THE Song Of Summer 2017

Kesha Praying
Photo Credit: Olivia Bee/RCA Records

There aren’t a lot of stories about galvanizing records these days. But a few weeks ago, when the song was about a week-and-a-half old, the topic of Kesha’s “Praying” came up in my office. Three of my colleagues, all female, raved about it. The fourth hadn’t heard it yet. Once she did, she went under the headphones and listened to it several more times.

Not every CHR station reacted as quickly. At the outset, the immediate airplay for “Praying” was mostly in medium markets and heavily concentrated in the Midwest. Both CHRs in Kesha’s hometown of Nashville were also on board. The big market leader was KIIS-FM Los Angeles, which supported the song immediately, but KIIS was the outlier. Two weeks later, you could see many of the majors rushing to catch up.

There’s always something galvanizing about the moment when a surprise hit accelerates. From “Bette Davis Eyes” to “Rolling in the Deep,” it often involves a song that makes you see an artist in a whole new way, even if the circumstances are usually less charged. “Praying” is a great moment in a summer that has been light on great music moments.

It is hard to write about “Praying” without acknowledging the singer’s public battle with Dr. LukeLots of songs are about the struggle with an anonymous “you.” Katy Perry’s “Roar” did that, and Dr. Luke co-wrote that one. But this song arrives fraught with context. Amidst the most serious claims, the artistic dispute between artist and producer became part and parcel of the discussion as well.

From a musical standpoint, it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder who Kesha was as an artist, or where she might go after the party anthems. I never assumed her lyrics had anything to do with the real-life person singing them, but there was such a consistent thru-line from “Tik Tok” to “Die Young” that it was hard to accept later that Kesha might not like that sound or those songs in the first place.  Growing and moving forward is one thing. Disavowing half a dozen records that many people liked is another.

Besides, during the superstar producer era, many artists (including some established ones) were happily following the charts wherever they led them, rather than looking to make their own artistic statement. And not every attempt to do otherwise has ended happily over the years. For every Marvin Gaye who pushed away from a hitmaking machine to compel the release of “What’s Going On,” there was a “Praying for Time,” proving that George Michael should have kept things light.

But “Praying” is not “Praying for Time.” Kesha didn’t ditch collaborative writing — “Praying” has three co-authors. But what emerged was the most phenomenal record in recent memory, and that’s taking phenomenal at its literal meaning, not merely as a superlative.

As a song that’s just cracking the top 20 this week, it is certainly possible that “Praying” could be more of an event record than a song for the ages. Maybe it will be too draining to hear on an Adult Contemporary radio station every 30 hours for the next 30 years. But for now, it’s galvanizing in a way that few other songs have been lately. And chances are, subsequent listeners will find their own personal context for the lyrics.

I have rules about the song of the summer being uptempo/light/happy. Although they were instituted for your protection in the aftermath of Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” I have had to consider waiving them  for “Praying,” because it will leave an emotional and cultural footprint on the summer in a way that, say, “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back” will not.

What I’ve decided is that in the spirit of those major music awards that recognize both “record” and “song,” I am prepared to now designate “Praying” as the song of the summer. Later this month, with your input, “Despacito,” “I’m the One” or “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back” will become the record of the summer. It seems unlikely that any last-minute hit will upstage them, because any last-minute hit would have to upstage “Praying” as well.

  1. a5k says

    Not sure how anything but “Despacito” could be the song / record / track of the summer. It’s a total juggernaut! There will be think pieces re: what the Song of the Summer is meant to be (à la your essay about “Ride” last year), but no other sound has completely dominated the 2017 airwaves and public consciousness. We’re all being Despacito’d, whether we like it or not.

  2. steveking says

    Sorry Sean, but I think you missed on this one. Personally, “Body Like A Backroad” hit multiple formats successfully, is upbeat and just sound like summer.

    I think Kesha’s career is going to live or die by this song. The audience’s tastes are changing and they are pretty much done with Katy Perry. Gaga struggled getting this album to start, but Kesha was never a powerhouse, like the previous two, ever.

  3. Jack Bayes says

    If the purpose of this article is to spark debate at how out-of-touch the author is, he should be congratulated. We’re all dumber for having read it.

    If not, then it’s merely a desperate attempt by the author to not look obvious. The only huge song of the summer so far has been “Despacito”. Period. The Kesha song isn’t doing well in early testing and will be lucky to go to recurrent, let alone the gold library.

  4. jimi jamm says

    Yay, let’s insult the author just because we don’t agree with an opinion piece. Sean Ross will FORGET more about radio and music than some people will ever learn.

    Sean, your take is definitely unique–I probably would say “Despacito” is the summer song, but this single is a triumph for Kesha.

  5. a5k says

    Ouch, some harsh commentary in here…! Agreed with Jimi Jamm’s sentiment, man, Sean’s insights and opinions are always most welcome. 🙂

  6. Nathan Obral says

    What’s radio’s biggest concern right now? Failing to connect to the youngest generation.

    I don’t really think a summer song is that critical to my everyday life, but that’s a legit thing that’s seriously analyzed in the industry. And can anyone fault Sean for working studiously to stay with the current trends and not allowing himself to stagnate?

  7. Sean Ross says

    It’s hard to deny “Despacito.” I left the door open for it to be Record of the Summer at season’s end, but clearly, it’s already that for most people. There’s a lot that I like about it–America finally embracing a song that’s mostly in Spanish; Luis Fonsi having a CHR hit after years of effort; Reggaeton enduring after 15 years.

    I’ve gotten a lot of mail over the course of the summer about Sam Hunt. He too is phenomenal. I never really thought of “Body Like A Back Road” as SOTS material because of the tempo. but all bets in that regard are off this summer.

    Even knowing that it was a left-field choice, I went with “Praying” because of the highly-charged initial response. As a song that’s just cracking the top 20 now, even power rotation isn’t yet guaranteed for it. But it definitely offered a galvanizing moment that’s rare these days. Look for more on the topic soon and/or as the story develops.

  8. garylee says

    I have not heard either song mentioned in the article. Maybe I’ve lived under a rock for the last 40 years but after watching the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame broadcast on You tube I’ve spent most of this summer trying to figure out how the lyrics to Yes’s “Roundabout” ever made any sense. Maybe because I haven’t been stoned or listened to much pop radio since then but the song is still in my head. It’s an earworm repeating something about driving around a lake with mountains coming out the sky and just standing there! Then a whole lot of noodling around on guitars and keyboards. Can any of your so called summer songs beat that?

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