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Pop Music Prepared Us for This Bummer Summer

The right sad songs might get you through the next phase of this pandemic

Music and summer have a symbiotic relationship. Pop songs have a way of soundtracking the warmer months, filling the air from open windows, passing cars, outdoor concerts and lively bars. Conversely, the joys of summer — sun, swimming, cold drinks and hot flings — are underscored by the music that plugs into the sweaty and libidinous side of the season. There is always a “song of the summer,” the one that comes to feel the sonic landmark of these months.

The summer of 2020, though, will be unlike any in memory. In the U.S., different states are taking varied approaches to reopening shuttered businesses and public spaces, even as scientists warn we could see a “second wave” of coronavirus outbreak. Entering June, we’re likely to see yet fiercer debate over what’s unfolding, and while some are eager to eat in crowded restaurants again, many will continue to shelter at home out of an abundance of caution or fear.

It’s going to be a tense, weird time, the long limbo of confusion and divergent realities. That is, not the atmosphere to bring people together around catchy, upbeat tunes. Here in what’s normally a busy part of L.A., I can now hear the steady dirge of crickets at night.

Thankfully, pop is also rich with melancholy sounds. The last decade alone has produced countless albums that work well streaming gently from your laptop while you lie on the couch and stare out the window at a beautiful morning you cannot enjoy. Some artists make the link between depressive energies and warm, seductive weather quite explicit — Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” and “Summer Bummer” are defining tracks for the mood — but such gloom has long been the other side of summer’s bright coin. More than ever, our inner state may be at odds with the familiar sights and smells of these weeks. In fact, many of those signifiers, from boisterous barbecues to beach trips, will be largely absent. No wonder folks are posting about how certain songs “hit different” in quarantine, a solemn backdrop for any artist.

Could this summer be an opportunity, then, to rediscover the downcast vibes of songs that seem happier on the surface — or indulge in those that were always too despairing for this part of the year?

Listening to sad music when you’re sad isn’t for everyone (I’m told it’s a Pisces trait of mine, and I can’t really argue), but cheering yourself up with positive jams won’t always work. 

There’s new irony to embrace in Sade’s dreamy “Cherish the Day,” from the sad-summer album Love Deluxe. The National’s “Apartment Story,” which is technically set in winter, includes the lyrics, “We’ll stay inside till somebody finds us / Do whatever the TV tells us,” all the more claustrophobic now. The drift and warp of nostalgia in early 2010s chillwave becomes elegiac, since we can’t have those endless hot July evenings. When Tupac walks through the valley of death in “So Many Tears,” it layers his experience of unjust death onto the current crisis. “The Loneliness of a Middle-Distance Runner,” by Belle & Sebastian, is for everyone jogging with a mask on. “Don’t Come Around Here Anymore,” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, is self-explanatory. Ditto “I Hate Summer,” from Canadian punk band Fucked Up (though it’s really a weather complaint). Soon we’ll have another record, Punisher, from Phoebe Bridgers, indie rock’s queen of intimate devastation — with song titles that include “Savior Complex” and “I Know the End.”

These bummers are destined to be a cultural legacy of the plague summer. 

My advice?

Don’t wear yourself out fighting it. Check out ABBA’s “Hole In Your Soul,” which has the rollicking tempo of a cocaine high but kicks off by declaring, “You feel bad, let me tell you, we all get the blues / Sometimes life is a burden, weighed down in your shoes” — before affirming that rock and roll is the cure.

Mentally, you’re bound to be pulled this way and that as the summer goes on. The central paradox of emotions is how many can strike us at once, so it does us good to acknowledge that knot of unrest. We may not be taking our dream vacations anytime soon, but this little playlist-in-progress, created with the recommendations of Twitter and the MEL staff, should help to mark the passing of these curious, lost days as we look forward to a better kind.

It’s the official summer of bummer, man: All you gotta do is survive.