Listen, we have bad news: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a fond remembrance of a famous movie car. Or, like today, it’ll be a sweet playlist of memorable summer soundtrack hits.
A normal summer would be a feast of picnics, ball games, swimming pools and suntan lotion. Also, there’s the Song of the Summer, that unofficial honor given to one or two hits every year that become the soundtrack to our warm-weather adventures. Those songs have such a powerful hold on us that, even years later, we can connect them to a particular summer and what we were doing — even if the tunes themselves are actually terrible.
Not that long ago, though, the Song of the Summer champion had a very good chance of originating from a movie. For decades, Hollywood decided to double-down on its big event movies by giving them a theme song or a whole soundtrack of original compositions. You didn’t just see Top Gun — you bought the hit album, too. For whatever reason, that tendency has faded away over the last 20 years. (Nowadays, the big soundtrack bangers like “Let It Go,” “Happy,” “Skyfall” and “Lose Yourself” come from fall films.)
But for a moment, let’s get nostalgic and look back at some of the most indelible summer movie soundtrack songs. Some of these tracks are rockers. Some are total bummers. And one of them is possibly Prince’s greatest record. (And I’m not talking about “Batdance,” which I’m gonna skip over for now since I’ll be devoting an entire column to that classic a bit later this summer.)
“You’re the One That I Want” from Grease (1978)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? When the history of Hollywood’s first summer blockbusters from the mid-to-late 1970s is recounted, you hear a lot about Jaws and Star Wars. But the biggest hit of 1978 was actually a musical about a tough guy (John Travolta) and a preppy gal (Olivia Newton-John) who fall in love and sing lots of songs. Grease’s soundtrack was as massive as Saturday Night Fever, but perhaps its most enduring track was this duet, which captured the film’s cheerful depiction of teenage lust and adolescent angst. For generations since, prospective high schoolers have discovered that relationships aren’t like this at all.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Grease remains a pop-culture juggernaut — the movie will soon be shown on CBS in a sing-along version in place of the canceled Tonys — and there’s a very good chance that you or someone you know has tackled “You’re the One That I Want” at karaoke. Part of its eternal appeal is how declawed it makes young love seem — its innocent boy-meets-girl tone scrubs away all the ugliness and awkwardness that usually accompany teenage relationships. Sure, the song is a silly fantasy, but everybody needs a little harmless fluff every once in a while.
“Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III (1982)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? “I want something for the kids. Something street, something with a pulse. Can you help me out?” That’s supposedly how Sylvester Stallone explained to Survivor keyboardist Jim Peterik what he was looking for musically for his upcoming film, Rocky III. Inspired by a few minutes of footage that Sly sent him, Peterik came up with a pounding riff, which was meant to mimic the force of punches hitting an opponent. And out of it came “Eye of the Tiger,” which catapulted the band out of obscurity, landing them at No. 1.
While other songs of the summer are romantic, nostalgic or breezy, Survivor’s workout anthem was an amped-up rocker, filled with the melodrama and testosterone of Stallone’s boxing flicks. In a summer movie season that was dominated by family fare (E.T.) and date-night dramas (An Officer and a Gentleman), Rocky III and “Eye of the Tiger” were clearly targeting dudes.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? This shamelessly adrenalized song is very, very hard to resist. It’s also an absolute embodiment of the “Gonna need a montage” action-movie musical aesthetic that would quickly become a self-parody — never better than in Team America: World Police. Still, you have to admit “Eye of the Tiger” has become a source of inspiration for lots of people. In that same interview, Peterik noted, “It’s helped people through cancer or a heart attack. I know people that have been on the operating table and asked to have ‘Eye of the Tiger’ playing. That’s the real shit.”
“When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain (1984)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? Prince’s ascension was already in high gear by the summer of 1984. Early singles like “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Controversy” had established the Minneapolis musician as the heir apparent to James Brown and Rick James, and 1982’s 1999 hit the Top 10, cementing his path to superstardom. But it was Purple Rain — the album and the movie — that made Prince, well, Prince, and its lead single dominated radio when it debuted in May of that year.
