The town is not hot, the summer has not arrived in the city, and the backs of our necks are neither dirty nor gritty. However, the jockeying for this year’s Song of the Summer status has already begun. Early contenders include Miguel’s and Mariah Carey’s lovely backbeat ballad #Beautiful and will.i.am’s futuristic #thatPOWER, featuring Justin Bieber, thankfully Auto-Tuned beyond recognition.
The thing is, there’s an age-old argument when it comes to the Songs of the Summer, the debate being as fundamental as whether or not there is such a thing, beyond being a hindsight marketing handle. Last year, according to Billboard magazine, the Song of the Summer was Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. There is nothing particularly “summery” about it; it’s just a catchy and fun gem of a pop tune. Fun.’s anthemic We Are Young was hotter than a Gen-Y’s July, but it was released in the fall of 2011 and had its chart-topping run in early 2012.
Except for Yuletide hits, pop songs are not really seasonal. Catchy in February is catchy in August.
If we go by the Billboard charts, the Songs of the Summer are simply the biggest sellers (and, to a lesser degree, most played on the radio) during the months in which the schools are out of session. For music fans, radio play matters more – a song’s invasiveness is the key. The Song of the Summer should be the one heard the most, even if we don’t download it. Ubiquitous on the radio and in the memory, it is the song which finds us and does not let go, like the relentless liquid-metal villain-cyborg played by Robert Patrick in the second Terminator movie.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a summer blockbuster in 1991. The soundtrack to that particular season was topped by Bryan Adams’s earnest (Everything I Do) I Do It for You, Paula Abdul’s mushy Rush Rush, EMF’s dance-rocking one-hit-wonder Unbelievable and Jesus Jones’s breathy, guitar-jangly Right Here, Right Now. Can’t say those four singles have a whole lot in common, save for their popularity.
If we can say there is a common denominator to the Songs of the Summer, it’s that they belong to the kids. Take, for example, Sheryl Crow’s new country-pop hit Easy, which couldn’t be more summer-ready unless you titled it something like Soak Up the Sun (which Crow has shamelessly done before). On Easy, the ever-tanned singer croons about playing croquet, putting on bug spray and drinking beers all day while sitting in the sun. But while Anheuser-Busch will agree that this is the stuff of excited thermometers, Top 40 radio and the 14-year-olds might think otherwise. Kids, simply put, don’t listen to Crow.
Last year, National Public Radio published an online survey of the Songs of Summer, from 1962 to 2012. Eleanor Kagan wrote a preface to the list, explaining that the winning songs of the sun-splashed months are singable, catchy, danceable and escapist. I’ll go along with that, though those qualities work well in all 52 weeks. Look no further than Crow’s breezy All I Wanna Do, a summer song if there ever was one. Its release date? Oct. 1, 1994. Summer lasts all year in California.
If an artist or record label is looking for a gimmicky way to enter summer-song immortality, they might take the advice of Lauren Bacall to put their lips together and blow. Yes, the whistle trick, employed in various seasons by everyone from Otis Redding to J. Geils to the Black Keys to Bobby McFerrin to OneRepublic to the producers of The Andy Griffith Show. Guns ‘N Roses (1989’s Patience) and Peter Bjorn and John (2006’s Young Folks) both paid lip service to the sub-genre for summer success, as did Maroon 5 (2011’s Moves Like Jagger) and Flo Rida (2012’s Whistle).
The whistle gambit notwithstanding, the game of guessing the Song of the Summer in advance is a mug’s game. The euphoria of 2011’s Party Rock Anthem and 2009’s I Got a Feeling is still fresh, but will those hits stand up to 1968’s Summer in the City? Durability and subjective memorability are what counts in the long run. And, really, the long run is what matters when it comes to this discussion.
FIVE EARLY CONTENDERS FOR THE TITLE
Last year it was Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, but what hit will be the Song of the Summer for 2013? Here are the early contenders.
#Beautiful, by Mariah Carey (featuring Miguel): The intro blatantly knocks off the spindly, sparse guitar manner of British trio the xx. But the backbeat kills, the chorus swooshes sublimely and we have the de rigueur hand claps. This sweet duet is easily the front-runner.
A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got), by Fergie (featuring Q-Tip): A little Duke Ellington, a little jazzy-brassy vocals from the Black Eyed Peas singer, a little synth, a little rap, a little four-by-four beat and, well, a little too busy. But it’s on the soundtrack to a blockbuster film (The Great Gatsby), which won’t hurt – just ask Grease cohorts John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
Get Lucky, by Daft Punk (featuring Pharrell Williams): Smoooooth and disco-y. A great, sexy party tune, but likely too laidback to win the season in these days of billboard-sized anthems and brash beats. Hand-clapping here too.
#thatPOWER, by will.i.am (featuring Justin Bieber): Robotic tune, with a nice hook from the Biebs. The video’s stiff choreography is a #fail though.
So Strange, by Superhumanoids: Serene and soaring pop that celebrates like a Madonna on a Holiday. There seems to be some campaigning here however: The New York Times is touting it as an early Song of the Summer candidate, and the L.A. trio itself is making a point to let everyone know it was written in the “dead of summer.” Shameless jockeying.