What The Summer Song Isn’t . . . And Why

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It’s too soon to call the Song of Summer 2015, but it’s not too soon to declare this a better summer than the one that preceded it. Last year’s handicappers were grudgingly triaging between “Fancy” (too hard), “Problem” (too trifling) and “Rude,” which was already overstaying its welcome for many listeners. At the time, I wondered if the Summer Song concept was warping under its own hype, defined here as any coverage of the topic written by anybody else.

But wherever I went this summer, the first question was invariably “what’s the summer song?” And it always arrived at least five minutes ahead of any query about the wife and kids. Inside and outside the industry, people enjoy the shared experience, and having a soundtrack for their summer memories. They just want it to be good.

And this year, the summer song will definitely be good. It won’t be a cultural phenomenon of the “Blurred Lines” sort. It won’t likely generate a backlash of the sort that “Blurred Lines” eventually did either. Even in a summer when the Taylor Swift single featured rap and a Tarrentino-homage video, there’s nothing “fancy” about 2015. This summer’s theme is “I’m so/friendly.”

At this moment, there are three contenders left:

  • Omi’s “Cheerleader,” which entered the race already ratified as an international smash (and Australia’s song of summer). On Billboard’s tally, based by summer chart points alone, “Cheerleader” is No. 3, but the only song growing fast enough to possibly overturn “See You Again” as the biggest chart record of summer.
  • Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” the No. 2 Billboard chart song and, for the first six weeks of summer, one of the truly unavoidable songs, reinforced by the excitement surrounding Swift’s summer tour.
  • The Weeknd’’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” There was an article this spring suggesting that listeners had likely already heard the Song of Summer, but this was a rare June entry. It probably won’t grow fast enough to win the Billboard race, but it is likely to eclipse Omi as most-played relatively soon and has plenty of growth left.

But it’s instructive what songs will not be the Song of Summer 2015:

It is not, whatever Billboard might decide, Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth’s “See You Again.” Yes, it remained inescapable until well into July. It stands as one of the phenomenal singles of the year, and one of the songs driving the Hip-Hop and R&B boomlet. But the ground rules here are that the summer song has to be up and breezy, not elegiac.

It wasn’t Maroon 5. “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt” could have been a gimme. Instead, it was an object lesson in how, even now, certain lyrics can actually be too edgy for listeners. I noted in May that Lunchmoney Lewis’ “Bills” wouldn’t be the summer song because nobody wanted a summer song about work. To that, I can now add that nobody wanted a summer song about having a lousy summer. (Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” a UK hit in 1983 and here in 1994, was still not the summer song of either year.)

It was not a DJ/producer-led EDM record, although there were a dozen of those lined up in May. The first seemingly foolproof anthem, Zedd’s “I Want You To Know,” had stumbled even before Memorial Day. It wasn’t for a lack of real hits in the genre. Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” still the individual summer song choice of many I speak to, may well become Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” a year-long smash that becomes bigger than the summer song winner. Skrillex & Diplo’s “Where Are U Now” has secured the Kid Rock Summer Comeback Award for Justin Bieber. But pop EDM has reached the point where even some really good records are waiting in line.

It was not Britney Spears & Iggy Azalea’s “Pretty Girls.” It seemed like a contender to me at the outset. Then came the hourly first-day airplay and almost immediately, “Pretty Girls” wasn’t even a hit, much less the summer song. And I’m not sure hourly premieres did “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt” any favors either. Previous winners like “Call Me Maybe” and “Blurred Lines” have relied on discovery turning to inevitability: first, “hey, this is pretty good,” and then, “and it’s everywhere!” The import of YouTube and Spotify, and other places where you have to do some of the work of music discovery, would suggest that listeners want to think they had a hand in finding the summer song.

At this writing, the outcome of the Summer Song 2015 derby depends on just how dominant “Can’t Feel My Face,” which just ascended to No. 1, becomes for the rest of the summer. We’ll name a winner just before Labor Day. Your thoughts are welcome.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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