There’s no real reason why, at 11 years old, I should have so explicitly known what a thong was. But there it was, brightly colored and floss-like, between the bottoms of a couple hundred girls on MTV in the summer of 2000. That summer was the heyday of Sisqo’s (in?)famous “The Thong Song,” indelibly indoctrinating tweens like myself into the world of women’s undergarments and swimwear. It is also one of the first memories I have of what it really meant to have a “song of the summer.”
That season, “The Thong Song” was everywhere. According to Billboard’s Radio Songs chart, which purely charts radio play, it was the most popular song on the radio for seven weeks, from April 29 to June 10, only to be overtaken by Aaliyah’s “Try Again.” It was No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, which in 2000 charted sales and radio success together, and No. 2 on the R&B charts. You couldn’t roll down a street in South Florida, where I grew up, without hearing “Baby, make your booty go!” or “That thong, tha-thong-thong-thong,” pumping from someone’s subwoofers.
Sisqo was my first brush with the “song of the summer” tradition, my first time seeing how a song can truly dominate both the air- and brainwaves. Every year, new songs arrive to vie for the title. As of this writing, Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and Magic!’s “Rude” are competing for the top spot on the charts, according to Billboard. It doesn’t matter who wins; no matter how many earfuls of “I’m so fancy/ You already know,” and “Why you gotta be so rude” we get, the phenomenon stays the same.
Ideally what happens, according to David Hoffman, a creative director at music publishing house Shapiro Bernstein (whose catalog includes songs by the Black Eyed Peas and Madonna), is that a song will be released in the late spring, gather momentum and then blast through the air all through summer. Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” was released in March 2007, and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” in March 2005: Both hit peak airplay in the summer.
There are exceptions; Pharrell’s “Happy” was released on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack in June 2013. It was then released as a single in November 2013 and reissued with the artist’s new label, Columbia, in December 2013 in order to promote his latest album, G I R L, which was released in March 2014. It was a perfect storm of promotion and success (including but not limited to Pharrell’s extended “24 Hours of Happy” video project, in which he made “the world’s first 24-hour music video,” as well as his March 2014 Oscar nomination for the song) that carried Williams and the song through and beyond an entire year. As of this writing, it is No. 10 on Billboard’s “Summer Songs” chart, and No. 12 on the Hot 100.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s summer 2012 epidemic “Call Me Maybe,” which was released in September 2011, followed a similar path. Sometimes, Hoffman says, it may even take years for a song to be released and considered for summertime stardom. That was the case with Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” which was released in the U.K. in June 1983 and topped charts there, but did not have a U.S. release until May 1984, when it became a colossal, international hit.
While “a hit is a hit whenever it comes out,” Hoffman laughs, there’s something about summertime that makes us notice a song more often. Part of the reason is that people are more social in the summertime, having barbecues, taking beach trips and going to pool parties. Hoffman concurs: “What makes the song of the summer, usually, is there has to be some sort of [impulse to] roll your windows and blast it and sing along with it, and have it at your barbecues. Automatically you envision that sort of commercial, Bud Light party on a beach.” The best summer jam, then, will not only sell a song, it will sell an experience, as good advertising has always done. It’s almost as though by listening to, and perhaps ultimately purchasing, a particular song, we too can have the experience the song evokes.
The “song of the summer” tag is an easy way to promote and ultimately sell a particular song, but it’s not necessarily something the public decides on its own, as labels push singles to radio stations. This happens at certain times of the year more than others. Some of the songs catch, starting in a station’s heavy rotation playlist and eventually ending up at the top of the summer chart.
In some instances, like Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” a radio conglomerate, in this case Clear Channel, takes the reins in an active way. Clear Channel recently launched a program called “On the Verge,” in which one song selected by a group of the company’s program directors receives airplay 150 times across all 840 of their radio stations. Azalea was named an “iHeartRadio On the Verge Artist” in April; it takes about six weeks for stations to complete the full cycle of airplay — it usually wraps up right at the beginning of the summer. After that, it’s up to the audience. Not every artist the station promotes necessarily takes off like Azalea did. Promotions can, and often are, a part of a larger corporate plan, but at the end of the day if the audience doesn’t like it, it still might not stick around.
New York-based DJ Greg Caz says, “The media conglomerates can make a ‘summer song’ out of pretty much anything they want by running it to death everywhere. It doesn’t really matter if it was ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ Today’s mass pop audience is somewhat less discerning than its predecessors, so anything is possible at this point.”
As a music producer, critic and DJ Sarah Lewitinn, also known as Ultragrrrl, has had exposure to the “song of the summer” phenomenon from every angle, from production to consumption. While she, like Hoffman, says the best summer song is “one with a really catchy chorus and a fun beat, and is somewhat irreverent,” she acknowledges there’s no exact formula. “It’s kind of a shot in the dark,” she says. “If there was some sort of formula to determine the song of the summer, there’d be a lot more successful artists out there.”
Caz agrees, writing via chat that “Sometimes a bunch of obvious ‘summer’-type songs get ignored, and a less obvious one takes the prize through timing and sheer luck.” An artist could, for example, opt for an obvious title like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Summertime” (1991) or Calvin Harris’s “Summer” (2014) and have a hit; or have a sleeper that’s almost completely unrelated to the season, like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” in 2011 (which, incidentally, Patti Smith declared her personal summer favorite when I saw her in concert that July) or Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” in 1997.
According to Caz, the “song of summer” is more about selling music than bottling our memories, though the latter is doubtlessly a side effect. As Hoffman says, “I think ["the song of the summer"] is a great promotional line to have on a song. But as far as the listener is concerned, I don’t know how many people are out there thinking, ‘What is going to be my song of this summer?’ Maybe they are. But I think it’s more [the industry] saying, ‘This is the song of the summer.’” Or, at least, ‘This is what you should be buying right now.’ To pigeonhole is to make it easier to consume.”
Fourteen years after my exposure to “The Thong Song” and a host of other songs of summer, I have decided to select one for myself. Not on purpose, as Hoffman suggests, but by accident. Walking down the street in Manhattan to look at yet another apartment, the only song that kept me feeling upbeat was Chromeo’s “Jealous (I Ain’t With It).” A hip shaker and a lip smacker at its core, the duo’s groovy song bounces through a tale of a girl’s lack of relationship investment, hinting at infidelity. It’s a gooey dose of pop perfection, with all of the makings of a summer hit: danceability, infectiousness, lightness and good party vibes. Except it’s not on Top 40 radio and it has only charted on Billboard’s dance charts. I’ll admit: It’s nice to have this one just to myself for now.