Kelefa Sanneh defines the song of the summer a whole lot more specifically than I do. Here’s how he describes that nebulous concept in the Times this morning: “This isn’t merely a popularity contest: by tradition, the modern Song of the Summer has to have a certain sound. The basic template is hip-pop; duets are encouraged but not required; the preferred subject is love (although lust works too, so long as there’s plenty of flirting); and the preferred feeling is breezy.” At the beginning of that article, Sanneh suggests that maybe we should stop talking about summer-jams altogether, since in the past year, songs that follow that summer-jam template have been dominating the radio for the entire year. If you got anywhere near a car radio between January and March of this year, for instance, Akon’s “Don’t Matter” and Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” were a whole lot less escapable than any of this year’s candidates. And since the Billboard charts barely move at all anymore and records don’t sell like they once did and the whole thing is really silly anyway if you actually stop to think about the question, maybe the debate surrounding summer-songs should just disappear. But I don’t know. If memory serves, the radio has always been cluttered with songs that sound like summer during the nastiest and most harrowing parts of the year; if memory serves, Crazytown’s “Butterfly” was one of those temporally displaced hits, and that was like eight years ago. (I love that song.) Usher’s “Yeah” worked the same way in 2004. We might use winter-summer songs to get ourselves through the shitty part of the year, but that doesn’t mean that those songs have rendered the summer-jam obsolete. And though rap’s ascendence may have changed the guidelines for summer-songs, it’s not as though it’s imposed strict rules. I always thought that a summer-jam was a song that became omnipresent enough during summer months to evoke that particular summer whenever you hear it; if there’s any one requirement at all, it’s that the song have a beat of some sort. For me, Better Than Ezra’s “Good” was probably the song of the summer in 1995, and I didn’t even particularly like it; I just couldn’t get away from the goddam thing. But these days, on those rare occasions when I actually hear the song again, it immediately and viscerally calls up all sorts of memories of the summer between ninth and tenth grade. That was a pretty good summer, so I sort of like that song now. That’s how it works; it’s nothing to do with genre-boundaries or subject-matter or chart-placement.
We hear music a lot more during the summer, or anyway we feel like we do. We’re outside more. Cars with shitty AC drive around with their windows open. Barbecues need soundtracks. And we hear some songs more than others. But picking the song of the summer is ultimately a subjective experience; it says more about the person figuring the question out than it does about the real musical climate of a particular year. Sanneh names Rihanna’s “Umbrella” as this summer’s song, and it certainly has dominated the singles charts this year. I’ve probably heard it as often as any other piece of music in the past few months. But it’s not my song of the summer, mostly because it doesn’t sound like summer to me. Rihanna’s voice is icy and alien. The beat is all chilly hyper-professional synth plinks. It doesn’t get stuck in my head very often, and it doesn’t evoke any particular emotional gut-response in me, so it’s not my song of the summer. My song of the summer is the Shop Boyz’ “Party Like a Rock Star.” It’s a rangier, less targeted piece of work, one that hardly mentions love or lust at all, and it’s more forceful than breezy. It’s had its moment on the charts, but it hasn’t dominated the way “Umbrella” has. But it preys on my weaknesses: Southern-rap intonation, pop-culture play, big stomping guitar riffs, overall childishness. It’s not even my favorite song of the past few months, but it’s stayed stuck in my head. You can never predict these things with any sort of accuracy, but I’m pretty sure that when I hear “Party Like a Rock Star” in 2019 or whenever, it’ll evoke more memories than “Umbrella” will.
Maybe things would be different if I lived in England, where, as Idolator reports, “Umbrella” has stayed on top of the singles charts during a particularly rainy nine weeks. If I have a main lingering memory of “Umbrella,” it’ll be standing in the rain for hours at Hot 97’s Summer Jam while my fingers and toes wrinkled up; around the time I finally decided to retreat into the dry hallway, some DJ was cuing the song up. Whoever wrote “Umbrella” almost certainly wasn’t imagining sheets of rain falling on Giants Stadium that day; neither were the people who produced or marketed or distributed it. Intent has nothing to do with the summer-jam. Content has almost nothing to do with it. Even the quality of the song itself, another subjective thing, takes a backseat. What makes a song the song of the summer is something even more sublime and untraceable. And, to his credit, Sanneh admits as much in his final paragraph: “For anyone who’s no longer a full-time student, summer, like broad cultural consensus, comes in short little bursts. We seize it — we invent it — when we can.” It’s pretty amazing how these products of mass-culture, these little bursts of sound generated by companies that base all their decisions on profit-projections, can take on virtually infinite varieties totemic personal significances for all sorts of different people. At this point, “Party Like a Rock Star” probably means as much to me as it does to the people who actually wrote the song, and that’s exactly as it should be. And that’s why the summer-jam debate lives on.