The Song of the Summer is not an official title. It’s not a Grammy category, not (usually) quantifiable by chart position or mass success. Nor does it have to have the word “summer” in its title: That would be a “summer song,” such as “Summer Breeze,” “Summer Wind,” or even Love’s “Bummer in the Summer” from 1967’s Forever Changes.
Now 1967: the Summer of Love was ablaze with Songs of the Summer: Just start with any and all of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, strategically released by the Beatles June 1 (UK) and June 2 (USA) for maximum UV exposure. Just thinking back, off the top of my head, I’d say “A Day in the Life” and the Doors’ “Light My Fire” were my songs of the summer of 1967, speaking to my moods, memories, reflections and experiences. But what about the entire Moby Grape album, “Omaha” and “Hey Grandma” and “Mr. Blues” in particular? You could add dozens of others from the summer of 1967 – Aretha’s “Respect,” the Rascals’ “Groovin’” and “A Girl Like You – and you wouldn’t be wrong.
My affection for songs of summer began with the rock era’s eminent 1958 summer song, “Summertime, Summertime,” by the Jamies, one-hit wonders (unless you count the fact that the song was re-released and charted again briefly in 1962) from Dorchester, Massachusetts. And you can’t think about the summer of 1960 without hearing the giggles abounding in the presence of Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” though I was so young I wasn’t sure what a bikini was, and whether it was a minor affront to standards of the time because it was itsy and bitsy, or it had yellow polka dots. It was as shocking in its time as Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” was in 1993, sort of.
I’ll never forget the summer of 1963, when armed with a new transistor radio I would run to my friend Kenny’s house across the street every time I sensed a station was about to play Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips Part 2.” (The drummer at that Motown club session, designed for an ensemble live album that was never released, was Marvin Gaye.)
There was no summer of 1965 without the historic roll call including Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” and “Help!,” not to mention the Four Tops’ double-header of “I Can’t Help Myself”’ and the aptly titled but still wonderful “It’s the Same Old Song,” a made in Motown summer long mixtape.
I can’t imagine a summer of 1966 without “Wild Thing,” by the Troggs, “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells, and the Beach Boys, founded on the notion of endless summer, with “Sloop John B.” But the Song of the Summer for 1966 is also one of the most durable summer songs: “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful,” capturing the pitiless heat, humidity and noise of urban life on the edge. In 1969, summer song met Song of the Summer again with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime.”
Things are different now.
The AM top 40 monoculture gave way to album-oriented FM rock in the 1970s, to the 1980s fragmentation of the audience into genre-silos. Bruce Springsteen managed to bring most of the U.S.A. to the New Jersey boardwalk in the summer of 1984 with “Dancing in the Dark,” and 1985 with “Glory Days.”
But Prince was the ruler of the Songs of Summer during the 1980s, with “1999” (in 1983), “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” (1984), “Raspberry Beret” (1985), and “Batdance” (1989).
There are many others who will associate the summer of 1991 with Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.” I recall being unable to escape that song during a family vacation in Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H., where I imagined myself as Bill Murray in What About Bob? looking for my own Dr. Leo Marvin (played by Richard Dreyfuss in the movie) or someone else to drive crazy in addition to my family during vacation.
At least in those days, people listened to music, sometimes unappealing and often too loud, on their radios in public. Since listening to music all the time was my job, I had to develop a tolerance for people who liked to blast their favorite tunes on vacation.
That’s no longer a problem. In my Writing About Music classes at St. John’s University in New York, I survey my students about how they listen. Over the last few years, listening to music has become a solitary experience thanks to streaming media (Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and others), and the universal use of mini-headphones or pods, either by wire or Bluetooth. In the last six months, Covid, isolation and quarantine has forced more solitary listening even for those few who use (usually their parents’) audio systems.
Add that to the lack of a consensus culture that agrees on anything, and the Song of the Summer of 2020 is a particularly personal choice. It’s not that consensus never happens: the summer of 2017 gave us “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, which got an extra demographic boost when Justin Bieber was added to the mix, and the video. The summer of 2019 was owned by “Old Town Road,” a hick-hop groove by Lil’ Nas X that was too subtle to cross over to a more diverse audience until Billy Ray Cyrus emphasized the song’s country bona fides.
There’s nothing like that I can find this summer. In an interview with WBUR in Boston, NPR music critic Tim Riley and longtime record producer and engineer Prince Charles Alexander discussed the lack of a cohesive choice. Alexander thought the medium beats of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” was technically related to the slow beat of “Old Town Road.” But what propelled “Savage” to a Song of the Summer contender was the viral dance competitions on social media site Tik Tok. Riley, meanwhile, expected more from the Black country side of the Lil Nas X phenomenon, noting his embrace of “Black Like Me” by Nashville-based singer Mickey Guyton. Neither the poignant song nor its lyric video have taken off this troubled summer, when the Dixie Chicks sliced their own once-monumental brand, removing Dixie and reemerging as the Chicks. I had hopes the Chicks would provide me with a Song of the Summer, but found the drum-heavy sound of their new album and first single “Gaslighter” unappealing. The video, however, is a potent expression of the personal and political. Personally, I’ve been going back to the bracing performance by the Chicks fronted by Beyoncé performing Bey’s “Daddy Lessons” filmed at the 2016 Country Music Awards show.
There are also other strong statements by independent women, including Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion’s frankly filthy “WAP.” Empowerment or self-exploitation? You decide. Taylor Swift snuck in a few weeks ago with Cardigan, a winsome album and title song recorded in isolation and co-written with Aaron Dessner of the alt-rock faves, The National.
After all the searching, my song(s) of the year comes down to the familiar yet fresh new Bob Dylan songs, “False Prophet” and “My Favorite Version of You”: I think of these sequential tracks from Rough and Rowdy Ways as a two-sided single. Even if I’m taking a five minute drive to the supermarket, I’ll take five minutes setting up Bluetooth and my music library on my phone, just to hear these two songs to and from the store.
“False Prophet,” my “A” side, is Dylan’s latest renunciation of any special visionary attributes projected upon him almost from the moment he picked up a guitar. Now his voice has the harsh, guttural feel to put across the Howlin’ Wolf/Willie Dixon style of delivery that makes his words of personal sacrifice, his protectiveness of privacy, so effective. He sings of “anger, bitterness, and doubt”: “I know how it happened, I saw it begin/I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.” And he insists: “I ain’t no false prophet/I just know what I know/I go where only the lonely can go.” It’s not the stuff of pop hits these days, if it ever was. Listening to this Dylan is like listening to Sinatra in the autumn of his years: you need to have been around the block a few times to identify.
“My Own Version of You,” which teases a little from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” is about building a Frankenstein’s monster. It is likely not autobiographical.
Header image: The Beach Boys, from the Surfer Girl album, Capitol ST 1981.