Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

In this video grab by BET, rapper DaBaby performs Rockstar as an actor replicating the last few moments of George Floyd's life, during the BET Awards.The Associated Press

The annual Song of the Summer sweepstakes is in full swing. According to Billboard’s Hot 100, the early leader is DaBaby’s Rockstar. But the chart lies. This summer, one of the sickest and most politically charged ever, requires an era-defining anthem, not a swaggering ode to fast cars and Glock-made products.

Black Lives Matter is the movement. A deadly contagion rages. Monuments are being toppled. The battle cry is “defund the police,” not Rockstar’s “brand new Lamborghini.”

The editors at Billboard define the Song of the Summer as the single that performs the best on its Hot 100 chart from Memorial Day to Labour Day. Recent examples include carefree hits I Gotta Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas, Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO and Call Me Maybe by Carly Ray Jepsen.

Last summer’s soundtrack was paced by Old Town Road, a cowboy-themed hip-hop track from Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus that stirred controversy when Billboard disqualified the song from its country charts. The justification was that it “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music.” Critics argued that Billboard’s genre exclusion of a song by a Black rapper was racially motivated.

Ah, simpler times.

Ideally the Song of the Summer would be the music that’s in the air – figuratively and, in the case of radio, literally. Featuring the Los Angeles rapper Roddy Ricch, Rockstar has ridden its streaming numbers to the top of the Hot 100 for the past five weeks. On the Radio Play chart, however, the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights has ruled for 13 weeks now.

Sensing that Rockstar was unmoored to the times, DaBaby released a Black Lives Matter remix on June 12. Later, DaBaby and Ricch addressed the George Floyd killing with their performance of the song at the BET Awards.

If Rockstar isn’t the right fit, a breezy earworm or fist-pumping banger won’t do either. In another time, the alt-pop empathy of the Beths’ Jump Rope Gazers would be washing over teenage parties. Not now. Tonight’s not going to be a “good night,” as the Peas told us in 2009, and party rock makes little sense when dancing on public patios is banned.

This isn’t a summer – it’s a bad Footloose reboot.

For something more evocative of these days, consider Keedron Bryant’s soul-seeking Instagram appeal I Just Wanna Live, shared on May 26, the day after Floyd suffocated at the hands and knees of Minneapolis police officers. The 12-year-old Bryant pleaded a cappella, “I’m a young Black man, doing all that I can to stand.”

The video, shared by the likes of Barack Obama and LeBron James, has been viewed more than three million times.

It’s possible this year’s summer song is something we’ve yet to hear. Drake is set to drop an album soon, rumours say. Although hip hop by its nature is protest music, Drizzy isn’t built for that. Kendrick Lamar, a fired-up country turns its eyes to you.

In the week after Floyd’s death, politically potent older songs such as Lamar’s Alright and Childish Gambino’s This is America received a big bump in listenership on streaming services. In that outraged hip-hop vein, Pig Feet from Terrace Martin and collaborators was released at the end of May.

The provocatively titled track is a harrowing declamation in rap, jazz and rock, beginning with the sounds of weapons as a distraught woman cries over an unarmed Black man gunned down by police. The song’s video is prefaced by a message: “This video is happening right outside your window.”

Some will argue that a summer song should offer escape from what’s happening outside our windows. Sure, and that’s happened before. In 1968, an annus horribilis of assassinations, riots and violent protest clashes, the top summer single was Herb Albert’s string-softened This Guy’s In Love With You.

In 1969, however, the top single in a summer that began with a man on the moon but ended with the Manson Family murders was In the Year 2525, a gloomy, apocalyptic sci-fi freak-out by the duo Zager and Evans. The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter was Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah in comparison.

Sweaty 1970 slow-danced to the Carpenters’ darling Close to You. But just below that No. 1 summer hit sat War by Edwin Starr and Ball of Confusion by the Temptations – both more emblematic of the Vietnam War era.

On May 4 of that year, members of the Ohio National Guard shot 13 unarmed students at Kent State University, killing four. In June, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released Young’s Ohio, as searing a protest song ever recorded.

In a recent Porch Episode of his pandemic-filmed Fireside Sessions, Young played Ohio, along with Alabama, Southern Man, Looking For a Leader and a cover of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin'.

They’re all still relevant. We heard the drumming 50 years ago and more. What song will shake our windows today?

Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe