For the last few years, the songs that have defined pop radio over the summer have come from established artists: Rihanna’s “Umbrella” last summer; Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” in 2006. This summer, there’s a lot of superstar competition, but there’s also a good chance that the summer song will come either from a developing artist, or from a comeback artist.
As has become apparent in previous years, there’s an increasing amount of calculation apparent in the labels’ release schedule. If the list of summer song contenders looks remarkably similar to the fastest-growing songs of the week, it’s because the labels are doing a better job of teeing up songs with the uptempo energy of a great summer hit in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day. There’s less need to go into the stash of songs that should be summer hits but probably won’t get anywhere near radio. And the thematic potential of summer to drive a comeback vehicle hasn’t been overlooked either.
Before we begin, let’s review the ground rules: We’re looking not just for the song that will be ubiquitous on the radio this summer, but the most summery in feel. Uptempo, 4/4 dashboard pounders qualify. Caribbean-flavored songs, even if they’re of the loping, midtempo variety, qualify. Songs that are already hits this week like Danity Kane’s “Damaged” qualify, but they have to seem capable of sustaining their momentum at least until August–not so hard on today’s slower moving charts.
Ballads, no matter how big they are, cannot really be the summer song. (That I remember the summer of 1972 by “Alone Again (Naturally)” just proves the need for such a rule.) So it is now that we must say goodbye to Rihanna’s “Take A Bow,” Mariah Carey’s “Bye Bye,” Jesse McCartney’s “Leavin’,” and even Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop” (although Lil’ Wayne is everywhere and, as such, has a good chance of appearing on a massive hit that does qualify).
Two observations this summer: One is that there is not an obvious Caribbean-flavored song ready to go (unless Kardinal Offishal’s “Dangerous” and Colby O’Donis’ “What You Got” count, and it’s a stretch). The other is that there is a clear retro element throughout many of the candidates–although many of the older songs being invoked were, as it happens, not summer hits (not a stopper, but a duly noted irony).
So let’s then start with the obvious lyrical bids for a summer hit:
- Kid Rock, “All Summer Long” – It’s been just lying in wait on his “Rock N Roll Jesus” album since the end of last summer. It is already off to a good start in medium markets, but as “Picture” showed, Kid always has to scrap his way back on to major-market, rhythmic-leaning Top 40 stations which could take, well, all summer long.
- New Kids On The Block, “Summertime” – A co-worker who grew up with NKOTB heard this and liked it, but couldn’t help making the comparison to LFO’s “Summergirls,” which is a little like the singer John Wesley Harding’s joke about the Beatles reuniting and sounding a lot like ELO and XTC. And, besides, we’ve now seen them go from Boyz II Men as well. Also took a few weeks to get some major-market momentum, but is picking up this week.
- Boys Like Girls, “Thunder” – As a power ballad, it’s disqualified. But it belonged on this list because the trade ads have emphasized its “soundtrack of my summer” lyric.
- Natasha Bedingfield, “Pocketful of Sunshine” - It’s growing slowly now, but if it can hang in there for a few weeks, it will, like “Unwritten,” then hang around for months. And if having a pocketful of sunshine doesn’t quite sum up the national psyche right now, aren’t summer songs meant to alleviate the national mood?
Next, the songs that don’t have a lyrical tie-in but have the feel of great summer hits:
- Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl” – Already shaping up as a massive summer hit. Only being the kind of reaction record that might not last 14 weeks would keep it from being the summer record, but it has the perfect drive and energy.
- Metro Station, “Shake It” - Will keep the competition within the Cyrus family this summer. Showing gradual growth right now, but if any record will get a boost by sounding better in warm weather it will be this one.
- Danity Kane, “Damaged” – They’ve already beaten the odds by having a second hit.
- Duffy, “Mercy” – Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” one of my predictions last summer, didn’t stick around long enough to become the summer hit. This one is its less polarizing, even more perfect distillation.
- Chris Brown, “Forever” – The buzz on him may be “next Michael Jackson,” but this one is Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” which was a summer smash. Also seems like by summer’s end, it could also be on some of the AC stations that never thought they’d play Alicia Keys’ “No One.”
- Alicia Keys, “Teenage Love Affair” – This one, however, recalls the Jackson 5.
- Miley Cyrus, “Seven Things” – Regardless of whether she grows up too soon in real life, it’s the right place in her musical arc. (The competition for this slot would be Taylor Swift’s “Picture To Burn” if they go after it at Top 40.)
- Lady Antebellum, “Love Don’t Live Here” - Peaking now at Country and with just enough tempo and (Taylor) Swiftian youth-appeal that taking it to pop radio wouldn’t be crazy.
- Carrie Underwood, “Last Name” - Not the only potential pop hit on the current project, but the one that’s getting the “Idol” exposure tonight. Nice, also, to see it worked when it’s still a big Country record.
- Flo Rida, “In The Ayer” – There are other Soulja Boy-type phenomena warming up at R&B and Rhythmic radio (V.I.C.’s “Get Silly” and Hot Stylz’ “Lookin’ Boy,” to name two.) But this is the uptempo party record and the one with a head start at Top 40.
- Maroon 5 & Rihanna, “If I Never See Your Face Again” - Last spring, Rihanna gave up her usual Caribbean-pop slot for a change-up and ended up with both a career record and the summer’s defining song. This summer, she goes for a ballad, but still makes a guest appearance in the summer song derby.
- Lloyd f/Lil Wayne, “Girls Around The World”
- Happening at R&B, not at Top 40 yet. Of the available product, the best bet for an uptempo Lil Wayne song so far.
And there is, of course, always the question of what else will emerge before the end of summer. Two summers ago, “SexyBack” dropped in mid-June, although last year, the only post-Memorial Day big-name artist release that sounded like a contender, Will.I.Am’s “I Got It From My Mama,” didn’t sustain.
There’s a new T-Pain and a new Ciara on the way. Epic’s Rich Appel also cites “whatever Disney tosses out as the first single from ‘High School Musical 3,’ which should hit in August.” Up until now, the HSM singles haven’t had the radio ubiquity to qualify, but with Miley and the Jonas Brothers having crossed over, that’s no longer out of the question.
And now, your thoughts please on the summer song of 2008.