Every summer has its song, whether it was Katy Perry's "California Gurls" in 2010 or "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X in 2019. But how can we call something the song of summer at a time when the season itself has become infected by the rippling effects of a global pandemic?
After all, the perfect summer song isn’t just about the music we hear, but about where we hear it and who we hear it with. Summer anthems earn that honor by playing everywhere big groups gather. They pound through crowded bars, blare from speakers at backyard barbeques, and fill the air at sprawling beach parties.
How’s that working for us now? As the steamy days of 2020 approach, summer camps have been cancelled, proms and graduations ditched, tours meant to promote hot new singles postponed for at least a year, and sandy gatherings limited, both in terms of the numbers of people allowed to huddle and the activities they’re allowed to indulge in. Right now, most bars and restaurants can’t open their doors for revelry, and even when they’re able to allow a portion of patrons in, they won’t be able to cluster and linger in ways that create a widely shared experience.
“All of this will have an enormous impact on everyone’s experience of a summer song this year,” said Jem Aswad, senior music editor of Variety. “It won’t be the same.”
“To have a summer-defining single, you need to have a group listening experience,” said Billboard’s senior director of music Jason Lipshutz. “Last year, you heard the song of summer, ‘Old Town Road” at every party, and in every club, regardless of where you were in the United States.”
At the same time, Lipshutz emphasized, “the concept of the song of summer has changed a bit in the last few years to reflect how people listen to music now.”
‘Vogue Summer’: You can listen to our curated playlist of summer songs here:
Increasingly, that focuses on streaming services, as well as You Tube, and TikTok, all outlets that allow the listener to savor music solo. “The song of summer two years ago, which was Drake’s ‘In My Feelings,’ may have gotten a lot of radio play,” said Lipshutz, “but it was a streaming behemoth.”Dua Lipa: “Break My Heart”
Which means the current restrictions on public life have only amplified a trend towards private listening already well on the upswing. Still, even in with its diminished role, the windows-down blare of old-fashioned car radios remain an important player in establishing a mass summer ode. In that context, observers are concerned that, ever since the pandemic broke, key stations have often replaced new songs with treasured oldies. According to Sean Ross, author of the “Ross on Radio” report, “to make people feel better, Top 40 and Hot AC (Adult Contemporary) are playing more ‘90s and 2000s songs now,” he said. “I went for ten years without hearing the Spice Girls’ ‘Wanna Be’ on the radio. Now, I’ve heard it twice in the same weekend, on different stations.”
He added that more listeners have been turning to classic rock stations. “They want that old energy and enthusiasm,” Ross said.
Still, as the heat rises, a hunger for new songs will regain their dominance, whether shared in groups or savored alone. Given the elevated importance of current events, observers believe that the subjects of those songs will have heightened significance. “People will need a song that speaks to this time,” said Ross. “Or one that helps them forget it.”
To Lipshutz, that means “skewing towards more positive, uplifting music.”Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande: “Rain on Me”
One song that fits that bill is Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart,” which has already enjoyed significant chart success. Though the single was written, and recorded, well before the coronavirus upended the world, its lyrics dovetail perfectly with the current drama. “I should have stayed home,” goes the chorus refrain. “I was doing better alone.” Despite the wariness of the lyric, the music that accompanies it is exciting, catchy and totally danceable. “The common denominator in all the songs of summer that they make you feel good,” said Aswad. “They have a billowing feel, an effervescence.” Another strong candidate in that regard is Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar,” whose music, and message, couldn’t be more refreshing or sweet. More, its video features a rapturous beach scene (if one that hasn’t a trace of social distancing). Observers also favor “Savage,” by Megan Thee Stallion, an infectious hip-hop track that just got a turbocharge to No. 1 on the charts through a remix featuring Beyonce. A somewhat artier choice is “Roses,” a haunting, but catchy, single by SAINt JHN, that will likely soon crack Billboard’s Top Ten. Then there’s “So What,” by Doja Cat, which has the massive chart power, breezy tone, and hot beat summer songs demand. At the same time, a recent controversy swirling around the singer over some racially insensitive lyrics she sang in the past could blunt its impact.Megan Thee Stallion: “Savage”
Another strong contender doubles as the newest: "Rain on Me,” by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. Not only does it have more star power than any song now out, its lyrics can be read as an anthem of overcoming, while its music provides the season’s biggest jolt of energy. Observers says it’s highly unusual for a song of summer to arrive this late in the year. Most of them build for months. Yet, according to Lipshutz, there’s one more potential, tardy player this time: Drake has promised to release a new album this summer and it could well contain a strong enough track to steal the title. Already Drake had a recent No. 1 single with “Toosie Slide,” and he snagged the song of summer banner twice recently - in 2016 and 2018, for “One Dance,” and “In My Feelings,” respectively.
Another reason this year may feature a yet-to-be revealed dark horse is the power of Tik-Tok, which can fire a hit with new speed. More, a late-breaking song might arise that speaks to our time of mass protest and racial reckonings, deepening the whole notion of a song of summer.
Regardless of who’s in the running, observers feel confident that even a pandemic can’t stop fans from handing someone the crown. Which begs the question: Why has the song of summer debate remained so powerful? “It’s a way to mark an important time in peoples’ lives,” Lipshutz said. “You think back to the summer that you graduated high school, or when you went on vacation, and you always remember the song that was ubiquitous.”
“It’s about youth,” Aswad said. “Also, the ‘Song of Winter,’ or ‘Song of Autumn,’ just doesn’t have the same glow.”
View the full playlist on Apple Music here.
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