I recently participated in a lil online debate over the notion of there being the song of the summer, i.e. “one song to rule them all.”

This stemmed from a piece by Slate’s Chris Molanphy and that turned into a Facebook discussion which then turned into another Molanphy piece, which you can read here.

The gist of his argument is that most summers, there is one dominant summer hit that ends up becoming “the song of the summer,” and this raises at least two important questions:
1) What is the criteria/methodology being used to arrive at such a conclusion?
2) Even if one could make a convincing, quantifiable case…does that jibe with our collective memories of how summer songs work?

I think readers of my site will know where I lean on the second question; summer songs are not even about songs released in the summer, let alone objectively successful songs that happen to peak, chart-wise, between June-August. Summer songs are ultimately about the attachments between music and memory, regardless of their release date. 1

However, being a social scientist, I thought question #1 was also interesting to probe and I appreciate Molanphy’s jump into the archives of journalism to track when/where this “the song of the summer” meme originally began. To be sure, the notion of a summer anthem is (relatively speaking) ancient but the desire to declare one song – and one song only – a “winner” of the season seems more contemporary. And this is genuinely fascinating to me because it calls into question what’s at stake with this particular (shoe-horned) narrative. Do we need to declare a song of the summer? And if so, why?

I stand by my belief that summer songs only become meaningful with some degree of hindsight. So, for example, Molanphy argues:

I guess it’s just hard to let go of the ideal of the commanding summer hit, the way you remember it in your youth. I turned 13 in 1984, and in my memory, that year will always be about Bruce and Madonna and Cyndi and Tina and the Durans and heck, John Waite. But by my recollection—and Billboard backs me up—Prince crushed ’em all [with “When Doves Cry”]

I can’t argue with the objective evidence here (though of course, Billboard charting is one measurement of populist sentiment but hardly the only one). But I remember the summer of 1984 with enough clarity to know that if you presented me with an unordered list of the “top songs of 1984,” and asked me to pick out which I thought were the songs of the summer, it wouldn’t ever be “When Doves Cry.” Instead, it’d be the raucous, let-your-head-bang release of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” Or maybe “Footloose,” or “Jump” or “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

Some of those songs probably had nothing – temporally – to do with summer but so what? Summer itself is never what it actually is/was either. It’s what we make of it in our memory, trying to recall a season of idyllic idling or letting loose while punching a higher floor.

By the way, if I had to pick a song of the summer for, personally? I’d still have to go with the very first song I mentioned in relation to the summer of 2014:

(Lauryn Hill + D’Angelo loop = eternally summery)

  1. Example: “Nuthin But a ‘G’ Thing” came out in November of 1992 but convince anyone in L.A. that this isn’t a quintessential song of the summer.