The Song of Summer 2019 Is . . .
After two to three years in which listeners somehow suffered through the doldrums and the extremes simultaneously, hit music was clearly cycling upwards when we forecast the Summer Song of 2019 in May. Every Friday at midnight, there was a new song worth staying up for, maybe even a few of them. Radio was willing to accommodate some songs faster, even when it meant supporting multiple songs from the same act, and move songs into a meaningful rotation sooner.
With the instant gratification of streaming music as a frenemy and influence, radio’s power rotation was still reserved for those songs ratified by callout research over a period of four months (or much longer). But “sub-power” became a place where a new song (at least by a major artist) could receive significant exposure before radio had to decide if it was a “real hit.” “Sub-power” became the new power, and radio was better for it.
So as we unveil the Song of Summer 2019, based on input from readers of Ross On Radio, consider Taylor Swift, who chose to actively compete in the summer song derby for the first time. When the Reputation album came out, “Look What You Made Me Do,” “ … Ready For It?,” and “End Game” piled up on top of each other — each quickly tagged as “not going to make power rotation” and none achieving critical mass on the radio.
It’s easy to say now that neither “ME!” nor “You Need to Calm Down” were the Song of Summer 2019. For that matter, neither was a true power for most stations either. But if I turned on any CHR station for an hour in June, I would almost certainly hear “ME!,” and if I turn on any CHR now, I hear “You Need to Calm Down.” The difference is that I’ll hear “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers, too, and if I leave that same station on for another 15 minutes, I’ll hear it again.
And thus, our discussion of the Summer Song of 2019 starts here:
Jonas Brothers, “Sucker” – If this discussion were just about the most unavoidable song on the radio, “Sucker” remains that even in mid-August. But I’m still accruing it to winter and spring; it’s going to be a while (if ever) before the most-played summer song isn’t a spring holdover. I’m also a little surprised that with radio’s improved ability to grab multiple songs from an artist (including their “Cool” for a few weeks) that “Only Human” isn’t everywhere yet.
Shawn Mendes, “If I Can’t Have You” – Of those songs that were truly summer songs, it was clearly the one I heard played most. And yet, there were relatively few reader votes for it. Three years ago, many were willing to anoint the up-tempo-and-pleasant-enough “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake as their summer song. By the time Mendes repeated the formula with “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back” a year later, things had changed. There were also votes for Mendes & Carmila Cabello’s “Senorita,” and if that song had come out a little earlier, it might have been a significant Song of Summer contender.
Ed Sheeran & Justin Bieber, “I Don’t Care” – Last time out, the sustained airplay of “Shape of You” and “Perfect,” as well as American radio’s need to play “Shape” and “Castle on the Hill” sequentially, meant that other likely hits languished on the (Divide) album. And it’s not as if CHR had so many hits that it didn’t need “Happier,” “New Man,” or “Galway Girl” (a hit elsewhere around the world).
But radio was more willing to acknowledge multiple songs from star acts this year, and labels were more willing to pursue them. As such, No. 6 Collaborations Project was something we haven’t had for a while, a dominant album at pop radio (with inroads at Rhythmic Top 40 and even Mainstream Rock, thanks to “Blow”). Even “Cross Me” was something CHR hadn’t had for a while — the really good six-week secondary title that demonstrates the improved depth of product overall.
Sheeran had become a target of music critic derision around the time of (Divide). If there had been a loss of hit-single momentum on this project, the gloating would have been immediate. Making a collaborations album allowed Sheeran to sidestep (then obliterate) any question of career momentum. And between “I Don’t Care” and “Beautiful People,” he managed to be all over radio with two different songs that made it clear that any antipathy from those with hipper tastes was mutual.
Lizzo, “Truth Hurts” – The No. 3 vote-getter from readers. “Is this really a discussion?” asked Will LaTulippe. As “Truth Hurts” ascended in May, there were still ROR readers who thought “Juice” would be the song of summer, and certainly if radio had really become timelier and more flexible on multiple singles, it would have played both songs. Also, “Good as Hell” (as currently heard on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits, and now starting to get some radio play.) Also the Missy Elliot duet “Tempo.”
Billie Eilish, “Bad Guy” – It is my Song of Summer 2019. It’s hard to match a viral country/hip-hop hit as a phenomenon, but Eilish’s rise was also phenomenal and propelled by similar forces. I liked “Bad Guy” both as a radio record and as a vote of confidence for radio. An artist who already had not just a career, but a significant pop-culture footprint via every other metric, still chose to pursue radio, finally delivering the most propulsive, uptempo distillation of what she does.
While “When the Party’s Over” didn’t sound like a typical pop single, there wasn’t anything with the same combination of edge and energy as “Bad Guy” either. That combination of edgy and hooky is exactly what propelled pop music’s comeback in the late ‘00s (or even in the mid-to-late-‘90s, if you consider songs from “You Oughta Know” — to which “BadGuy” was compared — to “Got Your Money”). And now it’s No. 1 on the Hot 100 as well.
Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road” – “Ross On Radio” readers, it is clearly your Song of Summer 2019, leading Eilish by a 3:2 margin. It wasn’t up-tempo. It was at its most phenomenal before Memorial Day. It never topped the airplay charts. And yet, reader comments both acknowledged and chose to overlook those things. “‘Old Town Road’ by a landslide,” says John Parker. “The public has spoken loud and clear,” says Pop Gold Radio’s Don Tandler. “People are only now grasping its importance,” writes Tom Barnes.
“Old Town Road” was a victory for Billboard’s Hot 100 as well. In 2013, when “Harlem Shake” topped the Hot 100 — a product of Billboard’s ongoing update of its metrics — I still felt that a real hit needed radio’s sign-off. That paradigm is hardly shattered. As with Eilish, it’s encouraging for radio that Columbia still chose to pursue airplay on “Old Town Road.” Radio played but did not power it, (similar to “Gangnam Style,” even though Lil Nas X had a more sustained impact).
But the Song of Summer, which was radio’s last show of dominance for many years, is now a function of multiple metrics, and the Hot 100 was clearly the arbiter this summer. Even the controversy about “Old Town Road” being excluded from the Hot Country Songs meant their decisions mattered. With each new week, every other song this summer became the song that couldn’t dethrone “Old Town Road” from No. 1. It wasn’t only a matter of “it’s not a hit unless it’s a hit in Billboard,” it became a case of “it’s somehow not a hit unless it’s No. 1 on the Hot 100.” And for 19 weeks, nothing else was.
So what was your song of the summer? Please leave a comment.