Stripped down, sexy and mournful, “When Doves Cry” was an epic bad-relationship song that put the film’s themes of heartbreak and adolescent confusion in sharp relief. Just as he was as the Kid in the movie, the Prince of “When Doves Cry” is a forlorn, soulful romantic, and the innovative mixture of funk and new wave sent it to No. 1 around Fourth of July. All of a sudden, Prince was a pop idol and a movie star. “He wanted something that could be his version of A Hard Day’s Night,” his guitarist Wendy Melvoin later recalled about Prince’s ambitions for the movie. Sure enough, he ended up being as big as The Beatles.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Are you kidding? It’s incredible. Neither pure ballad nor straight-up rocker, “When Doves Cry” works as a dance track and a breakup song. It’s got an amazing guitar solo. Basically, it’s perfect. “When Doves Cry” may not be Prince’s all-time best song, but it’s definitely in the conversation.
“Ghostbusters” from Ghostbusters (1984)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? Ray Parker Jr.’s biggest hit wasn’t even supposed to be a proper song. “The original song was only to be a 20-second part of [Ghostbuster’s] opening library scene,” he said earlier this year. “[Director] Ivan Reitman liked the song and wanted to make it a record, so I had to return to the studio and make it longer.” From there came “Ghostbusters,” a slab of slick pop-funk with an infectious shout-along chorus — “Ghost-busters!” — that featured the R&B artist’s insistence that bustin’ made him feel good.
Released the same month as “When Doves Cry,” this goofy, catchy novelty was the yin to Prince’s moody, idiosyncratic yang. Still, it was very hard not to love “Ghostbusters” — unless you were Huey Lewis, of course, who sued, accusing Parker of ripping off his song “I Want a New Drug” and insisting that the producers had reached out to him first about working on Ghostbusters.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Ironically, “Ghostbusters” may have started out as a summer song, but now it’s more commonly heard during Halloween because of its ghostly theme. Regardless, this is cheesy fun that no one has listened to unironically in the last 30 years. The movie may be considered an 1980s comedy classic, but its title song hasn’t aged quite as well.
“The Power of Love” from Back to the Future (1985)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? When Robert Zemeckis approached the aforementioned Lewis about writing some songs for his forthcoming sci-fi/comedy about a time-traveling teenager, the musician was riding high: His band had landed its first No. 1 album with 1983’s Sports, which contained four Top 10 hits. But Lewis wasn’t interested: “I said, ‘I’m flattered, but I don’t know how to write for film.’ Plus, I didn’t fancy writing a song called ‘Back to the Future.’”
He eventually changed his mind, however, and delivered “The Power of Love,” which became Huey Lewis and the News’ first No. 1 single. It didn’t hurt that it was used prominently in that summer’s biggest movie, highlighting the track’s busting-at-the-seams enthusiasm for true love. The song was a lethal combination of boisterous keyboards and Lewis’ bar-band everyman quality — it was something you wanted to crank at every cookout and pool party in 1985.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? “All writing is difficult,” Lewis said in that same interview. “But writing for a movie can be inspirational somehow. And it’s almost liberating because you’re not writing for yourself.” Huey Lewis and the News were the embodiment of normcore before the term existed — they made exceedingly hooky rock songs for regular dudes — but “The Power of Love” has an optimism and exuberance they never again matched.
“Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun (1986)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? The rare one-two punch from the same soundtrack during the same summer, these two Top Gun cuts had you covered either way. Wanna rock out with your Kenny Loggins out? Go for “Danger Zone,” which channeled the film’s thrill-seeking rush. Wanna bone? Then Berlin’s Oscar-winning ballad did the trick, memorably utilized in the film’s perfume-ad love scene. Both songs felt appropriately epic and melodramatic, which was apt for the Tom Cruise smash that turned him into the 1980s’ consummate cocky flyboy.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? “Danger Zone” is so outlandishly macho that it’s hard not to laugh when you hear the song now. As for “Take My Breath Away,” maybe it’s because it hasn’t been quite as overplayed over the years, but the song still has some kick to it. Sure, it might be a standard love ballad in some ways, but the shimmering beauty of those keyboards — Giorgio Moroder’s futuristic-disco aesthetic is all over this thing — always freezes you in your tracks.
“Glory of Love” from The Karate Kid Part II (1986)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? The first Karate Kid was a surprise smash — an endearing underdog story about a tough kid who learns karate and wins the girl of his dreams — but the expectations were higher for the sequel. Obviously, that meant a comparably mammoth power ballad to go with it. Enter Peter Cetera, the schmaltz-y guy from Chicago who delivered “Glory of Love,” a song he’d written for Rocky IV but got turned down.
