Can anything truly be called “song of the summer” anymore?

Can anything truly be called “song of the summer” anymore?

Sean ONeal: It’s that time of year again, when everyone absconds to the beach to spend their days engaged in games of volleyball and flirtation, all while blasting the latest “song of the summer.” In other words, it’s time once again to indulge in a collective beer commercial fantasy—and while I know I’ll personally be spending the summer behind a computer, I also find the idea of “song of the summer” just as mythical as the rest of that scenario.

It’s not that I’m taking some anti-pop stance against the “mainstream.” I just find the idea of an agreed-upon “mainstream” increasingly hard to fathom. So Marah, when you recently declared to me that “Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ is obviously the song of the summer”—a song I’ve never even heard, from an artist I know primarily from blog headlines—it got me thinking: Isn’t our culture way too fragmented now for a statement like that to be true? Whose summer are we talking about anyway?

Probably not coincidentally, this occurred to me after I found myself revisiting Touré’s 2011 Salon column, “Why I Miss The Monoculture.” And while I remain unconvinced by Touré’s argument that the splintering of audiences into niche interests is something to mourn, I do agree with his central premise that it’s made it more difficult to have a big, unifying “Moment,” especially in music. There are simply too many artists working in too many genres, adding to a vast catalog that stretches across a century of recorded sound, all of it available through 100 different media channels that can then be culled to the sparest of personalized detail. I mean, if I want to only listen to early new wave songs on satellite radio, I can. If I want to indulge in “Dark Ambient Electronic Tracks Ideal For Late-Night Public Transportation” or “Gritty Hip-Hop Songs About Criminal Acts,” I can make infinite playlists. How is “Fancy” supposed to break through all that?

To be clear, I’m not dogging on “Fancy” specifically here; it is, for all I know, a wonderful song that is ideal for summertime fun. I also went through this same thing with last year’s supposed “song of the summer,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”—a tune I spent plenty of time reading think pieces about, but never actually heard. And that also speaks to my underlying argument, which is that “song of the summer” is something that doesn’t really happen organically anymore. I feel like these days it’s an accolade bestowed well in advance by media outlets (like us), then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy once the audience follows suit. And I question whether that’s really the same thing.

Marah, what makes you declare “Fancy”—or any song—“song of the summer” with such authority? And do you really believe our culture is still unified enough that we all really want to dance to the same beat at our beach parties, which we’re all heading to as soon as we finish this article?

Marah Eakin: I still believe in the song of the summer, for a few reasons. One is that, simply put, we’re all still leaving the house. I first heard “Blurred Lines” last year while pumping gas on vacation in New Orleans. Popular songs pop up in weird places, whether they’re blasting from car windows or coming out of some dude’s shitty cell phone speakers on the bus. You just have to be open to hearing them, and at least recognize that if you’ve heard something more than once that it might be a thing.

Going through a Billboard chart of the top summer songs for each year since ’85, I don’t know that I was ever really forced to listen to, say, Tears For Fears or Matchbox 20, even if I really tried to avoid them. At the peak of my “I only listen to my iPod and CDs in the car” phase (let’s say 1999 to 2005), I still somehow became aware of tracks like Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” and Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” I feel like they seeped into my pores just by sheer force of their omnipresence. I went to the grocery store, so I heard Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love.”

These days, what I find problematic about the “song of the summer” concept is there are hundreds of articles (including this one) debating it, and because of that, labels, artists, producers, etc. all try consciously to make that song. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” is a good example of a track that seemed laboratory produced to become “song of the summer” back when it was released in 2010. It was about being hot, in the summer, about wearing bathing suits, and it was from Katy Perry, who basically exists to produce mindless fluff.

Anyway, it’s not that I don’t believe you haven’t heard “Fancy” or “Blurred Lines,” Sean—because, knowing you, I totally do. But I do think that a lot of people have come to use that sort of conscious ignorance as a badge of pride. Not knowing the song of the summer has become, in a way, the new “I don’t have a TV.” It’s like saying, “I know I could find it easily, but I choose not to.” You could easily just Google “Fancy” and watch the video. 

In my mind, not knowing the song of the summer is tantamount to not knowing The Wire. It’s okay if you haven’t heard it, but you’re going to have to deal with me incredulously saying, “You haven’t heard it??” And while you might not have HBO—or you might only listen to Sirius XM—there are ways for you to have gotten around to it if you really wanted to.

So Sean, is it a badge of pride? And also, please sway me about how you came to learn about the songs of the summer of your youth. I fully admit not remembering things that happened when I was, say, younger than 12, so I might not recall how Mariah Carey’s “Vision Of Love” got popular in 1990. Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” on the other hand, I totally remember.

Sean: I’m certainly not bragging to you when I say I haven’t heard “Fancy”—but yes, I’m not exactly rushing to YouTube to hear it, either. To me, a “song of the summer” shouldn’t be something I have to research just to keep up on; like you said, it should have seeped into my pores by now, like the way Pharrell’s “Happy” has haunted my dreams. Something I have to seek out doesn’t sound like a “song of the summer” to me; it sounds like homework. And I don’t do homework in the summer.

