Summer is a state of mind as much as it is a season. If it’s a meagre 57 degrees out but you’re driving around with nowhere to be⁠—radio crackling, sun prickling the skin on the one arm you’ve got hanging out the window, large Coke sweating into the cup holder⁠—that’s summer. If it’s the height of July and you’re itching in a polyblend uniform, working too much to even step foot outdoors let alone consider the possibilities of the evening ahead⁠—that’s not summer.

Summer is about being optimistic and aimless. It’s sensory pleasures; the smell of sizzling onions wafting across a park, the sound of rushing water spilling through the open window of someone having a 5 p.m. shower. It’s sending messages like “what are you up to later?”, and the anticipation that fills the gap between clocking out and ordering a beer so cold it hurts to hold the bottle.

There are cultural artifacts, too, that fill you with the urge to go tops off even when there’s four feet of snow outside. The sensations of summer are bottled in the sweltering tension of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, in Elena Ferrante’s bronzed, blissed-out Neapolitan Novels, in every second of every note Lana Del Rey has ever sung. But there’s one song in particular that has the power to switch your brain to "summer mode" more than anything else. I’m talking, of course, about “Steal My Sunshine” by the Canadian alt-rock band Len.

“Steal My Sunshine” is a hit of raw happiness. To hear it is to feel your chest split open and time slow down, as those opening house chords and woodblock hits demand you clear the next three minutes and 46 seconds of your day to listen to it. This has been the case since it was released 23 years ago, and it will be the case 23 years from now, because “Steal My Sunshine” is the people’s hit single. It made its way into the charts not by canny marketing, but by sheer force of vibes, and has held an essential place in pop culture ever since.

The song initially came out on the soundtrack to the 1999 ecstasy caper Go, and received so much airplay that Len’s label (EMI subsidiary The WORK Group) were forced to bring the release of their third album You Can't Stop the Bum Rush forward by several weeks. “Steal My Sunshine” was its lead single, out in June 1999, and a few months later, it went stratospheric. The song became a top 40 hit in eight countries, was nominated for a Juno Award, and prompted hundreds of remixes that continue to thump out of sound systems at functions around the world. Arguably its biggest achievement is being certified platinum in the U.S., Australia and the U.K.⁠—making it one of precious few songs that all three countries can agree is the perfect soundtrack for chewing your lips off.

Now into its fourth decade as a cultural touchstone, the legacy of “Steal My Sunshine” shows no signs of withering. It’s been covered by Cherry Glazerr and Portugal. The Man, the Goon Sax, Charly Bliss and Bikini Trill in the last few years alone, and the Maine smashed out a version for their covers album in 2016. Perhaps more than anywhere else, its influence can be detected in the feel-good slacker energy of present-day Lorde, who referenced Len directly—alongside A Tribe Called Quest and S Club 7—in a list of early 2000s “sun-soaked” bangers that inspired the title track from her 2021 album,  “Solar Power”. (Listen to a mashup of the two songs and it’s clear how much DNA they share.) It’s an oddball one-hit wonder with remarkable legs, considering it first appeared on a film about a drug deal gone awry. Its existence only becomes more peculiar the more you pull it apart.

“Steal My Sunshine” is a hit of raw happiness. To hear it is to feel your chest split open and time slow down, as those opening house chords and woodblock hits demand you clear the next 3 minutes and 46 seconds of your day to listen to it.

Arriving on the precipice of the 2000s, “Steal My Sunshine” is like a scrapbook of '90s counter-culture. The sound is part neo-psychedelica, part europop banger and part reggae rock; the lyrics are like Beastie Boys meets Shaun Ryder (“My mind was thugged all laced and bugged all twisted wrong and beat/Uncomfortable in three feet deep”), and sibling duo Marc and Sharon Costanzo trade vocals like a crusty Aqua. Hints of Screamadelica-era Primal Scream, Alice Deejay, and Sugar Ray can all be detected, but they are undertones to a distinct “bro” energy. Len paired purple-tinted sunglasses and breakdancing with Billabong shorts, Snug vests and sideways Yankee caps, like Vin Diesel by way of Hackers, cross-pollinating influences in a fashion that helped them make sense to every demographic from freshman to acid house DJs. The artwork said "early poster design for Human Traffic," but the music video said "casting call for Spring Break Challenge." Mainly, though, “Steal My Sunshine” resonates with a mass audience because it’s one of the greatest party songs ever written. And nothing will ever unite a disparate group of people like the goal of having a good time.

The story of how the song came together is also a series of unlikely factors. "We were at this huge three-day rave and I ended up partying, partying, partying,” frontman Marc Costanzo explained to The Guardian in 2014. (Constanzo did not reply to CREEM’s request for comment.) “We went back to my house and Brendan Canning from Broken Social Scene was DJing and played ‘More, More, More’ by Andrea True Connection. I ended up sampling it that morning and looped it, it sounded great. Somewhere in the next couple of days I recorded it, I know Deryck Whibley from Sum 41 was there in the room when I put down the lyrics. It's just a song about what happened that night of the party."

With partying at the centre of their ethos, the video saw Len ship a load of their mates down to Daytona Beach to film between big nights out. In a display of prosperity that would make Kenny Powers blush, most of the group’s $100,000 budget went to booze and jet skis. The result is a mixture of slapstick, swag, and home videos⁠—though, despite its big budget and bro appeal, “Steal My Sunshine” felt distinctly counter-cultural. Watch the video on mute and it could have come from Jurassic 5, Lit, or Harmony Korine’s mood board for Spring Breakers. (If you look closely you can even spot a couple of vintage VICE stickers on their scooters, with the video being filmed the same year Canadian investor Richard Szalwinski gave the company a $4 million kick up the arse. A dated relic of a past time.)

