by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
As we head into Labor Day weekend, here’s a question that should be easier to answer than it is: What was the defining summer smash of 2004?
Predicting the summer’s biggest hit has become a perennial consumer press story—the closest thing America has to the U.K.’s battle for the Christmas No. 1. Last year, I read at least 5-6 different stories on the topic. Of course, last year’s summer No. 1 was a pretty obvious one. By Memorial Day, Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” was well on its way to megahit status.
But even in a decent enough summer for hit music, there’s been no one song that fit the “summer smash” definition as perfectly as “Crazy In Love”. There’s no one perfectly timed record with the same multi-format ubiquity, and certainly no hit as thematically calculated for summer as 2002’s anthem, “Hot In Herre.” But summer hits are, for a variety of reasons, getting harder to calculate.
Maybe that’s why you’ve read fewer “summer song” stories this year. An ABCNews.com story in mid-July nailed some of the obvious candidates (Kevin Lyttle, Beyonce’s “Naughty Girl,” and Usher’s multiple hits), but also predicted that the Beastie Boys’ “Ch-Check It Out” and the Corrs’ “Summer Sunshine” would be contenders.
So was it Usher? He was certainly the artist of the summer as well as one of the few solo male stars out there. (Somebody asked me to name this generation’s male star a few weeks ago and the only ones I could come up with were Usher and Eminem.) “Confessions” and “Burn” were everywhere this summer, but they weren’t uptempo pound-the-dashboard hits, a key qualification. “Yeah!” was a dashboard pounder. But it had been a hit for six months already—same reason I disqualified “In Da Club” last year. It does, however, say a lot about the number of available hits now that the biggest record of winter is still a candidate for the biggest hit of the summer.
Hoobastank’s “The Reason”? Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved”? Both ballads. And “Loved” will be even bigger through the fall. Maroon’s “This Love”? It had the bounciness of a perfect summer record, but the timing wasn’t right, either.
Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces Of Me”? It’s the record my colleagues feel like they’re hearing everywhere now, but it took much of the summer to emerge as the consensus hit that it eventually became. And it’s not quite a dashboard pounder either.
Summer hits are, for a variety of reasons, getting harder to calculate.
Los Lonely Boys’ “Heaven”? I’ve seen somebody make a case for it on message boards, and some people would undoubtedly argue that its loping midtempo groove is definingly summery. But we’ve established a bias toward tempo here. “Heaven,” while a record that many people were passionate about, was a hit because it didn’t sound like a radio record, at least initially.
One could make a case for Jojo’s “Leave (Get Out),” which had the tempo and the critical mass, but not Beyonce’s multiple formats. Then again, as a surprise No. 1 and the record that made it very clear that teen pop was back on Top 40, it was significant by any definition.
You could also make a case for Nina Sky’s “Move Your Body,” at least in the Northeast. And again, having finished the Neptunes’ job of putting dance music back into the R&B landcape, its significance isn’t in question either. And because it was technically reggae, nobody at Top 40 or Hip-hop/R&B radio thought to resist it (their default reaction with dance these days).
If you were in New York or Philadelphia, or listening to R&B radio anywhere else, Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” might have been your song of the summer. But that record is only making its way to the pop mainstream now for many listeners. (Then again, street records you heard everywhere in New York in the late ‘80s, such as Rob Base & DJ EZ-Rock’s “It Takes Two” or Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype” made it on to pop radio many years later or, in P.E.’s case, not at all.)
There are certainly songs breaking through now that have the feel of a great summer hit: Ciara’s “Goodies,” Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started” (around for most of the summer, but likely to be bigger over the next month or two), Christina Aguilera & Missy Elliott’s “Car Wash.” (The Rose Royce original was a fall hit, too). At least breaking through at summer’s end won’t stunt their growth. I still cling stubbornly to the notion that Pink’s “Trouble” or Lenny Kravitz’ “Dig In” might have been hits if they had come out in May, instead of being used to launch fourth-quarter albums.
Then again, “Dig In” and “Trouble” have, regrettably, forced me to reconsider what a Top 40 hit is supposed to sound like. If you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the anthemic, 4/4 uptempo pop/rock records were the easiest hits to predict. Now, program directors lose patience with those songs because they don’t generate the same initial excitement as rap or ballads. Only the success of Maroon 5’s “This Love” reinforces a belief that today’s 16-year-old isn’t indifferent to that sound, and that Top 40, despite its wider variety of recent musical choices, is still missing a “Semi-Charmed Life”-type of record.
Country, incidentally, has several of those records at the moment. The format is going through its best tempo stretch in a long time, thanks to current hits from Toby Keith, Sara Evans, Keith Urban, and Terri Clark. But it also has three magnet records—Big & Rich’s “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” and both Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” (also a holdover from spring) and “Here For The Party”—that pretty nicely fit the anthemic, major chord pop/rock niche. And Top 40, even in country lifestyle markets, has made no effort to steal any of those songs. Big & Rich, so far, have gotten a total of four spins at Top 40. Wilson’s “Redneck,” despite its consumer press and VH1 airplay, has gotten six, while “Here For The Party,” so far, has gotten none. (Hot AC WTSS Buffalo is playing “Redneck Woman,” but even in that format it stands alone.)
So what was the No. 1 record of summer? I keep gravitating to Kevin Lyttle’s “Turn Me On.” In the absence of uptempo pop/rock hits, reggae had already become the sound of summer, and we can now expand the Caribbean category to include soca (which had already gotten some help from “Who Let The Dogs Out”). “Turn Me On” also had its summer-hit credentials firmly established, having been a breakthrough record for Canadian R&B last summer. “Turn Me On” also ended up as the No. 1 record on WBLI Long Island’s end-of-summer Top 10, which reads as follows:
1 – Kevin Lyttle, ”Turn Me On”
2 – Hoobastank, “The Reason”
3 – Usher, “Yeah”
4 – Jojo, “Leave (Get Out)”
5 – Nina Sky, “Move Your Body”
6 – Usher, “Burn”
7 – Beyonce, “Naughty Girl”
8 – Ashlee Simpson, “Pieces Of Me”
9 – Mario Winans, “I Don’t Wanna Know”
10 – Beenie Man, “Dude”
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.