“About two weeks later the people from Karate Kid II were looking for a song,” Cetera said in 2015, “so they came to the studio where I was working and I played them ‘Glory of Love’ and they immediately loved it, so I changed a few words to make it even more fitting.” In the process, the Summer of 1986 was gifted with its make-out anthem, a potent mixture of sappiness and I-will-fight-for-your-honor devotion that sent it to No. 1. Many babies born the following year were probably due to Cetera.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Sweet Jesus, this song is bad. Old-school Chicago fans despise Cetera, who asserted control over the band in the 1970s and early 1980s, turning them from an experimental jazz combo to a saccharine, pop-friendly group. “Glory of Love” is the apex of his corny tendencies. It’ll convert you to heavy metal for life.
“On Our Own” from Ghostbusters II (1989)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? Bobby Brown was one of the world’s biggest pop stars in the late 1980s: His album Don’t Be Cruel dominated the charts and landed five singles in the Top 10. In the midst of that, Brown had another smash with this Ghostbusters II track, which capitalized on his smoothed-out, New Jack Swing style. This was an era in which hip hop was starting to cross over into the mainstream, merging with R&B to become a slinkier, cooler strain of pop music, and “On Our Own” was perfectly positioned to take advantage, especially because it was connected to the much-anticipated Bill Murray sequel. Never thought that you’d hear a song with the phrase “proton packs” included in the lyrics? Brown is here to set you straight.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Where Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” felt genuinely epochal — if deeply dopey — “On Our Own” just seemed like a way to boost a blockbuster’s profile with a hot singer. No wonder this song feels so cynically constructed — and, oof, that rap in the middle of it is rough.
“(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? Bryan Adams’ stadium-filling salute to the woman he’d do anything for was tied to that summer’s second-biggest film, behind only Terminator 2. But where Judgment Day only had a Guns N’ Roses rocker, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves boasted an emotions-cranked-to-11 ballad that became the soundtrack to so many summer flings and first wedding dances. “[I wrote it in] 45 minutes. I knew it was a good song right away,” Adams later said. If you didn’t have a special someone that summer, your life stunk because you were absolutely going to have to hear this song wherever you went.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Kevin Costner trying to handle a British accent while playing Robin Hood was laughable enough, but “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was its own level of ridiculous. The song has always felt like it was built by a robot programmed to construct the most blandly syrupy ballad ever. It’s so over-the-top that it doesn’t even feel romantic. Seriously, Adams, tone it down a notch. You’re trying way too hard to win her over.
“Kiss From a Rose” from Batman Forever (1995)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? Sometimes a song needs a second chance. Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” didn’t become a hit in the U.S. until a year after its release. (When it appeared in The Karate Kid, it finally became a radio staple.) That’s even truer of this Seal ballad, which initially appeared on his 1994 self-titled album, but then got a big boost as the love song for the following year’s Batman Forever. Tied to that Val Kilmer superhero movie, “Kiss From a Rose” shot to No. 1, and the soundtrack album went double-platinum. Like “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” it was one of those uncomplicatedly epic love songs that felt as expansive and dramatic as a summer romance.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Seal famously didn’t think much of “Kiss From a Rose” when he wrote it early in his career. But it’s gone on to become his most beloved song, and he’s subsequently changed his tune. “Of course I love it now,” Seal has said, “and I am just so appreciative of the fact that I have a song like that, that most people love.” If you have an allergy to schmaltz, though, seek medication after listening to this song.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” from Dangerous Minds (1995)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? Maybe it’s cheating to nominate a track that didn’t hit radio until August as the song of the summer, but this Coolio classic was easily the best thing about the very silly Michelle Pfeiffer drama Dangerous Minds. Brilliantly sampling Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” it paints a bleak tale about a life with few options: “Death ain’t nothin’ but a heartbeat away / I’m livin’ life, do or die, what can I say?” This is the rare steely summer anthem, as serious as a heart attack.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? The melding of gospel and hip-hop propelled “Gangsta’s Paradise” to No. 1 in September 1995 and gave the rapper the biggest hit of his career. Nobody remembers the movie, but everybody loves this song — and its melodramatic video, which inexplicably features Pfeiffer reprising her Dangerous Minds role as the tough-love teacher trying to inspire kids. How did Coolio enjoy hanging out with a big Hollywood star? “She’s very cool people,” he said later. “Normal, like anybody else.”
