2020 Grammys

Is There a Backlash Against Summer Songs?

Katy Perry Birthday video still

Ross on Radio: The summer song is in danger of becoming more like New Year's Eve, a time of mandated enjoyment that feels forced to some people

Remember when everybody loved "Blurred Lines"?

It was barely more than a year ago. "Blurred Lines" was still exciting – not quite oozing from listeners’ pores yet. It was the underdog choice, the first hit to steal the Song of Summer title from the presumptive winner in recent memory, and it had just passed “Get Lucky” in the home stretch. Then “The Colbert Report” turboed Robin Thicke and the whole Summer Song issue into pop culture. Most people chose to interpret the lyrics as playful, not predatory.

Get More Summer

But burnout is inevitable with a hit of that magnitude. Then Thicke failed to follow-up. Then the consumer press rallied behind Daft Punk, just as they won Grammys for song and album of the year. Thicke got divorced, then spectacularly flamed out in public. Now, it’s hard to find people who remember buying in to the excitement. And by the way, they always thought the lyrics were troubling.

Even under happier circumstances, the Song of the Summer sets its artist up for a backlash. If a summer smash is well-timed and does its job correctly, you’re supposed to be a little sick of it by mid-August. It also creates the burden of having two phenomenal songs in a row, making it even harder for Thicke or Carly Ray Jepsen to follow-up. Katy Perry’s achievement wasn’t just coming up with “California Girls,” but coming up with another four hits of the same magnitude. 

Last year, I was already confident handing the Summer Song of 2013 title to Thicke in early August. This year, the battle won’t likely be decided so soon. But whatever the winner, the remaining candidates are already not feeling the love that “Call Me Maybe” and “Blurred Lines” were at this point. 

Some of the early candidates have long fallen out of contention. Perry’s “Birthday” was first to generate summer buzz, but has already fallen out of the top 30 on the Mainstream Top 40 Airplay chart. Ed Sheeran’s “Sing” sped in and out of the top 10 so quickly that radio programmers aren’t quite sure whether it was a real hit. Calvin Harris’ “Summer” was the biggest of the three, and managed a few weeks of unavoidability, but is now in decline as well.  It may be EDM, but this “drop” won’t be followed by another build.

It was already clear in May that very few of the fun, uptempo, pop-flavored hits on the alternative chart were poised to come to top 40 anytime soon. The biggest pop hit of the bunch is Kongos’ “Come with Me Now,” which has also peaked already in the top 20. Milky Chance's "Stolen Dance" is often tipped as this year's "Somebody That I Used To Know," but it's still queued up at alternative and won't get to top 40 for months.

That doesn’t mean I consider myself wrong about the pop appeal of much of this summer’s alternative product. Top 40 would have benefited from more rock as part of the mix.

For starters, with so many songs having fallen out of the way, the leading candidate at this moment for Summer Song of 2014 is Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” followed closely by Azalea’s guest appearance on Ariana Grande’s “Problem.” It’s not that we haven’t had Hip-Hop summer songs before – “I Gotta Feeling” and “Party Rock Anthem” – but I’ve heard from several people now who don’t consider either song to be an all-ages, mass-appeal, entrenched-in-pop-culture crowd pleaser of the same order. 

So what does that leave? Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong” is a clear summer smash and does have a summery, tropical feel, but doesn’t feel like part of the Zeitgeist either. OneRepublic’s “Love Runs Out” had the potential to follow “Counting Stars” as a sleeper, and was, for a while, the song most heard punching from station to station. But it too has slowed down. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” has the ubiquity, but not the tempo. “Maps” is another reliable Maroon 5 hit, but not more, yet. Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” is quickly becoming huge, but feels more like Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” or Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” in timing – not quite Summer Song dominant yet, but when it is, it will be there for months.

The most obvious competition for “Fancy” at this moment is Magic!’s “Rude.” Like “Call Me Maybe” two summers ago, it came to America as a confirmed hit elsewhere. Being reggae automatically gives it Summer Song points. And it will be near the top of the charts for the remainder of summer. I think it has a certain affability that other candidates lack. But not everybody agrees. “Rude” is already creating the sort of polarization in some quarters that took “Blurred Lines” until after Labor Day.  

If listeners aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the current Song of Summer candidates, does that indicate a possible malaise with the topic itself? The Song of Summer quickly became America’s version of the British Christmas Week No. 1. After several years of intense consumer press scrutiny, it’s in danger of becoming more like New Year’s Eve, a time of mandated enjoyment that feels forced to some people.

People won’t stop listening to music in summer – or noticing the song they hear everywhere. However diminished broadcast radio may be, the top 40 format (and the other pop formats that hew closely to it at the moment) is a particularly shared experience at the moment. Having written about the Summer Song for a decade now, it seems unlikely to go away as a topic. But some summers are less carefree than others.


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