We’ve had some pretty rough summers.
How many times did we curse the world, bemoaning our existence as the hook for “Fancy” kept us up at night, playing in our head on constant loop? Who among us threatened to quit the Internet altogether if one more lip-dup cover of “Call Me Maybe” showed up in our Facebook newsfeed? And what was the incessant debate over the propriety of the “Blurred Lines” lyrics, if not entirely insufferable?
How I miss such torture.
The annual Song of the Summer, for all its irritating omnipresence and stalker-like inescapability, is also a comfort. We may gripe about the fact that an Australian rapper is shadowing our summertime existence but it’s a unifying complaint—and nothing bonds a populace like something to collectively whine about.
Even better though is when that thing you’re whining about is something you also secretly enjoy. It’s the beauty of the Song of the Summer: something silly and valueless, yet catchy and essential. It’s often cheesy, but in a way so that you can’t help but consume too much of it, to the point that it makes you sick.
The Song of the Summer is an anthem that can often define a summer’s mood, concerns, and culture. It’s an auditory time capsule. And this year we don’t have one.
For the first time in perhaps decades, there is no clear winner in the annual Song of the Summer contest, a bonafide earworm we both are sick of and can’t get enough of. What we’ve been given instead is a scattershot list of about a dozen songs that have made splashes for various reasons over the last three months.
It’s a cacophonous playlist that, as a whole, has a lot to say about the summer of 2015: There was a rise in self-seriousness, a decline in cheesy pop, and a celebration of feuding and braggadocio over the traditional “it’s summer let’s dance and have fun!” themes of years past. It also says nothing at all.
In a culture where all mediums clamor to obsess over the Big Thing of the moment—Game of Thrones, Amy Schumer, Fantastic Four bombing, or True Detective Season 2 sucking—it’s remarkable that this year we’ve been musically obsessionless. To that regard, it’s been the summer of silence.
Oh sure, there were hit songs. Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” made a big impression, but I defy you to prove that your mother knows who a person going by the name of “Fetty Wap” is, let alone sings his song about true love and also cooking crack. (Nothing says summer like…) As anyone who has witnessed their mom raise up her “cup (drink), Mazel tov! (L’chaim!)” on the dance floor as the Black Eyed Peas played at a wedding reception knows, the mom contingent is key in crowning a song of the summer.
“See You Again” from Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth may just be the closest thing we had to a dominant song this summer, but it had some very big things going against it. For one, it wasn’t catchy. Tunelessness does not make one want to roll down the windows and scream along at the top of their lungs—a crucial quality in a summer anthem. By that regard, “See You Again” is hardly an earworm.
Slower songs can be great in the summer—“Rolling in the Deep” or “She Will Be Loved" are great examples—but those tracks burst with energy, and summer is all about excessive energy, even if it is from heartbreak. "See You Again” was far too muted by comparison.
Most of the usual suspects are absent from the race this year, with no entries from Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Pink, or modern Song of Summer queen Katy Perry.
There’s a solid Rihanna track out, but it’s a non-starter in this race. As Rihanna’s career has so beautifully evolved into the equivalent of a metaphorical middle finger, so has her music rebelled a little past summer BBQ wholesomeness. (Not that “Bitch Better Have My Money” doesn’t make for a great family picnic soundtrack...)
There’s a case to be made for Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” for perhaps being the song that most of America is familiar with, thanks to its ridiculously bombastic and tone-deaf Barbarella-meets-high school burn book music video, which scored so many online views it broke Vevo’s 24-hour viewing record.
But it’s an example of a video’s popularity eclipsing that of the song. In fact, the biggest complaint arising from “Bad Blood’s” blockbuster premiere—and ensuing VMAs scandal—is that watching the video got the grating, rather basic chorus unpleasantly stuck in your head.
In recent years the eventual Song of the Summer announced itself early in the season as a warning of the sheer domination coming our way. That Iggy Azalea would insert herself into every road trip, pool party, and grocery store outing for the next three months was foretold by Memorial Day. By the middle of June 2012, we were already tired of faking a grin while neighbors’ children did their “Call Me Maybe” dance.
This year, however, the songs that could have had that same kind of culture takeover didn’t start burning up the charts until later in the summer.
“Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd may have first charted nine weeks ago but its mad ascent into ubiquity has only really just now, in mid-August, hit its peak.
It’s the kind of edgy-weird, though still purely pop-palatable hit that makes for a great summer song: tweens at their sock hops (still a thing?) gleefully sing along but music fans who scoff at anything too mainstream can at least stomach the hints of an indie anti-establishment. It's the kind of thing that helped Gotye’s “Someone That I Used to Know,” for example.
Thanks to a little push from a lip-syncing Tom Cruise, the track is number one in the country right now, one spot above OMI’s “Cheerleader,” which didn’t skyrocket in popularity until recently, perhaps owed to the fact that, dear god, this song is awful. Divalescents Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez have both made solid efforts at entering the race late in the season but in the game of Song of the Summer, there’s no room for late entries. Domination must start early and strong.
Music listeners don't have patience to strut back and forth in their Daisy Dukes and red kitten heels (Imma let you finish but Beyoncé had the greatest summer song of all time) and wait for an artist to release a burner hit late in the summer. They need something to set off July 4th fireworks to.
That raises the big question: Is it just because this year’s songs just aren’t very good?
There are those big, empowering sing-alongs that we love, sure, but “Fight Song” by Rachel Patten, if we’re being totally honest, sounds like something Kelly Clarkson was offered, laughed at, and then left for aspiring-diva wolves to fight over.
Traditionally, there’s no greater song-of-summer formula than the bubblegum pop and hip-hop hybrid. But instead of, say, “Super Bass” this year, all we get is Nicki Minaj guesting on David Guetta’s “Hey Mama,” which pales in comparison and, as such, is currently toiling at Number 22 on the charts.
“Worth It” by Fifth Harmony is that kind of song that bullies itself into your head by virtue of the fact that no matter which radio station you turn on, they are for some godforsaken reason playing this track. But you know what would make this song more “worth it?” If the Pussycat Dolls was singing it, RIP.
And while everyone loves a “Yeah!” club track, “Want to Want Me” by Jason DeRulo mistakes mere pleasantness for Usher’s hawt call to the dance floor. Resistance was futile.
Similarly “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk to the Moon might have been the dance jam of the season, had it not failed to be as catchy as Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” or Andy Grammer’s “Honey I'm Good”—two songs that were released far too early to be considered summer songs but which both had more people dancing than either of their aforementioned rivals.
Why is a summer song important? It’s not because they’re good, per se. No one can say with a straight face that Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” or LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” are great songs. But in their silly, slight, ridiculousness they became the lighthearted glue that held a beleaguered culture together in the summers they came out.
We use our summers to blow off steam and we need a hot song to bring us to that boil. A little bit of that heat’s been missing this Song-of-Summer-less year and, strangely, without the omnipresence of a big song to distract us, it’s only made the season feel like even more of a scorcher.