Why do we care about the song of the summer?
In part, I’m sure it comes from the same part of the musical brain that’s attracted to lists and rankings: the thrill of artificial competition, of creating things to root for (or against). But it’s also that even for a cold soul like mine, there’s something special about music in the summer — in having a common, shared soundtrack that floats through the season’s beach visits, road trips, weddings and patio hangouts.
And “shared” is the key word there: one of the things I find so compelling about our current pop age is that even though our digital lives give us more power that ever before to listen to whatever we want, whenever we want, we’re still drawn to shared experiences in our pop songs. Some of this drive is economic, sure, and some of it is based in the enduring power of certain distribution systems, but pop music as a social experience isn’t only surviving in the digital age: it’s thriving.
So what exactly defines “song of the summer” (SOTS), then?
It’s the one pop song that eclipses the rest in terms of social impact: radio play, chart performance, cultural ubiquity. The eventual champion is rarely the season’s “best” pop song, but it’s typically its most effective one. Past SOTS winners — “I Gotta Feeling,” “Call Me Maybe,” “California Gurls,” “Umbrella,” “Crazy in Love” — offer a sense of what we expect from our summer songs: big hooks, singalong potential, crossover appeal, the sort of track you might hear blasting out of a car radio as it drives by, a few km/h too fast, on a hot summer night. And lest you think it’s too early to handicap the 2014 champion, every SOTS for the past 20 years has been released before the end of May, sometimes even months earlier.
Last year’s SOTS sweepstakes was a dead-heat between two Pharrell jams, “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky,” with the former ultimately (disappointingly) emerging as the slight victor. Who’ll take the crown this year? Here’s my take on the competitors:
Paramore’s self-titled album was one of my favourite albums of 2013, and while “Ain’t It Fun” is a solid track, I never would have envisioned it as a hit. Yet, here we are: buoyed by radio play, the song made it to the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. As great as that gospel choir backing is, I doubt the song is going to end up going that much higher: in 2014, even the pop-iest rock has its chart limits.
The collaboration EP between Röyksopp and Robyn is a going to be one of my summer soundtracks, for sure, but most of its better moments are slow-building and hardly chart-topping material. The title track is the one exception, but I confess that I don’t exactly hear it becoming a sensation on a SOTS level.
Here we have songs by two of the behemoths of modern EDM — a genre which, based on tracks like “Wake Me Up” and “Don’t You Worry Child,” can clearly deliver big pop hits. Yet there’s something lacking in both of these entries. “Summer” has been Harris’ fastest rising single on the charts, which I can only suspect is entirely due to the song’s name: the track itself falls flat, and is a far cry from his super catchy hits like “I Need Your Love” and “Sweet Nothings.” Tiesto’s “Red Lights” is better in the hook department but it still feels underwhelming and uninspired. A SOTS needs to act as a soundtrack to summertime, but it also needs to survive on its own terms, which “Red Lights” really doesn’t.
The best track from the shockingly-not-embarrassing posthumous MJ collection fits perfectly amongst the current retro disco throwback trend… except that the track is the genuine article, recorded originally in the early 1980s and updated with a vocal from current “King of Pop” contender Timberlake. But solid through the song is, does MJ’s clout extend so far beyond the grave that we’ll suddenly make this THE song of the summer? Unlikely.
Haven’t heard this one yet? If you’re in North America, you’re not alone — but you’re increasingly an outlier. The song by British electronic group Clean Bandit was the fastest selling single of the year in the UK, and has reached number one on charts in 15 different countries so far this year. It’s an effortlessly catchy, consumable pop song that I have little doubt could (and probably will) become a hit in North America. But can do it so in time to be the SOTS? Flatted though the world may seem, the path for European pop hits to crash the Western Hemisphere remains long and slow: remember “Lights”? “Bulletproof”? “I Love It”? If “Rather Be” does take off, it’ll almost certainly along those songs’ pace, meaning it’ll be too late for it to make a run at the SOTS title.
Currently, Legend’s ballad sits atop the Billboard Hot 100 as the most popular song in America, the latest in a surprisingly long line of recent solo piano hits (“Stay,” “Someone Like You,” etc.). Just like with summer movies, there’s a place for this sort of counterprogramming on the pop charts, but can you really picture this song passing the SOTS car stereo test? Didn’t think so.
