's Deryck Whibley was present when he recorded vocals. Was every Canadian musician involved with Len? Did 13-year-old Drake deliver pizza to the studio?)
Because this was the '90s, Len weren’t even the only Canadians working the Completely Irreplicable and Somewhat Frighteningly Eclectic circuit; sh*t would’ve hit the fan if Bran Van 3000 started a turf war (those kids had a girl-group cover of "Cum on Feel the Noize" that starts acoustic and ends techno). But Len were The Killers to BV3’s The Bravery, so to speak, and their reward was a song that your regular, non-weird-music friends remember in 2019.
"Steal My Sunshine" is one of those tunes that was everywhere in part because the seeds for it had been planted in part by the Andrea True Connection’s "More, More, More" saturating discos in 1976 (True herself had a bonkers story, acting in more than 50 porn films before reaching Number Four on the Hot 100). "Sunshine," which sampled True’s bridge for that iconic opening hook, was merely its final form. Stylistically, "Steal My Sunshine" is inarguably pop, though the tone of it is gloriously incongruent even with itself. Marc and Sharon’s voices border on twee, with a breezy delivery that speaks to directly to the song’s famous soft-serve vibe.
But the words, whatever you make of them, speak to fighting off something dark. Taking a cue from the canned candid dialogue of Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song),” the Costanzos’ verses each begin with concerned friends discussing them: “Man, I’ve never seen Sharon look so bad before.” But this alarm is confusingly offset by the cheery narrators themselves. Are we supposed to believe Sharon’s hit rock bottom because she’s made [checks notes] an “eight-foot heap” of Slurpee straws? (Holy hell that’s a specific and esoteric image.) Is this a weird Canadian in-joke? Depression in 1999 sounds significantly preferable to depression in 2019.
The chorus, which everybody kind of knows (did you know you were going to be singing “keeping dumb and built to beat” before it appeared on the karaoke screen? You did not), has a loving sound to it, of the two reassuring each other of things that may keep their heads up. But that’s under the strange stipulation of promising to steal each other’s sunshine, not to prevent the thievery of said Vitamin D. This threatens to blow “Steal My Sunshine” wide open as potentially the most mysterious are-they-vampires song since Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom.”
You Can’t Stop the Bum Rush, on its face, looks like the weirdest part of the Len saga. Once it gets the hit out of the way, the rapping begins (“Cryptik Souls Crew,” “Beautiful Day”), in comes with the squeal of rock guitar (“Feelin’ Alright,” “Cheekybugger”), and occasionally some atmospheric lounge funk (“Junebug”) or krautrock (“The Hard Disk Approach”) takes up residence like they’re the friggin’ Avalanches. But plenty of ‘90s radio anomalies made albums that sounded nothing like their reason for being (wait ‘til you hear the rest of the Sugar Ray album “Fly” is on) and the biggest shock is how little “Steal My Sunshine” — which is very possibly an anti-sunshine song — makes sense when held up to the, um, light.
Ultimately, the underlying bizarreness, enigmatic characters (in that aforementioned Stereogum interview, Marc Costanzo mentions in passing that he and his sister “really haven’t talked in a while” as of 2016), and uncanny industry connections only serve to further cement “Steal My Sunshine” as a legendary pop blip. If you have more questions than answers now about a sweet tune that you assumed had less to ponder than, say, “Closing Time,” well, you’re welcome. Bring on the memes. Your move, Lil Nas X.