Here comes summer. And here comes the debate about the “song of the summer.” As in, what song will everyone be singing when they’re driving around in the car, googling the location of the nearest Dairy Queen? Every year there are predictions and this year I’ll go out on a limb and place my money on Drake’s “Passionfruit.”
A great summer song needs one of two things: either exuberance and a zest for life, especially if it’s even tangentially connected to sun or water, or an overt nostalgia for summers past.
Except for Christmas, no season generates the kind of nostalgia that summer does, and it’s all based on the same principle — a yearning for a simpler more innocent time of life, where everything seemed new with limitless possibility. And I have to admit, there is nothing like that last day of school when the entire summer stretches on indefinitely. I’d like to say I spent my summers at the swimmin’ hole, riding on Ferris Wheels, or writing poems to my first love, but I was more likely to be inside watching game shows on TV (on a perfectly good day!!!) or moping about being bored.
Nevertheless, like everyone else I have an idealized view of summer and here are the songs that remind me of the summers I may or may not have actually experienced.
15. Saturday in the Park
The band Chicago is more or less disdained now by rock aficionados because of their heavy reliance on horns. Nevertheless I was a big fan and actually went to see them in concert at the old Boston Garden. “Saturday in the Park” was inspired by a visit to Central Park by the band’s lead vocalist Robert Lamm on July 4, 1971 (actually a Sunday, btw), who saw steel drum players, singers, dancers, and jugglers all having a great time, which translated into: “People dancing, people laughing/A man selling ice cream/Singing Italian songs.” Yep, that sounds like summer.
14. The Age of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine
The Fifth Dimension’s “The Age of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine” is by no means a classic summer song but I am using the blogger’s privilege to include it in this list. In 1969, when I was 15 (!!) I spent the summer building swimming pools for my father’s company, which meant a lot of physical labor outside with the radio on. We listened to WRKO, Boston’s Top-40 radio station so I heard the same songs day after day. Looking at the Billboard list for that summer is like stepping into a time capsule. The apocalyptic “In the Year 2525” was a huge hit, as was Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme for Romeo and Juliet.” But in between those two extremes is “The Age of Aquarius,” a commercialized version of the anthem from “Hair.” Whenever I hear this song I remember wielding a shovel all summer and am grateful I went to college.
13. Summer Nights
I’m not really a fan of “Grease,” which makes “West Side Story” look like a serious anthropological study of 50’s teen alienation. The song “Summer Nights,” though, cleverly combines insights on the differences between men and women while articulating the yearning for hot-weather romantic passion. Olivia Newton John and John Travolta narrate their version of their summer romance, and in her story he was sweet and caring, while in his version she was hot and randy. One thing they agree on, however, is “Summer fling don’t mean a thing/But, uh oh, those summer nights.”
12. Schools Out
If you ever wondered whether “This is Spinal Tap” was a parody or actual documentary all you need to do is watch Alice Cooper videos to see that “Spinal Tap” actually didn’t go far enough. “School’s Out” seemingly celebrates the last day of school, but is actually a profoundly anti-social song (“School’s out forever/My school’s been blown to pieces”). Aww, who takes that seriously? Of course now Alice Cooper portrays himself as your basic bourgeois grampa, telling Terri Gross on “Fresh Air” that it was all an act. Whatever, the song is fun and joyous as long as you don’t think too hard about it.
11. Party in the USA
Clarification Warning: The inclusion of this song does not constitute an endorsement of Miley Cyrus, twerking, celebrity rehab or anything else connected with Miley-drama. The song isn’t really even about summer — it’s about hearing a song and partying, two essential elements of summer. Plus in the video she’s wearing a tank-top and short-shorts and dancing in a pick-up truck. What could be more summery than that?
10. 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy)
About half the songs in the Springsteen oeuvre are summer songs at heart, even when they’re ostensibly about closing factories and ruined futures. That’s because they are drenched in nostalgia and yearning. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” which is about as nostalgic as it gets, paints a vivid word picture of an amusement park, with boardwalks, arcades, fireworks, tilt-a-whirls — the whole nine yards. The main attraction, though, is Sandy, the boss’s daughter, and the narrator’s throat-tightening, teen longing is palpable.
