Disclaimer: The contents and opinions of this blog post do not represent the views or values of Honours Review as a publication.
Above all other seasons, summer notoriously produces dozens of songs released in its name. During the warm months, whether on holiday, or just consuming various media at home, it’s impossible to avoid hearing this year’s “summer hit” or multiple contenders for the title. The phenomenon is much older than most would expect: Already from 1958 (which crowned Nel blu, dipinto di blu (Volare)) as its summer hit one of the most influential online music magazines, Billboard, keeps track of the fluctuations in songs’ popularity throughout the summer months, eventually releasing a “Songs of the Summer” chart (1). Last year, Despacito had an early start (from January 2017), quickly getting predicted as that years’ top summer song, and winning without problems; in 2018 there is some more competition–specifically between Drake’s Nice for What and I Like It by Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin (1). While the majority of the public, as reflected in the ratings, enjoys the joyful, casual atmosphere brought with the summer hits, they have also gained some disdain: Especially in regards to their simplistic nature, commodified character, and temporary fame. This position is one known already from the beginning on the twentieth century and has always accompanied the developments in pop music. Right now, it’s the summer songs that are seen as a peak of easy money-making, commerce, dominance of the marketing and industrial values over artistic ones. But what is the sound of summer really about? And is it as easily predictable, as some claim it to be?
The experts seem to say so. The phenomenon attracted the attention of Spotify and along with the holiday company First Choice, and the music intelligence agency The Echo Nest, they researched summer songs basing on five basic variables: Tempo, energy, danceability, acousticness and valence (see the image below) (2). By comparison with average song ratings, patterns have been drawn, clearly indicating how summer hits could differ from the regular, all-year songs.
While tempo stayed the same: Mostly due to the pre-established human “preferred tempo” for energizing, which was already uncovered in a 2002 study to lie between 120 and 130 bpm (faster than usual heartbeat) (3), other variants went through quite expected adjustments. A summer hit, consequently, is supposed to have higher energy, higher suitability for dancing, and be more positive, while also using more artificial music-making techniques than an average song (including post-production sound manipulation, and use of instruments such as synthesizers or electric guitars) (2). Eventually, the experts claimed that they have devised a formula for a perfect summer hit from their findings, reckoning that it lies in the average pattern they uncovered (2). The known patterns for success affect also the summer hits like they do in the majority of the popular music industry: In terms of song length (the eternal 3-4 minutes) and structures (the domineering verse-chorus-bridge form). Last but not least, it’s easy to notice the recurrent themes of the music videos that accompany the summer hits (beach, party, social activities, love), as well as the consistent way in which these songs are released and marketed: Usually beginning its rise to fame at the beginning of the year, to peak in the early summer months, so that they become played basically everywhere: From festivals to holiday resorts.
Still, the formula for the summer song cannot be applied to each years’ instance. The claims to an ability to devise a perfect summer song or predict what it could be are quite far-reaching, as the average doesn’t necessarily represent the differences in the top summer songs–even just looking at the last decades, year by year, something slightly different seems to be catching the publics’ attention. 2011’s winner (LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem) was significantly less acoustic than the 2013’s (Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines); 2014’s top summer song (Iggy Azaela’s Fancy) wasn’t half as energetic and danceable as 2012’s (Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe); and 2005 (Mariah Carey’s We Belong Together) brought rather reflection than upbeat positivity (1). Some of the summer sounds are more party than summer-related; other don’t cater to either of these categories. Despacito was a surprise both in the terms of language (as an overwhelming majority of winning songs so far were in English) and the victory of the reggeaton genre over the more popular pop or hip hop. Rather than becoming part of a similar, typical group, summer songs seem to align with the tastes of a certain year, becoming a symbol for it. As a result, contrary to the popular belief, their fame doesn’t disappear as fast as it forms. They are not gone as soon as summer ends: Most of university students could now probably recognize all the top summer songs back to 2003 (Crazy in Love) or earlier (1); clubs replay them constantly, even years afterwards, and even in the middle of winter. They become symbols of easy going fun, trademarks for a certain year, and separate entities, not always forever attached to the “summer” label.
It may be easy to create a summer hit that would recreate the commercially successful patterns, use the known elements and stylistics, and as such, cater to the tastes of the public looking for fun in the hot weather. Yet, consequently, it seems that each year the public wants something new in addition to the scheme–hence, the newest sound of the summer would always be, in a way, surprising, specific, even unique, and lasting longer than the summer charts. Truthfully enough, the music industry controls many elements of these releases: Songs’ length, structures, tempo, or marketing procedures cannot be changed too much for a hit to make it to the top. Nevertheless, it would be an overstatement to say that there’s nothing more than commerce to the summer songs–after all, even the most relaxed audiences look for some memorable spark of originality or inspiration in the schemes.
1. Billboard Staff. “Summer Songs 1958-2017: The Top 10 Tunes of Each Summer”. Billboard, 2018. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/513524/summer-songs-1985-present-top-10-tunes-each-summer-listen. Accessed: 6.08.2018.
2. Griffiths, Sarah. “Formula for the ultimate summer song revealed: Popular tunes are energised and have just the right amount of 'danceability'”. Dailymail, 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3070604/Formula-ultimate-summer-song-revealed-Popular-tunes-energised-just-right-danceability.html. Accessed: 6.08.2018.
3. Moelants, Dirk. “Preferred Tempo Reconsidered” from: Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. Adelaide: Causal Productions. Sydney, 2002.