song of the summer 2021: June’s state of the race

I’m not proud, but I have made it my habit to care deeply about things that don’t matter. Award shows, and professional sports, and the athletes who play said professional sports, and made-up turns of phrase designed just to irritate. Basically anything with stakes that are demonstrably, laughably low, but that somehow still manages to make my heart rate spike up and my fingers start flying furiously over a keyboard in an attempt to bully others into sharing my opinion. I promise I care about important things– like, say, climate change– too. I do. But putting that particular panic attack into words just doesn’t come as naturally as finding yet another useless perspective upon which I might stake my whole identity.

Perhaps nothing encapsulates this phenomenon better than my profound investment in the race to determine The Song of the Summer. Is this an important question? No. Is it a noble cause? Also no. Is it just a marketing gimmick ginned up by Billboard and the major record companies to boost their own sales? Chances are good. But despite knowing all of this, I have maintained a personal tradition of closely tracking each summer’s contenders, along with the overall state of the race, and bestowing the results with a significance that is frankly disproportionate and undue.

Often, The Song of the Summer is a song that I don’t even like all that much, chosen from amongst a group of songs that likewise would not top any kind of list if I was in charge. But my personal tastes are beside the point. To me, the quest to determine what wins the title is less about music than it is anthropology. Ubiquitous, popular things are always more interesting for what they say about the society that consumes them than for what they say about themselves, and the history of summer songs has plenty to tell us.

You can watch rock n roll emerge as a top genre in 1965, when The Rolling Stones won the summer with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. Disco (Donna Summer) and folk (John Denver) each have their moments in the 70’s before pop music begins to take a stranglehold on the mid-late 80’s (Prince, Madonna, Richard Marx). Summertime in the 90’s appears to have mostly been just a boon time for wedding songs, both fast and slow: they gave us Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love”, Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do”, and All-4-One’s “I Swear”, plus “Baby Got Back” and “The Macarena”. Rap and hip hop dominate for most of the 2000’s (“Hot in Herre”; “Umbrella”), and those inflections continue to be felt in the pop songs people gravitated to during the following decade (“California Gurls”; “Blurred Lines”; “Fancy”).

There are lessons to be gleaned about the ways people have historically listened to music as well. For most of the chart’s history, Billboard relied largely on radio play figures and retail sales data to calculate their number one hits. Though the magazine was initially reluctant to adapt to the arrival of iTunes and other on-demand services, today they factor in streams from Apple Music and Spotify, as well as YouTube hits, in order to give a fuller picture of what people are listening to. This seems to have contributed to a string of Songs of the Summer that seem especially monolithic: “One Dance” (2016), “Despacito” (2017), “In My Feelings” (2018), and “Old Town Road” (2019) each reigned over their respective season with an omnipresence that could only come from an algorithm.

Between hits like “Blinding Lights”, “Roses”, and “WAP”, 2020 was a notably more competitive year, which made it an outlier in that respect (and in a few others, perhaps you’ve heard). Unable to gather in groups, or participate in the many summertime traditions that involve crowds (beach days, amusement parks, pool parties, fairs) the soundtrack of the season had a diminished cohesion– turns out, it’s tough to establish consensus when everyone stays home. But in this void, Tiktok thrived. Almost all of summer 2020’s top songs can be linked with some kind of viral Tiktok dance or transition trend; from “Savage”, to “Say So”, to “Watermelon Sugar”. DaBaby’s “Rockstar” ultimately proved victorious when September rolled around, and while that rollicking guitar riff might have won its honors independently, getting used in 6.5 million Tiktoks surely didn’t hurt.

Does the increased influence of algorithms over our music consumption have some troubling implications for a future in which all media is becoming more homogenized and corporatized, stunting the growth of anything that doesn’t play by its set rules? Maybe! But that sounds like a serious issue, and as has been established, serious issues are a little outside of my purview.