This one’s hot off the presses — it was only released last Wednesday — and it’s a much stronger ballad contender for the SOTS than “All Of Me,” despite the latter’s current chart success, thanks to that great “I still love” chorus. It suffers from the same problem, though: a ballad as this year’s SOTS winner? Given the quality tracks higher up on this list, seems very unlikely.
It pains me to put this song in the “maybes” list: the song is a pop-punk gem with a dorky-annoying-then-suddenly-endearing chorus, and even a reference to escaping the confines of a small town. (Such references are pretty much my musical catnip.) Hell, the band even has “summer” in the name! Here’s the gigantic “however,” though: 5SOS are being marketed as a “boy band,” the next logical evolution of the rock-aping sound and pretty-boy image that One Direction have owned for the past couple of years. And in 2014, that’s a problem. The song may deserve success on its own terms, but it will likely struggle break out of the teen-pop ghetto that’s prevented similar acts from having massive, audience-spanning hits.
One of the key criteria for a SOTS winner is crossover appeal, so if any EDM track has a shot at the title, it’s probably the one with the mopey, lovey balladeers in tow. I’m not big on this track — it feels too calculated, too strategic, even by Coldplay’s standards — but it would be foolish to dismiss its potential. It’ll be a hit, and probably a big one (perhaps Coldplay’s biggest since “Viva La Vida”)… but probably not the SOTS.
“Birthday” is one of the better tracks from Prism (which isn’t saying much) but it’s mostly here a courtesy: with two separate SOTS winners to her name (“I Kissed A Girl” and then “California Gurls,” narrowly beating her own, superior “Teenage Dream”), Perry’s pop infrastructure is always ready to fight for the title. But “Birthday” sounds more like silly fun than a world-conquering beast of a pop song, and the fact that it’s the third single from her record means it’s not as new or novel as some of the other contenders.
Aided by its absolutely bonkers video, and Lil’ Jon’s predictably over-the-top yelling, “Turn Down for What” has become a massive hit for French DJ Snake. It’s pretty much meme-ready from the start, and in this day and age, having a hit that screams “Let’s make our own video and upload it to YouTube!” has lots of power. But the song’s ability to reach a broader audience is crippled by its harsh edges; it’s not the sort of song you could picture on mainstream pop radio, is it?
Never underestimate Scandinavia’s pop potential. This song was a hit in Nico & Vinz’s home country of Norway last year, and the duo’s quest for the American pop charts was solidified when they changed their name from “Envy” to avoid confusion with similarly named US artists. The song is the sort of effervescent, scale-climbing pop song that, if it’s catchy (and, helpfully, if it sounds a bit exotic), often finds a place on the charts. It’s also familiar: seriously, just try singing along “Somebody I Used To Know” to this one. It fits perfectly. I’m ranking this as “contender” right now, but it could easily sneak into the heavyweight category if it picks up steam.
Timing isn’t the only thing when it comes to a SOTS winner, but it’s sure something. After helping craft both SOTS frontrunners last year, Pharrell comes out with “Happy” and it becomes 2014’s biggest hit by a mile (even if I’m not totally on board). It’s still at number four on the Hot 100; had it caught on even a few weeks later than it did it could easily have carried through to take the SOTS crown. But “Happy” simply peaked too early, and is in decline just as the SOTS sweepstakes heat up. Follow-up single “Come Get It Bae” — you know it from those Red Bull commercials — will certainly be a hit, but it feels a notch below a true SOTS heavyweight. After an incredible run of successes, it looks like Pharrell may fall just short of another SOTS win…
Hold on… “My god…that’s PHARRELL’S music!”*
What, you thought Pharrell would sit back and let SOTS go without a fight? Hardly — although his performer of choice is certainly a surprise. Ed Sheeran, acoustic guitar in hand, is best known for his teenage-girl-targeting ballads, from hit “The A-Team” to his Taylor Swift duet “Everything Has Changed.” The acoustic guitar is still there on “Sing,” but it’s chopped up, punctuated by a trademark Pharrell bassline and played underneath a Price-aping falsetto chorus.