A screenshot taken from Len's "Steal My Sunshine" music video.
A screenshot taken from Len's "Steal My Sunshine" music video
Ride 'em, cowboy.

In retrospect, perhaps “Steal My Sunshine” is the last of the true slacker anthems. Released as '90s burn-out culture slid into '00s opulence, it’s about taking drugs, feeling weird, and not having anything to do. It lands somewhere in the mix of “You Get What You Give” by New Radicals, “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind, and “Doin Time” Sublime in its ability to capture the euphoria and existential dread of the decade. At the same time, it endures because it pulls influence from all over the place. It’s built around a sample of Andrea True Connection’s 1976 disco smash “More, More, More,” as Costanzo said, but the structure was inspired by the Human League’s 1981 synth pop anthem “Don’t You Want Me” (particularly the male-female vocal exchanges). Spiritually, it’s the party before the comedown of Bran Van 3000's "Drinking In L.A."⁠—another Canadian one-hit-wonder that mapped rave culture onto a romanticised ideal of coastal America. As a result, the song feels both anchored to a specific cultural moment but also strangely timeless.

“Somewhat bizarrely, it sounds absolutely of its time, so it works as a retro favourite, but that indie, pop and disco fusion still holds it up to contemporary scrutiny,” says Jack Clothier, co-founder of the U.K. indie label Alcopop!, who reissued the single for its 15th anniversary in 2014. “You feel like some summer favourites are cynically created to sell units, but with Len it feels far more organic. More real. More human.” Jack first heard the song in his teens, when he was working in a small guitar shop in Coventry. He spent most of his days sitting on an amp, watching MTV—and, of all the videos from that era, “Steal My Sunshine” stood out the most.

“It’s such a perfect, immediate song. Inspirational but attainable,” he remembers. “You’re 16 and dreaming of hanging out in Daytona Beach on awesome orange scooters and having the best time. That’s exactly what Len seemed to be doing: living the life that you crave while you slog to college in some dull Midlands town.”

Considering it came out within weeks of Blink-182’s "All the Small Things", Ricky Martin’s "Livin' La Vida Loca", Shaina Twain’s "That Don't Impress Me Much”, the Backstreet Boys’ "I Want It That Way" and Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” it’s amazing that “Steal My Sunshine” didn’t get buried by the landslide of cross-cultural smash hits of the late '90s/early '00s—let alone the sands of time. Every single day, people flock to YouTube to leave comments like “Never thought I would say this but this song makes me wanna buy a Vespa and then hit up the jersey shores”, “2022 and this song is still a banger” and, most recently, “Back when people were less materialistic and less heartless <3”. Scroll through the comments and you’ll notice that last sentiment comes up a lot. Regardless of how much truth there is to the notion that the '90s was the last “innocent” decade (by which people typically mean: a time before 9/11, omnipresent social media, and an inescapable political hellscape), there’s a general sense that society has been on a downward spiral since the millennium.

As one of the final bangers of the 20th century, perhaps there’s an innocence distilled within “Steal My Sunshine” that we find ourselves grasping for with increasing desperation. “Remember,” the bouncy, sauntering-down-the-street rhythm seems to suggest, “when it was possible to dream?”

As one of the final bangers of the 20th century, perhaps there’s an innocence distilled within “Steal My Sunshine” that we find ourselves grasping for with increasing desperation. “Remember,” the bouncy, sauntering-down-the-street rhythm seems to suggest, “when it was possible to dream?”

Because its very genesis was in a specific feeling at a specific cultural moment, nostalgia is baked into the fabric of “Steal My Sunshine” like beer-soaked sneakers. “When I hear the song now it makes me laugh. It makes me smile. It takes me back to that time,” Costanzo has said. “I know how I felt. When people play it I dance to it. Two weeks ago I ended up at a bar and it was karaoke night and 'Steal My Sunshine' was in the book, so I said let's do it! I'm going to London soon and if anyone wants to call me up I'll fucking show up at their house and I'll sing this song."

Much like fellow one hit wonders Chumbawamba—the anarcho-punk group whose legacy will live on forever in British football culture with the lyrics “he drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a vodka drink”—Len never planned to become rock stars. The project was originally intended to “annoy” people, which is the opposite of what “Steal My Sunshine” achieved. They don’t have another song that sounds even remotely like it, though, and the rest of You Can't Stop the Bum Rush is a baffling mish-mash of lo-fi hip-hop, R&B smooth jams and grating, Guttermouth-esque punk. “Steal My Sunshine,” then, is an anomaly from an anomaly. A lightning in a bottle moment that has somehow come to represent the transitional period between two centuries without feeling like an ending, even though the lyrics point overwhelmingly to loss—of time, of serotonin, of “a million miles of fun.” But all that is swept away in the breeze of it all; a moment of courage at 2 a.m. when you have to make the choice to pick yourself up or take yourself home.

“Steal My Sunshine” didn’t enter the U.S. charts until September 1999, and went on to sweep the U.K. around mid-December. It’s one of the last artifacts of the decade that every generation seems to be pining for the most, whether it’s younger Gen X-ers recalling their salad days, elder millennials longing to crawl back into the womb and start again, or Gen Z soaking up the trends from a modern vantage point. “Steal My Sunshine” hits everyone the same way because it’s determined to have a good time. Indulging in your self-defeat? Sunshine. Frying on a bench? Sunshine. Tribal lunar speak impaired, whatever the fuck that means? Sunshine. Whether you’re on a gruelling comedown or just regular depressed, “Steal My Sunshine” is a PMA anthem that does the hard work for you. It picks you up off the floor, gives you a bottle of water and thumps you encouragingly on the back. Whatever the time of year, wherever you hear it, “Steal My Sunshine” injects a little summer into the darkest winters of life.

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