The truth is that even if I do consider its flaws, I know that I’ll remain a devoted advocate for the monoculture, for exuberantly celebrating whatever points of commonality might remain in this increasingly fractured world, points like The Song of the Summer. I’ll keep feeling nostalgic for summers I wasn’t even alive for, and sentimental about the summers I remember, and I’ll keep trying to find a larger meaning in all these things, even though one might not exist. This world is filled with real problems, and every day we have to grapple with differences that seem impossible to bridge. But every summer, the world also gives us an opportunity– an inescapable, melodic, hook-y opportunity– to remember that there are some things that anyone and everyone can have a stake in. Even if it’s low.

June Standings

1. Good 4 U (Olivia Rodrigo)

The prohibitive favorite at this point, particularly considering that 2021 has largely been The Year of Olivia Rodrigo thus far. The snarly, pop-punk kiss off has already spent five weeks at or close to the top of the chart, and if Tiktok trends continue to be an indicator, shows no signs of slowing down .

2. Butter (BTS)

The first rule of the Internet is to tread VERY LIGHTLY, perhaps even REVERENTLY, if possible, whenever BTS is involved. The writer of this article, in which it was suggested that the band’s passionate and dedicated fans were rendering the Billboard charts useless with their coordinated streaming efforts. Rebuttals have since been published, but the debate raises an interesting question: what does determine a song’s popularity? Is it 100 people listening to a song once, or 10 people listening to it 100 times? Perhaps this summer’s race will give us an answer.

3. Levitating feat. DaBaby (Dua Lipa)

Speaking of chart manipulation and related shenanigans, enter a track that was literally investigated by Billboard itself for potential fraud. The rules involved in calculating the list remain opaque to me, so I won’t pretend to understand the controversy, but the one thousand (approximately) remixes and alternate versions that have been released do seem suspicious to my layperson’s eye. Time will tell if these tactics pay off.

4. Peaches feat. Daniel Caesar & GIVĒON (Justin Bieber)

Had this song been released closer to the season in competitive question, I would give it better odds. Since its release in March of this year, the momentum has slowed somewhat, but the vibes remain undeniably summery.

5. Wants and Needs feat. Lil Baby (Drake)

If the past five years have taught us anything, it’s to never underestimate Drake’s ability to take over a summer. Or any other season, city, or professional sports team of his choosing.

6. Brutal (Olivia Rodrigo)

Just in case the public hits a “Good 4 U” wall as the season progresses, I feel good about “Brutal” lying in wait to pick up the baton. One of Rodrigo’s most impressive traits has been the broad range she’s demonstrated with each of her first three singles, from desperate ballad to breezy bop to aughts-inspired pop punk, and how uniformly appealing the whole trio has been despite these differences. “Brutal” is a favorite of mine from the album she only just released this month, full of theatrical angst and frustration, and could absolutely be a contender to extend her hitting streak to four.

7. Heat Waves (Glass Animals)

The indie dark horse in the race, “Heat Waves” is sitting at 21 on this week’s chart with a long way to climb if it’s going to claim top honors, but it has the kind of endearing cross-appeal that has worked for other alternative songs like “broken” by lonelytheband or Portugal the Man’s “Feel It Still. Plenty of potential and time for this one to worm its way into people’s ears and hearts.

The Songs of MY Summer

I like most of the songs above well enough, some more than others, but if I were put in charge of the summer chart, it would look something like this:

Shade of Yellow (Griff) Slide feat. YG (H.E.R) Home All Summer (Anthony Ramos & Leslie Grace) House With No Mirrors (Sasha Sloan) enough for you (Olivia Rodrigo) Astronomy (Conan Gray) Serotonin (girl in red) Your Power (Billie Eilish) I DID IT feat. Post Malone, Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Baby, & DaBaby (DJ Khaled) Mr. Perfectly Fine (Taylor Swift)

One thought on “song of the summer 2021: June’s state of the race

  1. Music is such an important part of our daily lives, something for everyone. An inexpensive way to enjoy life, one can choose whatever one likes. Music can be soothing but also very powerful. Thank you for your take on the different genres available to all. Myriam

    Liked by 1 person

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