Some have expressed polite dismay over Sheeran’s swerve towards P-pop (“Pharrell pop”; we might as well give it its own genre by now). But, in many ways, he’s an ideal candidate for this sort of play. He’s established enough to have a devoted fanbase keen to follow alone, but not so well established that such a swerve would alienate more people than it’ll attract. Plus, his “likeable ginger” image makes his delivery of this sort of hookup anthem decidedly more endearing and significantly less rape-y than “Blurred Lines.” It’s still early days for the song (its music video just came out), but don’t be surprised if it’s still standing come September as one of the season’s biggest hits.
*For those who didn’t grow up watching wrestling as a kid, anytime you see someone use “My god, that’s ______’s music” on the Internet, it refers to the way announcer Jim Ross used to get overly excited when a wrestler’s music would play and they’d head to the ring in a surprise-but-totally-expected interruption of proceedings.
Though it’s often criticized as being conservative, pop is always reacting against itself. Case in point: “Fancy,” the breakout single from Australian rapper Iggy Azaela, is basically an opposite-world rewrite of “Royals,” matching Lorde’s track in musical minimalism but, instead, celebrating maximalism. Iggy and Charlie may never be royals, but they sure can party like them.
It’s Charlie XCX who does the musical heavy lifting here, and I confess it’s a bit disappointing to see her once again giving away such a killer hook to another artist rather than keeping it for herself (she wrote “I Love It” for Icona Pop). But, frankly, the song doesn’t work without Iggy’s attitude; hell, the song is pretty much all attitude. That’s why it’s at number two on the pop charts right now, and why it’s going to eclipse pretty much every other song this summer. Everyone wants to feel like they can take on the world this time of year, and this’ll be the go-to soundtrack for casual badassery.
It’s quite the feat to end up with your name attached to two different Song of the Summer frontrunners in the same year, and while Iggy’s accomplishment isn’t quite at the same level of Pharrell’s one-two punch last year, it’s impressive none-the-less (especially given that she’s an emerging artist). It matters little that her rap verse on “Problem” is underwhelming — just her presence is enough to solidify her claim to being the defining pop voice of summer 2014.
But Iggy will likely have to settle sharing the SOTS championship belt with the young lady who takes top billing on the colossal “Problem.” Ariana Grande flirted with mass appeal on last year’s “The Way,” but “Problem” seems perfectly assembled to make her a minor superstar, at least until the end of the summer: you’ve got that “wacky sax” hook that recalls recent hits like “Talk Dirty” and “Thrift Shop,” paired with a speaker-bursting synth riff in the verses and Grande’s ridiculous vocal climbs taking the listener higher and higher with each kiss-off line.
So why do I think “Problem” is this year’s most likely SOTS winner? One is crossover appeal: with its Mariah-style vocals, “Problem” has a lot more potential on pop radio than “Fancy,” meaning its ability to become, say, your mom or dad’s favourite song of the season is much greater. The other is timing: “Fancy” is hotter right now, but “Problem” is right on its heels (they’re number two and three on the Hot 100, respectively) and it’s been out for a much shorter period of time; its official music video isn’t even released yet. We may be looking at a replay of last summer’s “Pharrell-vs-Pharrell” contest, when “Get Lucky” was quicker out of the gate but “Blurred Lines” peaked during peak summer.
So if it’s an Iggy-vs-Iggy showdown this summer… Ariana Grande wins.
McNutt Against the Music Song of the Summer prediction: Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea, “Problem”
As if often the case with these things, readers and friends have suggested a few alternate songs that could (and perhaps should) have been on my list. A few other contenders to consider:
Chromeo: “Come Alive” or “Jealous”: Chromeo have been flirting with a pop breakout for a while now; will one of these two songs do the job? Fun though they are, I have my doubts.
The Chainsmokers: “#SELFIE”: There’s always a place for novelty pop in the summer, so don’t be surprised if this rather annoying track gets some momentum but it’s far too insufferable to be THE song of the summer.
Jennifer Lopez ft. French Montana: “I Luh Ya Papi”: This song has been out since March but it’s just entered the Hot 100. I don’t think it has legs but, hey, summer can surprise sometimes.