“Men in Black” from Men in Black (1997)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? After Titanic had to exit its Fourth of July release date because James Cameron wasn’t finished with the film’s complicated special effects, that left the holiday weekend wide open for Will Smith’s Men in Black, a winning action-comedy about gnarly space aliens and cool humans in suits and shades. The movie was the summer’s biggest smash, and it was supplemented by Smith’s smooth, catchy “Men in Black,” which helpfully explained the film’s conceit. (“We’re your first, last and only line of defense / Against the worst scum of the universe.”)
Riding a breezy sample of “Forget Me Nots,” “Men in Black” caught the musician-actor as he was transitioning from endearing lightweight rapper to movie superstar. Both talents came in handy for the big-budget “Men in Black” video, which cost $1 million and found him getting down with a funky E.T. “Will was really on some insane schedule at the time we were shooting that scene,” video director Robert Caruso said in 2017. “He spent a lot of late nights learning the dance steps and spending time to figure it out. It’s not easy to do, to jump in there and kind of try to hold your own with all those guys who are professional dancers.”
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? As you’d expect from the man who was once part of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “Men in Black” is corny but extremely likable. It’s a perfect summer song in that it sounds great as you’re blasting it from your car with the windows down. But it’s not even Smith’s best summer anthem, which will forever be “Summertime.”
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from Armageddon (1998)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? Michael Bay made the leap from action filmmaker to over-caffeinated blockbuster auteur with Armageddon, his delightfully overblown epic about Bruce Willis saving the world from a meteor. Equally bombastic was this power ballad, complete with surging string section, performed by… Aerosmith?
The Boston rockers had done love songs before, but this tune (written by 11-time Oscar-nominee Diane Warren) was military-grade, lump-in-your-throat emotional histrionics. Meant to articulate the undying passion between Armageddon’s Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler (Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler’s daughter), “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” followed the 1990s template of unbridled ballads attached to ostensibly macho summer action movies.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Don’t bring up “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” to hardcore Aerosmith fans: It’s the embodiment of this once-badass band selling out. But, hey, it’s their only No. 1 hit to date — and it’s still referenced in commercials, usually when people are bummed that they missed something.
“Wild Wild West” from Wild Wild West (1999)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? Will Smith reunited with Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld for this big-screen adaptation of the 1960s series. But where Men in Black was a commercial and critical hit, Wild Wild West was most certainly not, which Smith has spent the rest of his career apologizing for.
But if filmgoers were disappointed, listeners still dug “Wild Wild West,” which bites Stevie Wonder’s ass-shaking “I Wish” in order to repeat the formula of “Men in Black”: Give listeners a whole lot of plot description inside a good-time summer anthem. It remained a successful strategy, as “Wild Wild West” hit No. 1 while the world tried to get Kool Moe Dee’s bass-heavy “wild wild west” chorus hook out of their heads.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Not really. If you ever hear “Wild Wild West” now, it’ll just conjure up bad memories of that terrible movie. It’s pretty clear Smith was just hoping lightning would strike twice, and although this song was a smash, it doesn’t make it any less lame. Plus, it made him an easy target for parodies, which is what comedian-writer Demi Adejuyigbe did so well when he started debuting his Will Smith sound-alike movie songs online.
“Lady Marmalade” from Moulin Rouge (2001)
Why Was This the Song of the Summer? Like I mentioned in the intro, unlike the 1980s and 1990s, the 21st century has experienced a dearth of big summer hits connected to blockbuster films. The last of its kind was this boisterous cover of an old 1974 Labelle smash, which brought together Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa and Pink for a sexed-up, harder-edged rendition. Moulin Rouge wasn’t that summer’s highest-grossing film, but the Baz Luhrmann film was certainly the season’s coolest event movie, turning a doomed love story into a vibrant, eye-popping jukebox musical. The new “Lady Marmalade” captured that vibe expertly, climbing to No. 1 around the time the film hit theaters in early June.
Yeah, But Is It Actually Any Good? Do you like to hear talented singers belt their lungs out? Then, oh boy, “Lady Marmalade” is the song for you. This cover is so strenuously “sexy” that it’s actually exhausting. Truth is, the best thing about this version is the long-running feud between Aguilera and Pink that came out of it. Did Christina really try to punch Pink at a club around the time of “Lady Marmalade”? Was it all a misunderstanding? There’s more drama in their beef than in that hilariously roided-out track.