I actually don’t think The Wire analogy makes much sense in this context. The Wire does require seeking out, not to mention a serious investment of your time and concentration. A more apt comparison might be Seinfeld, a show that’s seemingly always on somewhere, and plays so constantly in the background of our lives that it seems like everyone should have stumbled across it, even if just by accident. Even our colleague Josh Modell—who claimed to have never watched an episode of Seinfeld until we badgered him into it—was still familiar with some of its catchier “yada yada yada” refrains.

Speaking to my earlier point, I just think that “omnipresence” is much harder to come by these days. Not only do we have more sources of music than ever, we have more music than ever. You still hear “Crazy In Love” at the grocery store, because it’s not going anywhere. It’s been sitting in those speakers for 11 years, along with 60-plus years’ worth of pop music, summer songs and otherwise, all vying for your attention. And while it sounds like you disagree, I do think those past summer hits were inescapable in a way “Fancy” isn’t now.

Granted, I’m a little older than you (and maybe that should just be the end of this argument), but I know you remember a time when we all listened to FM radio and MTV still played videos. And even when I was a teenager deep down an indie-rock rabbit hole, I was still bound to run into Mariah Carey or Coolio while waiting around for 120 Minutes, even if it was just a fleeting glimpse in a promo bumper. And I remember when we made a single “song of the summer” by spending a chunk of it listening to busy signals, hanging in there until some bored station assistant finally took our vote for Bon Jovi’s “Blaze Of Glory.” The song of summer was about democracy—or at least, the illusion of it. And so when I hear someone tell me that “Fancy” is “song of the summer,” I can’t help feeling like, “Well, I didn’t vote for it.”

Judging from your concerns about artists, labels, and the media specifically working together to engineer summer hits, it sounds like even you might have some of those reservations. So while I don’t know that we’re ever going to solve the case of “I’ve Never Heard It versus Well, You Should Have Heard It,” maybe you can tell me whether you think a single preordained to be “song of the summer” has really earned that title? Shouldn’t it be a choice the culture makes spontaneously—not because they’re all being told to? Did “Fancy” become “song of the summer” before it was crowned that? Do you genuinely think it’s earned it?

Marah: I definitely think a “song of the summer” should come about organically—and judging by this Billboard chart tracking this summer’s popular songs, “Fancy” has earned it. And while I doubt you’ve heard the other songs on the chart (even I’m barely familiar with “Rude” by Magic!), it’s somewhat telling that Iggy Azalea also appears on the second most popular song, Ariana Grande’s “Problem.” Someone clearly likes her. 

And yes, I absolutely remember when videos were on TV and kids called into the radio station to request tracks. The thing is, kids still do that. Listen to your KISS FMs or your B96s and you’ll hear tittering, breathless 12-year-olds calling to awkwardly flirt with the craggy, much older DJs and request whatever Jason Derulo track they think could somehow overtake “Fancy.” (It’s “Wiggle,” featuring Snoop Dogg, and, no, it won’t.) They also watch tracks like “Fancy” over and over on YouTube, and these days that also factors in.

My bottom line: “Fancy” is a really good song. It’s catchy, it’s stylish, and it contains little parts where Iggy Azalea spells out her name (“I-G-G-Y,” if you’re nasty), and that kind of cheerleader bullshit always makes for a fun track. Moreover, Azalea’s a fairly attractive blonde rapper from Australia, making her catnip for not only preteen and non-preteen dudes, but for girls and women, who have especially come to identify with her after seeing the song’s music video, which is a pretty amazing takeoff on Clueless.

Yes, the stars—or the marketing teams—aligned for the success of “Fancy” this summer, and no, I don’t think that happened entirely spontaneously, or without months of conscious thought and preparation. And yet it’s neat that we, the people, can still come together and collectively choose what three-minute bit of nonsense we want to use to remember these three months.

Sean: You didn’t tell me the video was a Clueless parody. No wonder you like it so much!

Anyway, again, I’ll concede that I used to be with it, then they changed what “it” was, and now what I’m with isn’t “it,” and what’s “it” seems weird and scary to me, etc. etc. Yet, I still feel like something as supposedly universal as “the song of summer” should transcend age, to the point where even Colin Powell can’t help singing it. And an obligatory Jimmy Fallon parody aside, I remain unconvinced that “Fancy” has done that. 

Hey, maybe it’s just that song and this year specifically. But I also can’t help feeling the relative low impact of this supposedly massive hit is indicative of the way our culture has been headed for a while now—to where even the most “mainstream” of pop culture increasingly belongs to an ever-smaller, more easily swayed audience, as well as to those who have some professional obligation to perpetuate it.

Anyway, with that in mind, I’m finally going to listen to “Fancy” now, since it’s apparently my duty as a person.

Okay, so this is a song where a girl snarls at you about being hot and wealthy, and how anyone who wants to date her better also be wealthy? Yeah, sounds like a real fun summer. Happy 2014, everybody.

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