I'm pretty sure that, when I was 8 years old, I didn’t know what a boner was.
I knew about penises and sex, but I didn’t necessarily understand the ins and outs (nyuck) of the physiological imperatives that facilitated intercourse.
Then in 1991, when I was 9 years old, my cousin Nicole gave me a cassette tape of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. After months of repeated listenings, my next-door neighbor Andrea and I choreographed a dance to my favorite track of the moment, “Apache Rose Peacock,” a song about New Orleans (and other stuff). When Anthony Kiedis sings, “My eyes popped out, my dick got hard and I dropped my jaw,” we did a series of way-too-literal moves that included some obscene hand gestures and PG-13 pelvic thrusting.
We debuted the dance for my parents and grandparents in the living room after dinner one night. Maybe the content was a little edgy, but even as fifth-graders we were mature enough to recognize that we couldn’t please everyone.
Not long after that, my mom confiscated the tape’s lyrics insert. As a product of the liberated ’60s, far be it from her to censor what I listened to, but I suppose she figured she could at least prevent her young daughter from sitting in her bedroom and poring over the words to “Sir Psycho Sexy,” a song that succeeded in introducing me to the phrase “creamy beaver” as well as the concept of turning “cherry pie into jam." It’s the most sexually aggressive song on an aggressively sexual album, but even back then I was willing to sit through some eye-rolly lyrical porn to get to John Frusciante’s moody, orchestrated outro. I came for the boner talk and stayed for the glimpses of artistry.
At 13, my boyfriend and I would listen to "Sir Psycho Sexy" — on CD at that point — when we made out in his bedroom. He smelled like Cool Water; I smelled like CK One. Or maybe Sunflowers by Elizabeth Arden. Either way, it stunk in there.
One minute I was collecting Lisa Frank stickers and making friendship bracelets; the next I was collecting Lisa Frank stickers and making friendship bracelets while a horny adult man rapped at me about drugs and fucking. That’s growing up.
BSSM was the sex-positive soundtrack of my adolescence, but 25 years later, it’s fraught with associations, from recent allegations against the band’s members for sexual impropriety to the less cool music they’d release in subsequent years. Personally, time took a huge toll on my relationship with the album. I spent no fewer than three years — roughly until One Hot Minute was released in ’95 — playing it until tapes became ensnarled in cassette players and had to be repurchased. (OK, one was destroyed by my cat.) It was a source of comfort, but that soothing familiarity eventually bred indifference. I couldn’t actually hear the songs for what they were anymore, only what they’d become to my ears, which they’d enter and exit basically unnoticed, as my mom’s voice did by the time I was a teenager.
I spent the bulk of my late teens and 20s distancing myself from my Pephead past. I listened to Epitaph punk bands and got facial piercings until that wasn’t cool anymore. I dyed my hair black and wore too-tight jeans and went to emo shows until I got bored. Then I dove drunken-head first into aughts indie-pop and the ’90s indie rock I wasn’t cool enough to know about the first time around. I basically avoided anything overtly mainstream for a decade and change, until I matured to the point that trends and subcultures made no sense to me and I started actively resenting people younger than 25.
Then in 2015, I moved to L.A. All of a sudden I loved Van Halen and was able to admit to myself that The Eagles’ “One of These Nights” is actually sort of groovy. I have tickets to see Guns N’ Roses at Dodger Stadium in August. And for the first time in a long time I could revisit BSSM with fresh ears and the enthusiasm of a person falling in love with a new city — a city that I felt like I knew all along thanks to an album that was as much as part of my childhood as the place where I grew up.
In terms of rekindling my love affair with the album, the songs that have remained radio staples are the toughest nuts to crack. Besides its nursery rhyme–like melodic simplicity — which I’m sure was part of its initial appeal when I was 9 — the luster of “Under the Bridge" might be permanently lost on me thanks to its continued heavy rotation (although that hasn’t prevented me from researching which bridge downtown Kiedis was singing about; thanks, Jenn Swann!). Same goes for “Give it Away” — despite the pitch-perfect way Frusciante’s guitar and Flea’s bass line work together to create something that sounds calculatedly reckless and sexy, I can’t help but feel the song was partly responsible for the rise of rap-rock in the later ’90s.
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The biggest surprise has been “Breaking the Girl,” a song Kiedis apparently wrote about ex-girlfriend Carmen Hawk. It was a single, but a less frequently played one that never cracked modern rock’s Top 10, which makes sense to an embittered 30-something who recognizes that some things are too good to enjoy the same kind of mainstream success as other things. Synthesized flute (Mellotron, apparently) and Chad Smith’s frenetic, thunderous drumming make it simultaneously baroque and tribal. I bet it makes Rick Rubin, who produced BSSM, feel proud.
Lyrically, there’s more on the record than drugs and fucking and kiss-sucking — there’s environmentalism, social justice, animal rights and playful cataloguing of favorite things (see: “Mellowship Slinky in B Major”). “Sir Psycho Sexy” still makes me cringe until Kiedis mercifully wraps up with, “Ooh, and it’s nice out here/I think I’ll stay for a while" and the outro begins. It and “I Could Have Lied” in particular are nostalgia bombs that give me a good sinking feeling that almost makes me forget that being 11 was horrible. Or would’ve been without BSSM, my sexually charged musical security blanket.