At her concert in Toronto on Saturday night, pop star Taylor Swift was joined onstage by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams for a raucous performance of Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” from his 1984 album Reckless. The song, which went all the way to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was released as a single in the summer of ’85, has been a flashpoint of controversy for historians, musicologists, and soixante-neufologists alike since the fall of ’08, when Adams made the startling claim that the song’s title was not a reference to the year of our Lord 1969, but, instead, a clever allusion to a sexual position. Take a listen to Swift and Adams’ version of this classic summer hit and try to guess which position he was referring to!
If you guessed “the congress of a crow,” you’re right, although for the purposes of the song’s meter and rhyme, Adams is using the Canadian slang term “sixty-nine.” Nice! Webster’s Dictionary defines “sixty-nine” as “404: Word Not Found,” but the Oxford English Dictionary is less coy, calling it “sexual activity between two people involving mutual oral stimulation of the genitals; a position enabling this.” But there’s no reason to choke on a long, uncut dictionary definition when you can hear it from Adams’ own mouth. Watch his infamous 2008 Early Show appearance go ass-over-teakettle as he explains to an obviously uncomfortable Maggie Rodriguez that “Summer of ’69” is “more about making love in the summertime—it’s using ‘69’ as a sexual reference.”
Sexy! Awkward! But is it historically accurate? To find out, we painstakingly searched every single page of every newspaper published between June 21 and Sept. 23 of 1969, looking for stories about the sexual exploits of one Bryan Adams. And on Page C18 of the Akron Beacon Journal of Tuesday, June 24, 1969—just four days into that fateful summer—we found an important clue:
Of course, the Bryan Adams selling a 1964 Mercury Park Lane convertible in Barberton, Ohio, was not the Canadian singer, who would have only been 10 years old, but this is definite evidence that a Bryan Adams was living a rock-and-roll lifestyle that summer, possibly including acts of mutual oral gratification with the partner of his choice. Next, we consulted the text itself, carefully probing the lyrics to “Summer of ’69” to tease out any possible references to sixty-nining. The results were mostly just frustrating, but a few lines seem like they might have a double meaning. Here they are, from least to most suggestive:
“Ain’t no use in complaining/ When you got a job to do.” Unclear. If this lyric is about making the “beast with two backs but those backs are also oriented in opposite directions, spine-wise,” Adams needs to adjust either his technique or his attitude. Put this one in the “maybe, depending how much Bryan Adams enjoys sixty-nining” column.
“Standing on your mama’s porch/ You told me that you’d wait forever/ Oh, and when you held my hand/ I knew that it was now or never.” On the one hand, these lines definitely describe Bryan Adams interacting with a romantic partner, which would be an essential characteristic of any lyric that described Bryan Adams and a partner engaging in an act of mutual oral stimulation of the genitals. On the other hand, Adams’ partner is “standing” on her mama’s porch, which would mean, logistically speaking, that Adams would need to be suspended upside down, perhaps in gravity boots hanging from ceiling-mounted hooks that in a simpler time might have held a porch swing instead of an upside-down, fully-nude Canadian rock star. While this would explain the hand-holding—a practical necessity to steady Adams’ body as the wind swings him gently back and forth in his porch swing–mounted gravity boots—as well as Adams’ “now or never” eagerness, something about this scenario seems a little baroque for a rock song. Let’s put this in the “Strong Maybe” column.
“Spent my evenings down at the drive-in/ And that’s when I met you.” While this lyric has elements that suggest sixty-nining—Adams spends his evenings going “down at the drive-in”—even in large American cars of the 1960s, executing a drive-in sixty-nine would be only slightly less acrobatically challenging than using gravity boots. Unless, of course, Adams had a station wagon. This goes in the “Find Out if Bryan Adams Had a Station Wagon” pile.
“Me and my baby in a sixty-nine.” This line could go one way, or it could go exactly the opposite way. It’s as though there were two versions of the lyric facing off, each the other’s inverse. Suggestive—especially if you listen to the isolated vocal track, which makes it clear that Adams sings this as “me and my baby in a sixty-nine,” but still not dispositive. After all, 1969 was a 69 too. Adams could have cleared this up onstage with Taylor Swift by changing the lyric to “me and my baby in the sixty-nine, by which I mean the famous sexual position, not the year,” but he wasted his chance.
“She says her love for me could never die/ But that’d change if she ever found out about you and I.” This line is from “Run to You,” not “Summer of ’69,” but it’s from the same album, and is relevant to this investigation because it should be “you and me.” In other words, it’s exactly the kind of grammatical mistake someone might make in a post-coital stupor, especially considering the changes in blood flow to the brain that would be caused by spending an extended time suspended from gravity boots.
“We needed to unwind/ I guess nothing can last forever.” This elegant formulation of the well-known “Sixty-Niner Who Has Just Finished Sixty-Nining’s Lament” leaves very little to the imagination, and is one of the strongest pieces of evidence in Adams’ favor. Unless “unwind” here is not meant literally, in which case it leaves a lot to the imagination, and is one of the strongest pieces of evidence against Adams’ interpretation.
“Oh yeah!” This is the clearest reference to sixty-nining in the entire song, and Adams repeats it several times, as you might expect from someone singing about oral sex, mutual or otherwise. Unfortunately, this line is more of a Nabokovian trap than an unambiguous answer, once you consider—as one always must, when investigating the sexual mysteries—whether the Kool-Aid Man can shed any light on the situation. A precursor version of the Kool-Aid Man (“Pitcher Man”) existed in 1969, but his famous catchphrase dates from 1974, which means that one of two things must be true:
• “Summer of ’69” is about the year 1969, not sixty-nining, in which case “Oh yeah!” cannot be a reference to the Kool-Aid Man because that would be anachronistic, in which case “Oh yeah!” must be a reference to sixty-nining, in which case “Summer of ’69” is about sixty-nining, not the year 1969.
