If you weren’t tipped off by the bullets, the bombs, the lethal mosquitoes, the sand fires, the heat dome, the glacial melt, the leaks, the hacks or the demagogue growling for law and order, here’s a hint that our summer has gone wrong: There’s an exclamation point at the end of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”
Are you feeling what I’m feeling? JT is dancing in the sky, our republic is in a free fall, and the bonus punctuation makes it feel like the season’s brightest pop song is being shouted at us from another world. It’s funny when a hit so omnipresent feels so far away, but it’s also depressing. Not hatred-terror-murder-pandemic depressing, but still — we’re living through one of the ugliest summers in modern memory and it isn’t trivial to talk about what it sounds like.
It has to sound like something. We don’t suspend our romance with pop music in times of crisis because pop music won’t let us. Unlike movies, TV shows or books, songs can enter our lives against our volition and with incredible ease. It happens most frequently in the summer, when we’re outdoors, exposing ourselves to unsolicited melodies at the park, on the beach, in the streets. We tend to equate summertime with frivolity — summer reads, summer love — but pop matters most in the warm weeks, when a song can blast across the commons, altering the public aura, bending our communal temperament. Music finds us. It’s the truest texture of our times.
And this summer, we’re being reminded how powerfully the very idea of “us” is reinforced through the news cycle and the Hot 100. Humming together in secret symmetry, bad news and good pop help to feed our endless appetite for worry and escape, the yin and yang of American life. Once July rolls around and the heat starts to spike, we reach for our most reliable escape hatch: “the song of the summer,” that magical mega-hit capable of changing the nation’s psychic temperature.
So here we are. Where’s the tune? Don’t say “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” Don’t say Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.” Please don’t say Drake’s “One Dance.” Yes, those hits have each risen to the peak of Billboard’s singles chart this summer, but none of them have risen to the moment. How could they? The moment is a monster, and I feel like it’s turning our listening inside out. Instead of the radio altering how we experience the summer, the summer is altering how we experience the radio. There is no song of the summer; just a summer littered with songs.
There’s never one indisputable song of the summer, anyway, but we like to argue that there oughta be, and for at least two reasons. First, because the debate itself is impossible to win. It’s an open-field blabfest about what constitutes greatness, and it doesn’t end with a trophy, a speech or any kind of resolution. It’s messy, like music. (It also gives us the once-a-year opportunity to say, “Let’s agree to disagree” with complete sincerity.)
The other reason we love haggling over summer music is because the songs themselves are extremely valuable, and they appreciate exponentially, year after year. Their rhythms become grafted to our real-life experiences, individual and collective, which is why they end up living forever — or at least for as long as we do.
We know them when we hear them, even when “Call Me Maybe” sounds nothing like “Umbrella,” which sounds nothing like “Whoomp! (There It Is),” which sounds nothing like “When Doves Cry.” If there’s a commonality between them, it’s that they each exude something undeniable — and because the song of the summer can never truly react to the moment it defines, being undeniable is everything. A song either lucks out and lands smack-dab in the middle of the zeitgeist by undeniable coinkidink, or it swings the national mood with its own undeniable force.
Think about how impossible those tasks are this summer: Land a triple-salchow in hell, or sing something louder than the noise of the world.
So I went searching for miracles at the Dairy Queen on Friday night, but only found a teenage couple who seemed to have been deported from a Norman Rockwell painting and dropped into my dystopian July. As we all waited in line for our Dilly Bars, the radio played “One Dance,” and the kids started letting their knees go slack on downbeat. But before the refrain could circle back around, the boy looked into the girl’s eyes and asked, “Wait, is this ‘One Dance’?” She nodded yes, and they both rectified their postures, reverting their attention to the menu board. These two knew something: Drake songs aren’t supposed to make you feel good.
So goes the curse-blessing of a perennially inconsolable millionaire who finally seems to be running out of musical fuel. If there’s an internal tension to “One Dance,” it’s that the song’s vaguely Caribbean pulse isn’t strong enough to rouse its narrator from the comfort of his woe. So in that sense, “One Dance” approximates the exhaustion of living through the summer of 2016, but not the unease — and it obviously doesn’t radiate enough life force to light up the exit rows and take us somewhere else.
“Cheap Thrills” — the song that just stole the No. 1 spot from “One Dance” — suffers from similar deficiencies. “I don’t need no money, as long as I can feel the beat,” Sia declares over a beat that tries to gallop, but only drags. Shouldn’t songs about wanting to dance make us want to dance?
And yes, summer songs are allowed to be a total drag. There’s a canon of hits dedicated to the very subject — Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.” Nothing new on the radio this summer quite passes the bar for entry to that group, but there’s still plenty of blues, cruelty and sadness floating around.
“The radio is a good, weird machine,” the critic Greil Marcus wrote in the ’80s, back when certain parties considered the FM dial to be as toxic as TV. He was advancing the argument that we can learn more about the world by listening to this self-perpetuating patchwork of sonic expression than we can by ignoring it. And even in this bad, weird summer, the idea still holds true.
For starters, you’ll learn that a lot of people don’t want to sound like people anymore. Rihanna clearly knows how to sing like her lungs are on fire, but on “This Is What You Came For,” producer Calvin Harris transforms her voice into a fit of decorative digital hiccups. Similar artificial vocal spasms occur to varying degrees of dehumanization on “Gold” by Kiiara and “Never Forget You” by Zara Larsson and Mnek — songs that should remind us that an artfully over-processed vocal is always tethered to the singer’s humanity.
Something else you can learn from your radio: a lot of young people don’t want to feel young anymore. With grown-up seriousness, they’re sealing their childhood bedtime stories in amber (Ruth B’s “Lost Boy”), and chastising themselves for feeling washed-up (Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill in Ibiza”), and mourning their lives before they’ve had a chance to live them (Lukas Graham’s “7 Years”). Together, these ballads might be triangulating some kind of millennial distress signal, but as candidates for the song of the summer, they aren’t getting the job done.
The position remains unfilled. It’s unlikely, but the song of the summer might drop out of the sky next weekend. If not, the application window re-opens on Memorial Day. In the meantime, there’s an endless surplus of new music out there for us to bury our brains in — just don’t confuse your song of the summer for the song of the summer. One plays in your headphones. The other plays in baseball stadiums.
I heard “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” at the ballpark just last week. They played it in its entirety through the middle of the sixth inning, and as the dance-cam panned across the 300 level, the song’s only virtue became apparent: It brings joy to young children.
Bless them, truly. But for those of us who are old enough to be terrified by America right now, Justin pretty much sounds insane. “I got that sunshine in my pocket,” he insists. “Got that good soul in my feet.” It’s “yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy” for the 21st century. And guess what? Ohio Express took that refrain all the way to No. 4 in 1968, a difficult year for our country by most accounts.
So take a moment this summer to scan your body and locate the unstoppable feelings — the esophageal burn, the night sweats, the headache, the heartache. Then, check your pockets for sunshine. Check your toes for the soul. Remember, in a rational world, bad pop songs help us discern between escapism and denial. In an irrational world, escapism and denial are one and the same.