Real quick, before school’s out forever, raise your hand if you still care about the song of the summer.
Everyone should. The annual debate over which pop single will rule our hot months is the best kind of music debate. Why? Because it’s impossible for anyone to win, for starters. We listen, we fight over which tune should define June, July and August, then we listen some more.
It’s a million-muso campfire masquerading as an argument, anyway. In an era that encourages us to curate our own highly specialized pop culture diets, summer songs are the last scraps of pop music that we still share. We’re all outdoors, living and listening in three dimensions. Music resumes its original audio format: the air.
That gives the song-of-summer debate its Darwinian urgency. The Meghan Trainors and Jason Derulos of the world are forced to compete not only with one another, but with everything else, too. Sunshine makes our world noisier by luring humanity outdoors, where songs must clash for supremacy at the ballpark, under the boardwalk and wherever cracked car windows leak subwoofer oomph.
There’s a certain magic to this kind of incidental, open-air listening — especially considering how our earbuds have made our relationship to music so private during the other nine months of the year. We use the songs stored in our hand-held devices to aestheticize our morning jogs, our daily commutes, our afternoon coffee breaks and our evening strolls. More regularly than not, we move through public spaces to a private soundtrack.
Summertime switches that up. It transforms us from individual consumers into social listeners, inviting us to absorb big hits in communal spaces. Music rises up to its seasonal duty, helping to establish the aura of a time and place. What’s more, summer continuously confronts us with songs that we didn’t choose to hear. If we’re lucky, our tastes might begin to mutate against our will.
It only helps if the songs feel big and small, stupid and wise, all at once. The greatest summer songs can express a mob emotion that still feels specific to you. They can present themselves as naively simple, even when they’re teeming with secret smarts. But it’s always on you to decide whether the song crackles and pops like a cold bowl of cereal or the burning bush. And maybe you haven’t had breakfast yet.
The point is this: As an honorific, the song of the summer is always up for grabs, always up for discussion, always impossible to resolve. Nobody’s name gets ripped from an envelope on Labor Day. That alone makes it a far more meaningful — or at least a more interesting — metric for measuring pop significance than, say, a Grammy award or an invitation to some ridiculous Hall of Fame.
This summer, the record labels pushing many of these songs are still interested in our $1.29, of course, so they’re floating singles from artists who broke big in previous summers, hoping they’ll relive their respective glories.
Last year, it was Australian rapper Iggy Azalea who tyrannized our airwaves with “Fancy,” and now she’s back with Britney Spears for a similarly bleh duet called “Pretty Girls.” Carly Rae Jepsen first cannonballed into the pool in 2012 with “Call Me Maybe” and is trying to replicate that splash with “I Really Like You.”
And then there’s Rihanna, whose career exploded beneath her “Umbrella” back in the summer of 2007. Eight years later, her loud-mouthed single, “B---- Better Have My Money,” is in the contention for the song of the summer — until she releases something better, which she always seems to do.
And let’s not forget that this is the United States, a land of people that love to cheer for newbies, nobodies, outsiders and underdogs — especially when those long shots are already winning.
Fetty Wap, a rapper from New Jersey, fits the bill almost too perfectly. His breakaway single, “Trap Queen,” is a love song about dealing drugs with a hook so exuberant, it sounds as if the guy recorded it while shooting down ZoomAzon Falls at Six Flags America. Currently at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 list, (right beneath some song by some lady named Taylor Swift), “Trap Queen” doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio.
You might hate it, you might love it, and you might remember it for the rest of your life because the song of the summer always gets to live forever.
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