• “Summer of ’69” is about sixty-nining, not the year 1969, in which case the song must also be set in a year in which Bryan Adams might plausibly have engaged in sixty-nining, which means it is about 1974 at the absolute earliest—Adams turned 15 that year—which means “Oh yeah!” must be a reference to Kool-Aid Man, which means “Summer of ’69” must be about the year 1969, not sixty-nining, because why would you put a reference to the Kool-Aid Man in a song about sixty-nining?
But although both of these complimentary-but-inverse options fit together beautifully, they’re internally inconsistent, forming a sort of Chinese finger trap of logic, difficult and awkward to extract oneself from without extraordinary mental flexibility. More ambiguity!
It appears textual analysis alone won’t be sufficient here, so perhaps the song’s original music video will contain some clues:
Well, that was a bust. Clearly, we’ll need to approach “Summer of ’69” from a surprising and unexpected direction, so let’s flip it and reverse it: Instead of starting at Adams’ statement and working backward, let’s look at the history of the song’s composition and go forward from there. Start with the fact that, like the act it purportedly alludes to, writing “Summer of ’69” was a two-person job—and one of those two people sees things from a completely different angle. Adams’ longtime collaborator Jim Vallance co-wrote the song, and at one time his website featured decidedly non-oral-sex-related explanations for each line of the lyrics. In fact, some of his scholia make “Summer of ’69” sound more like an attempt to cash in on boomer nostalgia than boomer erotica, to the extent there is any difference between boomer nostalgia and boomer erotica:
Oh, when I look back now that summer seemed to last forever
1969 was a great year … especially the music …
And if I had the choice I’d always want to be there
Imagine … brand new vinyl releases from The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Band and Led Zeppelin!
That’s hard to square with the statement from Adams that Uproxx dug up when they looked into the matter—inconclusively!—back in 2014:
I think [“Summer of ’69” is] timeless because it’s about making love in the summertime. There is a slight misconception it’s about a year, but it’s not. “69” has nothing to do about a year, it has to do with a sexual position. … At the end of the song, the lyric says that it’s me and my baby in a 69. You’d have to be pretty thick in the ears if you couldn’t get that lyric.
Like all great controversies, then, this one can only be resolved by debating it on a message board. That’s just what Vallance did, posting his explanation in the comment section of the song’s page on Songfacts.com:
Oh my, I wish this little “controversy” would just go away.
First of all, when Bryan and I were writing the song, it was originally called “Best Days of My Life.” The words “Summer of ’69” only appeared once, right after “played it ’til my fingers bled.” That was it! The song really was about the summer of 1969!
It took us a week or two to fine-tune the lyric. At some point we realized that “Summer Of ’69” was a better title, so we literally “shoe-horned” that phrase into a few more places in the song.
At no time do I recall discussing sexual innuendo with Bryan, except for one little thing. When we recorded the demo in my basement, towards the end of the song Bryan sang a little naughty bit: “me and my baby in a ’69.” We had a laugh about it at the time, and Bryan decided to keep it when he did the final recording a month or two later. Nobody seemed to notice, and that was the end of it until a few years ago when Bryan started introducing the song in concert by saying, “This song has nothing to do with the year 1969.” The audience reaction was predictable.
Let me qualify this by saying I don’t pretend to speak for Bryan. Two of us wrote the song. Maybe he was thinking about something completely different … but I was thinking about that amazing summer when I turned 17. There were brand new vinyl albums released by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Kinks, Janis Joplin, The Band. It was awesome and I’ll never forget it.
Bryan Adams is a great writer, a great singer, and a great friend. He’s entitled to his recollections as to what inspired the song “Summer Of ’69.” My recollections just happen to be different than his.
At first glance, it seems impossible for Adams and Vallance’s memories to form a coherent whole—they just don’t line up. But by wildly misunderstanding and then misapplying the principles of quantum superposition and multiverse theory, we can force them into a shape that thoroughly satisfies both parties. Sometime during the summer of 1969—probably because of the moon landing, according to this theory I am making up—our universe was split in two. In one timeline (“Woodstock”) Vallance wrote a nostalgic song about the records he bought, while in the evil Mirror Universe (“Altamont”), Adams wrote an erotic song about mutual oral pleasure. As any scientist who is me will tell you, to determine which interpretation of the song belongs to the evil Mirror Universe and which is the wholesome original, we have to answer the same question—“Is this song about the year 1969 or the similarly-named sexual position?”—for a song that predates the cataclysm. Fortunately, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin went on French TV to perform “69 Année Érotique” in March of 1969, just months before the multiverse-scale disaster I have just invented out of whole cloth in an attempt to explain the true meaning of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” Let’s take a look:
That settles it! “69 Année Érotique,” perhaps our last uncorrupted, pre–Mirror Universe example of a song that could be about either the year 1969 or the similarly named sexual position, is obviously about the year, because the French word for “year” is right there in the title. This proves that Jim Vallance’s version of “Summer of ’69” is the true and pure and good one, because it is also about the year. It also proves that the entity we know as “Bryan Adams” is some sort of goblin from the Mirror Universe, sent to torment us with logical paradoxes and ahistorical interpretations of pop songs from the 1980s until the contradictions become so great that both universes collapse in on each other, killing all life in the universe. This is shaping up to be a major PR disaster for Taylor Swift!