9. Summer of 69
Another classic nostalgia song, reminiscing about young love, drive-ins, porches, etc, etc. during that great summer of 1969. Or as it makes clear in no-nonsense terms, “Those were the best days of my life.” The song turns me off a bit because it commercializes nostalgia so explicitly — and yet, it definitely pushes enough buttons to make it on the list.
8. Summertime (Kenny Chesney)
Summer songs constitute a whole sub-genre of country music, which makes sense because people always imagine they spend their summers out in the country instead of in the air-conditioned offices where they really are. Kenny Chesney is the king of giving the people what they want — as his sold-out mega-concerts attest — and in “Summertime” what he offers is perpetual late-teenagery at the waterhole where the boys’ hearts “skip a beat” as the girls “shimmy out of their old cut-offs.” Kind of makes me wish, sometimes, that I’d grown up a yokel.
7. Walking on Sunshine
For sheer exuberance nothing quite matches “Walking on Sunshine.” And since it’s got sunshine in the title we’ll classify it as a summer song, although the official video, which shows the band walking along the Thames on a winter day, makes clear this was about the last thing on their minds.
6. Hot Fun in the Summertime
Sly and the Family Stone performed at Woodstock in 1969 and released “Hot Fun In the Summertime” soon thereafter. The slow, soulful melody takes the banal lyrics (“I cloud nine when I want to/Out of school, yeah/County fair in the country sun/And everything, it’s true, ooh, yeah”) and turns them into one of the coolest songs ever. A lot of summer songs are frantic in their pursuit of fun but “Hot Fun in the Summertime” is a good reminder that a good deal of summer is about conserving your energy in the heat.
5. California Gurls
Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” is a clear take-off of the Beach Boys song, except that tells the story from the female perspective, as in, “damn right we’re hot.” It’s a song that invites the male gaze and finds power in overt female sexuality. Why, the girls have sex on the beach and don’t mind getting sand in their stilettos. And this was Hillary Clinton’s ambassador to the girls of America! Yet there’s no denying that the beat is infectious and joyful and a lot of fun to sing in the car.
4. California Girls
It’s hard to think of a Beach Boys song that doesn’t bring to mind summer (except for, perversely, “Surf’s Up,” a weird psychedelic song). California Girls is not my favorite Beach Boys record but it’s the one that’s most overtly about summer. I doubt that in 2017 they could get away with referring to bikini-clad women as “Dolls by a palm tree in the sand,” although Katy Perry might consider it a compliment. In any event, it’s about being happy at the beach, in the sun, and contemplating female beauty. Now that’s summer!
3. Summer Breeze
What I love about this song is its ordinariness. It’s not straining after hackneyed images of manufactured fun; instead it’s rejoicing in the quiet day-to-day existence of summer. The windows are open and the kitchen curtains are blowing and you can hear music from the neighbor next door. And that great climax: “And I come home/from a hard day’s work/and you’re waiting there/not a care in the world.” As a kid I always thought that is what a perfect marriage would be, and you know what? It is.
2. Dancing in the Streets
Written by Marvin Gaye and released in 1964, “Dancing in the Streets,” has an optimism that wouldn’t be seen again in pop music for decades. The song calls for all the people of the world to come together and dance, and before the Sixties went completely haywire with war, riots and multiple assassinations, that seemed possible. This song is also a good reminder that summer also happens in the cities and is not just a rural phenomenon.
1. Call Me Maybe
When you talk about songs of the summer, this has got to be number one of all time. The song is not explicitly about summer except that the participants are scantily clad and have sex on their minds. No, what makes it a summer song is that it played all summer long, worming its way into the deepest part of our cortex. Released in 2012 just when social media was coming into its own, it became a huge ubiquitous hit, pouring out the radio all summer, and then, through YouTube parodies, out of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Those video parodies took on a life of their own, starting with the Harvard baseball team (see below). This soon became a strange form of homoerotic male bonding (see more below). That wouldn’t have happened in the halcyon summer of 1969 but it was still a lot of fun.