Summertime, When the Hitmaking Is Easy

Musicians get crafty in an attempt to win this season’s chart war

There’s never been a less subtle contender for Song of the Summer than Calvin Harris’s Summer. The track, No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of this writing, has only eight distinct lines, which repeat for nearly four minutes. It’s a lot of time to devote to a story as old as Grease. “When I met you in the summer/To my heartbeat sound/We fell in love/As the leaves turned brown,” sings Harris, a 30-year-old DJ from Scotland. The tune is set to the same crashing electronic beats that cemented him as a hitmaker for Rihanna, Ellie Goulding, and others who’ve dominated warm-weather airwaves the past few years.

Pop musicians have capitalized on summertime vibes since the 1960s, when the Beach Boys released surfy tunes readymade for family road trips. (Record sales have typically spiked when school’s out, at least since 1940, when I’ll Never Smile Again, a complete downer by Tommy Dorsey, was Billboard’s No. 1 for 12 lazy weeks.) The ’80s first saw one song rule the season—Every Breath You Take (’83), followed by When Doves Cry (’84)—but the modern conception of a Song of the Summer was born in the ’90s. That was the era of MTV countdown shows, hits such as Baby Got Back (’92), Macarena (’96), and the sweet sound of boy-band-era Justin Timberlake. Now that music has migrated to the Web, the competition has gotten more intense: Billboard started a Song of the Summer chart in 2010. That year, Katy Perry’s California Gurls slayed it.

“People identifying the Song of the Summer has to do with the fact that artists are now breaking online, rather than on radio,” says Shanon Cook, trends expert at the streaming music service Spotify, which has seen an uptick in Song of the Summer hunting by its users. And so the past few champs have bubbled up from relatively obscure artists—LMFAO and Carly Rae Jepsen—instead of well-known acts like Perry or Rihanna.

This year, musicians such as Harris are trying to game the system by throwing in the word “summer” and crossing their fingers. A few weeks ago on the Spotify Viral 50, which tracks the most-shared songs in the U.S., Harris’s Summer was joined by My Sweet Summer, a ska anthem by the Dirty Heads, a band from Huntington Beach, Calif., and Feels Like Summer, a rock-lite offering from the New York band Panama Wedding. This isn’t a completely novel tactic—it was first used for ’60s tunes such as Summer in the City, Hot Fun in the Summertime, and Billy Stewart’s funky cover of George Gershwin’s classic Summertime. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince also borrowed that title in ’91 for their biggest hit. The Boys of Summer (’84) by Don Henley remains the greatest of such songs, Summer Girls (’99) by LFO, the worst.

The new Summer could be the first of its ilk to come out on top as the official (unofficial?) Song of the Summer. Like many recent winners, it’s by an unknown artist who managed to produce something upbeat, eminently danceable, and uncontroversial enough for the corporate barbecue. Spotify’s Cook adds that it’s the most-played song outside America, where weeks of vacation and electronic dance music are taken for granted. Here in the U.S., its main rival is the song that’s been topping Billboard’s chart going on seven weeks. Fancy, a chandelier-swinging ode to wasting money, is by a female rapper named Iggy Azalea. She’s very tall, very blonde, and from Australia, where it’s currently winter.

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