Handicapping the Summer Song of 2019
Typically, I try to come to the Memorial Day preview of the year’s Song of Summer candidates with as definitive a list as possible. I reach out to radio programmers to ask what has been previewed for them. I wheedle with label friends for a preview of what they have coming. As radio slowed down over the last five years, anything not released by Memorial Day had to be phenomenal to gain enough critical mass by summer’s end anyway.
Then Ariana Grande disrupted the paradigm with “Thank U, Next.” And “Seven Rings.” And “Break Up With Your Girlfriend.” When I wrote this on Thursday morning, the newest contender was the Nine Inch Nails-inspired “Easier” by 5 Seconds of Summer. At midnight, a few hours later, the Ed Sheeran/Chance The Rapper/PNB Rock collaboration “Cross Me” was due out and multiple PDs were already excited about that one as well.
Grande herself is unlikely to take the summer off. Or Bruno Mars. There will be more Jonas Brothers, more Taylor Swift, a reported Katy Perry single next Friday to compete with the Katy Perry feature on Daddy Yankee & Snow’s “Con Calma” remix. Another programmer friend mentions a Chainsmokers/Bebe Rexha collaboration next Friday and another Miley Cyrus single.
Top 40 is certainly still capable of taking four months to decide that, say, “Dancing With a Stranger” is a real hit. But the new paradigm is that the format, eager for tempo and marquee acts, can have a song between No. 5 and No. 10 well before the first week of research comes back. It’s also more dangerous than ever to get off to a promising start but not come through in research immediately, especially if you’re not a superstar (consider “Undrunk” by Fletcher or “Don’t Call Me Up” by Mabel). It’s not quite the throwback to 1966 that some chart fans were hoping for, when a long-lasting hit was 12 weeks, but it’s as close as we’ve gotten in years, and, hey, look at how many hits are under three minutes again!
After years of trying to win the summer song battle at the last minute, with a song really timed for the now-less-relevant Q4 sales bulge, Taylor Swift decided to fully participate with “Me!” Sheeran controlled a full year with the winter-released “Shape of You,” but Sheeran and Justin Bieber are already in the race with “I Don’t Care” and now a second entrant.
Sheeran and Swift are competing with summer song perennials — both in terms of artists and formulas. Shawn Mendes is used to timing releases for summer now, but “If I Can’t Have You” is certainly trying to be your summer song more than “In My Blood” did. DJ Khaled launched a video every few hours last Friday before landing on “Just Us.” “Con Calma” is aiming for the “Despacito” slot. Martin Garrix’s “Summer Days” is the clearly calculated, DJ-driven contender along the lines of Calvin Harris’ “Summer.”
But with the changes in timing, when I threw the Song of Summer question open to Facebook friends, there were more votes than ever for songs that hadn’t been released yet. “Me!” was the Swift record that radio asked for, and so far radio has responded enthusiastically, but it’s still just short of reaching power as major-market CHRs wait to see callout. So while “Me” certainly drew Song of Summer votes, there was also a half-dozen votes for “whatever Taylor releases next.” There was more PD confidence about “I Don’t Care” — Justin Bryant predicts it “could be No. 1 for weeks once it gets there.” But “next Ed Sheeran” got votes even before “Cross Me” came out.
As a further indicator of time/space continuum disruption, by contrast, plenty of readers are sure that the just-released video will carry Lil Nas X & Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” through the summer. In the past, I would have reiterated my summer song rules (preferably uptempo or summery; preferably not a ballad). But as the Country chart flap demonstrates, it’s already not a good idea to tell “Old Town Road” how it can or can’t be classified. And it’s already not playing out at a viral phenomenon pace. Or the viral phenomenon pace is different than it was in the time of “Gangnam Style.” (I am willing to declare Halsey’s “Nightmare” ineligible because of tempo.)
Lizzo is also on ROR readers’ minds in a way more visible on Spotify (where “Truth Hurts” is No. 4 on Today’s Top Hits) than on the radio charts where airplay at Mainstream Top 40 is divided between “Juice” and the new “Truth Hurts.” Interesting to note that a lot of Lizzo’s support came from Triple-A programmers who had just seen her surprise appearance at WXPN Philadelphia’s recent industry gathering, giving her endorsements from that side and Rhythmic Top 40! And reader Chris Granozio mentions that “Juice” is getting good reaction when he plays it at Yankee Stadium.
My prediction, thus far, has been “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish. “Me” is on the radio this summer because listeners didn’t want three-plus minutes of propulsive darkness from Taylor Swift last time around. But they’re happy to have Eilish’s developed-off-the-radio dark superstardom codified into three-plus uptempo minutes that are the most mainstream distillation of what she does. “Bad Guy” is top 20 already, ahead of being officially worked as a single. “This is the song that is going to make the rest of the CHR core a fan,” writes WJFX Fort Wayne, Ind., PD Robbie Mack. (The current ballad “When the Party’s Over,” meanwhile, is guaranteed to live on as the end-of-summer song in late August.)
As has been the case in past summers, there’s a lot of summer-appropriate medium-weight tempo at Alternative, but songs from that format haven’t yet learned how to jump the line at CHR in the way that other genres have. Walk the Moon’s “Timebomb” and X-Ambassadors’ “Boom” have both been floating around Alternative radio since winter. Neither has truly surfaced at CHR yet, but Walk the Moon does have support from New York’s Z100, and both songs got reader votes. Panic! At the Disco’s “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” is just cracking the top 15 at CHR, picking up the momentum that will likely make it an uptempo song you hear this summer, if not the song of summer.
So what are your Song of Summer predictions?