Every year there are a slew of contenders for song of the summer, a jam allegedly so viral that it permeates culture to the point of irritation, only to become lodged permanently in our psyches alongside the summer’s most epic moments. But that irritating earworm is supposed to come with a certain payoff, too: a water-cooler moment for life, a unifying cultural artifact we all agree on, something to transcend the fact that there are too many TV shows and websites and no longer any one democratizing experience everyone can share in. And also, something to dance to.
The problem is many of them suck now — including, of course, this year’s highly unmemorable offerings of Katy Perry’s “Never Really Over” and the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker.”
The thing is, it wasn’t always this way. Consider, for example, 1977’s “Best of My Love” by the Emotions:
Show me someone who can’t get down to that song, and I’ll show you a corpse. It’s easy to see why it’s a great song of the summer. It’s so upbeat, so pleasing, so roll-the-windows-down-on-a-road-trip, so bare-shoulders-and-warm-breezes you can practically smell the Tropicana.
Consider, too, that in 1982, the song was “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. That was largely thanks to Rocky III, but it’s also a hot-weather song in any year, because it’s got a sleazy, prowling, balls-out ’roided-up momentum we forever associate with winning.
Five years later, in 1987, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston crushed the season with its giddy enthusiasm:
What even just this trio of randomly chosen summer songs of the past have in common is that they sound exactly like summer, which is full of promise and potential. Anything can happen in summer — at camp, at the skating rink, on that cruise with your parents, in Rome on your European vacation, at the summer office party where everyone gets too drunk on high-gravity beers. It’s when you’re going to drunkenly confess a crush, finally make out with your crush, hook up with your crush, have a summer fling with your crush or otherwise have epic moments that are undeniably as good as doing any of those aforementioned things with your crush.
Summer songs should really be hope and/or lust in a bottle, and to capture that, they need to be a few things in my opinion:
- Undeniably catchy
- Thrilling in some way
- Something you can dance to
That’s based on my love of pop music, which was born in the 1980s at the skating rink, where my brain was pummeled for hours with the pristine drug rush of nothing but Billboard Hits.
If you’re looking for another expert opinion, last year, no less an authority than the New York Times explored what it considered to be the five main ingredients of a great summer song. Namely…
Using that criteria, my biggest problem is that in the last decade, the songs of the summer have gotten more and more similar in those five factors. If once, songs as different as “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” could both be summer hits, now, Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” and several others hit all those metrics near identically. (The one exception: “Call Me Maybe,” song of the summer of 2012, which still stands out for its cheesy slickness and sunny disposition. Yes, it was cornball as fuck, but it was likable for its heart-on-its-sleeve hopefulness. Not to mention, it moved.)
And if every summer song sounds more and more the same, then novelty no longer carries much weight. For that reason, the best summer song contender this year would probably be “Old Town Road,” which has proved exciting for a lot of reasons — the controversy over its legitimacy as a country song chief among them — but it’s probably already peaked, as it was released in December.
It’s also too slow. But in fairness, so is most pop music nowadays. “Despacito,” a summer hit in 2017, is under 90 beats per minute. This drop happened most notably between 2012 and 2017, when songs on average dropped 23 bpms. That’s not always a bad thing, it’s just that the songs we now call hits feel more like an IV drip than a fast rush.
I think, though, the bigger problem the song of the summer faces is its own extinction. Music is so fragmented today that there’s no longer one big summer hit due to two factors: the glut of new music and the various ways to hear it via streaming. Both of these things mean that nothing will probably ever stand out like it used to.
Again, I’m not necessarily arguing against all of this change. I’m arguing for summer itself, and what it means. Either we get together and agree that summer songs don’t need to lift us up, or we bring back songs that still represent what summer always has: possibility and happiness. Because just like we needed escapist movies during the Depression, we still need a faster-tempo big glossy hit as the panacea it once was.
Even if we can take our summer hit slowed down, I’d still argue it should feel like summer. Otherwise, we have to call it what it really is: Some song that’s kinda popular right now, that just happened to occur sometime in the summer.