Twenty years ago, I was living in Puerto Rico on a naval base in Sabana Seca. I was about 10 at the time, so my memories of my experiences there are fairly clear. I remember trips to the beach, eating fried plantain chips from street vendors in San Juan, field trips to El Yunque rain forest, bussing from the navy base to go to my school at the nearest army base, and even a giant snake getting caught in our fence. It was certainly the most unique period of my childhood when compared to the other places I grew up in like Alaska or Kentucky.
My life in Puerto Rico wasn’t really any different than any other child growing up elsewhere in the U.S. Realistically, it was practically the same. The only differences were minor cultural quirks. Of course, you can have these anywhere in the states. A child’s regional experience on in Portland, Oregon is going to differ from another’s regional experience in Portland, Maine. This is a big country. And when you get older and meet people from other parts of the country, you get more interested in these smaller regional differences because they are entertaining to hear. While others were probably catching lobster or hiking the Rockies, I was experiencing a different environment.
I could go on and on about the geographic and environmental differences, but this is a blog about music after all. So, let’s talk about music.
Looking back, I realized that I had a slightly different experience when it came to music. I have friends in Chicago who tell me about all the concerts they went to growing up. And these were shows with legendary bands like the Smashing Pumpkins or Nirvana. Acts like that didn’t come to Puerto Rico. And on the rare chance that they did, it wasn’t something I participated in. I didn’t even go to my first real concert until I was almost 20. At that point in my life, radio was everything.
The bus I took to school carried us from Sabana Seca to Fort Buchanan, a nearby army fort near San Juan. It was a standard school bus in appearance. It had the same ugly brown seats that fit two kids to a seat, smelled bad, and contained a social hierarchy where cool kids got to sit where they pleased. However, it had one unique characteristic. Music. For some reason, our school bus ride always had top 40 radio playing in it. And this happened every day unless we acted up too much. But, if we were good, the drivers always piped in the radio through the internal speakers on the ceiling. Looking back, I must’ve taken it for granted because cruising around Puerto Rico on a bus with pop radio tunes sounds really awesome right now.
The radio always played top 40 radio. And in 1997, we had all the big hits like Sugar Ray, Puff Daddy, and Backstreet Boys. These were pop radio hits that you couldn’t escape no matter where in North America you were. However, being in the Caribbean, we had access to a few different cultural things that gave our music listening experience a little unique flavor.
T-Spoon was a Dutch Eurodance group that formed in 1991. However, in 1997, they released their biggest single called “Sex on the Beach.” This song is just so incredibly happy and fun. It is a warm, sunny dance track that just makes you want to move. And being a kid, there also was the factor that the title was a little risqué. At 10, you couldn’t say the word “sex” let alone talk about it. At that age, you didn’t fully understand what sex was. I remember singing this song with friends substituting the line “I wanna have sex on the beach” with “I wanna eat snacks at the beach” just so we couldn’t get in trouble and still got to hear the song.
This week is the 20th anniversary of the single’s release and it has stuck with me the entire time. And the only reason why it has for this song is because this song represents and odd musical time capsule for me. Leaving Puerto Rico for Kentucky in 1998, I was transitioning to a new environment where kids had their own regional culture and interests. Suffice to say, there was no “Sex on the Beach.”
I have friends and peers who love the 1990s and are completely nostalgic for it. However, going through middle school, high school, and college, I couldn’t find a single person who knew this song. Sure, we knew a lot of the same music and I could understand their pop culture reference points. However, this song was a complete anomaly for my friends outside of the ones I had in Puerto Rico.
It actually took 20 years to find someone in the states who knew this song. It was a few months ago when I brought it up to a colleague. And they had heard the song. They vacationed in Jamaica in 1998 and said that the song was everywhere. And it was! It just seems so funny that the only way this person heard this song was because they were in the Caribbean when it was a hit.
I’m a little sad that the streak is broken. Two decades is a long time talking about a song that no one else had heard of and them looking at you funny when you talk about how much you love this top 40 radio hit that no one knows exists. I’m not big on nostalgia, but I appreciate the unique quirks from my formative years that sets me apart from anyone else. Even if it is something as small or minute as pop radio music, it is still a piece of you that you want to share. I love this song because it represents a specific point in my life and seems to have never left. The other hit songs from that day seem to live on through karaoke, nostalgic meme videos on Facebook, and amongst chats with friends. However, “Sex on the Beach” stays put where it is and doesn’t get to be timeless. And perhaps that makes it more fun and special. This silly pop song is special to me for its novelty of exclusivity. And that’s fine by me.