Summer in a Dangerous Time

Last July, on the morning after the killing of five Dallas police officers, a Facebook friend asked if “Ride” by Twenty One Pilots, with its verse asking “who would you kill for/who would you die for?,” needed to come off the radio, or at least be edited. In the moment, many commenters agreed that it did, with some comparing it to the increasingly problematic “Pumped Up Kicks.”

But “Ride” was earnest, not cynical. It not only stayed on the radio, but remained unavoidable throughout the summer. In that song’s vow to forgive oneself and others, I found a soundtrack for the tragedy and anxiety of summer 2016; anxiety that many people felt, no matter what brought them there. Before July was over, I had found the song that defined last summer for me. 

Choosing “Ride” resonated with a few readers. Then summer came to an end and, for most people, the choice was still between Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.” I had earlier suggested that Timberlake had become the early favorite within seconds of release as an easy pick-me-up when so many needed one.  “Cheap Thrills” was a little darker — the implication was that many people were balling on a budget, and not by choice — but given Sia’s angst-ridden hits and persona, much of the appeal was seeing her talked down from the “Chandelier.”

In other words, listeners still wanted a summer song, and they still wanted what a summer song does. That’s something I’m obviously thinking about this week, 36 hours after the second major terror attack at a concert, and as the normal publication date of this column’s annual Summer Song handicap approaches. On the morning after the tragedy at the Ariana Grande show, a BBC commenter noted the calculation of attacking concerts — events built on escape, togetherness, and a chance to celebrate or relive youth. 

Without in any way surrendering perspective on the total awfulness of what happened, it was still hard not to note that the shared experience of each year’s summer song represents that, too. For a few months, music again becomes what it was in one’s youth: the thing that everybody can talk about. There’s no intention of either trivializing or co-opting a tragedy here. But as BBC callers noted—a few nights after a Take That concert drew its own large, but older, crowd to Manchester Arena—this target was deliberate: an American artist, a youthful audience. Whatever the specific intent, it nevertheless happened that unity and escape through pop music were at the epicenter.

So what then do people need the Summer Song to be in 2017? Does it need to take on the weight of its surroundings? Or will it be a vessel through which people keep calm and carry on? With it comes the larger question of what pop music needs to be, or can be now. Numerous articles over the last year or so have noted the lack of a topical “Eve of Destruction” or “Ohio” for today. In discussing whether I should even address that topic, one friend advised that it wasn’t just perilous, but overdone.

Overt social commentary is a thorny prospect now. Katy Perry (and Sia) waded in so tentatively with “Chained to the Rhythm” that I couldn’t even be sure of its intent. Was that line about living in the bubble a confession of celebrity dilettantism? A call to resist?  Only the presence of Bob Marley’s grandson and Perry’s other public pronouncements gave it away.

“Chained to the Rhythm” cracked the top 10 but was not, in the end, a consensus hit. Perry’s “California Gurls” captured Summer Song 2010 within seconds; “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” almost did the same for 2011. Now, Perry is scrambling through the third single from a yet-unreleased album. Did she anger half of America? It’s interesting to note that there are a few markets where “Chained” is still receiving significant airplay and they include New York and San Francisco, but also Salt Lake City, Wilkes-Barre, and Indianapolis. In the end, the issue may have been the renouncement of pop frivolity from an artist we depended on for it, especially in summer.

And yet, regardless of whether artists specifically address troubled times, pop music manages to reflect it anyway. Nothing more reflects the unhappiness of its surroundings than the desperate plea-bargain-with-God of the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” or, for that matter, all the EDM ballad sludginess that has weighed down pop music in recent years. Harry Styles has revealed a sobering, but very specific, inspiration for Sign of the Times.”  But when one listens to that song, it’s hard not to hear the broader inference that society is already past the eve of destruction.

Americans used to have an easily visible pattern — Top 40 for good times, the commiseration of Country and balm of Oldies for recession and turmoil. In this first half of this decade, however, Pop, Country, and Classic Hits radio all thrived simultaneously — which certainly seemed like a positive development, and suggested that music could meet multiple needs. And there are multiple needs to be addressed here.

I hope more songs will emerge this summer, and beyond, that speak well and directly to our times and offer multiple viewpoints. I hope that one of them is as great as Harvest for the World” by the Isley Brothers, a summer R&B hit in 1976. But that’s a tall order. And most pop audiences never heard “Harvest for the World.”

I hope that uptempo anthems of triumph, celebration, and defiance emerge this summer, and continue to do so. We’ve all missed them. We’ve all needed them, and we need them now.

A few readers will find the Summer Song derby an unsuitable topic for this moment. Others have just worn down on the topic after more than a decade of consumer press coverage and so-so songs. People will choose the songs in summer, and elsewhere, that they need, and most will still need music. And not allow it to be taken from them.

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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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