Some years it’s the 30th time you hear it used as an argument for the caché of an SUV. Maybe it’s when you’ve watched YouTube cover videos over and over and over again. Other years it takes realizing that the song has become the de rigueur anthem of every wedding and bar mitzvah. At some point or another, a hit summer song becomes the song of the summer.
In each song of the summer, there is a tension between timeliness and timelessness, as music critic Jody Rosen pointed out last year while writing about “Call Me Maybe.” Timeliness is the terrain of critics and pundits, who attempt to contextualize a song’s success as a consequence of social (“Call Me Maybe”’s tenuous connection to marriage equality), political (“I Gotta Feeling”’s election euphoria), or economic (“We Found Love” in a hopeless job market) conditions. As shaky and contingent as these links may be, they guarantee that the song will find its way into the titles of Facebook photo albums or the background of summer-camp video montages.
Timelessness, on the other hand, gives the song its universal appeal. The lyrical vapidity of the song of the summer (California girls, we're unforgettable / Daisy dukes, bikinis on top / Sun-kissed skin, so hot / We'll melt your popsicle) is its VIP pass, granting it exclusive access to the climax of the party, when all we want to do is scream a simple chorus that sounds and feels great. At the same time, the innocuousness of the song allows it to sneak into sober settings like political conventions.
Usually the song peeks its head in the fertile emotional period between early spring and graduation season. In 2012, “Call Me Maybe” rode the viral buzz around a video of teenage tastemakers lip-synching the song to Song of the Summer ubiquity. In 2010, the promotional cycle for “California Gurls” was rushed forward to early May so as to create the sense that the song was a West Coast response to the New York swagger of “Empire State of Mind,” a response which ultimately mattered little, as “California Gurls” went on to become the undisputed Song of the Summer.
The spring of 2013 was no different, with various candidates for Song of the Summer battling for pole position. Rihanna, will.I.am, and Daft Punk all landed coveted network tie-ins with the 2013 NBA Finals, allowing them into sports bars and man-caves across the country. Some songs, like will.I.am’s “#thatPOWER” and the video(s) for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” hoped that their “hashtagization” strategy would result in virality and not the ire of listeners. Music from Justin Timberlake, Macklemore, Ciara, and countless others continues to vie for Song of the Summer ubiquity.
That said, songs by these artists hardly bear mention in the same conversation with previous songs of the summer. While album sales are hardly the only measure of a song’s cultural ubiquity, Billboard’s list Songs of the Summer since 1985 is as solid a source as any for the songs of summers past. “Call Me Maybe,” “Party Rock Anthem,” “California Gurls,” “I Gotta Feeling,” “I Kissed A Girl,” and “Umbrella” are all influential cultural artifacts with continued resonance. We have videos of our political leaders singing them (sort of). We have to specifically request that DJs not play them at our parties. They were, and continue to be, everywhere. Where is that song in 2013?
Perhaps we’re still waiting for that 128-beats-per-minute, Dr. Luke/David Guetta Eurodance jam — the past four songs have perfectly fit that mold. Tepid offerings from Rihanna and will.I.am suggest that this EDM formula might not be as surefire as it was as recently as a year ago. Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” may have over-corrected for the inanity of the EDM-craze. The retro hit chugs along like a luxurious Model T sharing the highway with Maybachs and Maseratis. Other songs fail to create that kid-tested, mother-approved nexus of inoffensiveness. Robin Thicke has incurred wrath for objectifying the models in the video for his single “Blurred Lines” while creepily asserting that, “You know you want it.”
Other artists’ lack of impact on summer playlists can be attributed to a variety of causes. Some, like Timberlake or Kanye West, have released some of the best long-form work of their careers without clear chart-topping singles. What’s more, “bona fide hip hop” hasn’t topped the summer charts since Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” in 2002, so West, Macklemore, and even Jay-Z face an uphill climb.
As June becomes July and no song has exerted culture-shaping dominance over the musical landscape, we may need to prepare for the realities of a song-less summer. Could the absence of a song of the summer in 2013 force us to reconsider the ways in which we allow music to shape our lives? Will 2013 be the Summer of the Album? Or is our reluctance to anoint some upbeat summer song indicative of troubling social divisions? As the millions who made “The Macarena” the song of the summer of 1996 would remind us, sometimes the song of the summer is better off forgotten.