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What makes the ‘song of summer’?

About the author

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom's Highway.

From the Beach Boys in the 1960s to Pharrell Williams today, each year has its song of the summer. Greg Kot explains what makes one a hit.

Summer – that most fleeting of seasons – is all about the temporary. There are summer jobs, summer romances and summer songs. None are usually meant to last. No wonder the summer soundtrack through the decades sounds so frothy, fun and ephemeral. It reeks of tanning oil - and like a sand castle, it disappears at the day’s end beneath the tide – at least it used to. In recent years, the songs that dominate our summers haven’t all been quite so cheery.

Still, there’s no season better for switching off your brain and starting a dance craze. It’s no mystery that Lambada (1989), Macarena (1996), Livin’ La Vida Loca (1999), The Ketchup Song (2002) and Gangnam Style (2012) all came to rule the summers in which they were released, and now live on in wedding-band purgatory. These songs practically demand that you slip into some hot pants and dance in the sand.

In the ‘60s, pop built a micro industry around the notion that kids had even more leisure time in the summer and needed a soundtrack for it. Brian Hyland brazenly drooled about the girl in an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. The Beach Boys turned surf and sand into their private playground with All Summer Long, I Get Around and Fun Fun Fun, celebrations of a top-down, hair-flying-in-the-breeze joy ride in daddy’s T-Bird with a girl in the front seat and a surf board in the back.

Mungo Jerry gave the formula a twist in 1970 with In the Summertime by improbably turning an old-timey skiffle beat into a stoner beach-party shuffle. Two decades later, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince cranked out the biggest rap summer hit, Summertime. The song had nothing to do with beach blankets and surf; it was all about jamming in the park and cruising at “Two miles an hour so everybody sees you” while rocking a bodacious bass line through the speakers.

Beach blanket bingo

Now summer anthems don’t have to be quite so literal. What unites most of them through the last couple of decades is that they’re energetic and at least sound upbeat, even when they’re not. Also crucial: give summer revelers something catchy, no matter how mindless, to sing along with. Remember that popular 2004 single from the hit factory known as the Republic of Moldova? It’s officially titled Dragostea Din Tei, but most folks know it as the ‘Numa Numa’ song. It’s the one that goes: “Ma-ia hii! Ma-ia huu! Ma-ia hoo! Ma-ia haha.” Sung in falsetto, it leaps all language barriers in a single bound and allows everyone to feel like a star – including Gary Brolsma, the boy who had a YouTube hit by lip-synching and dancing to it in his bedroom.

Numa Numa had competition in 2004 with Usher’s equally simplistic but inescapable crunk classic, Yeah! Amazing what a little flute riff can do. Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl ran things in the summer of 2005, partly because it sounded like a cheerleader romp – more reminders that just about everyone who loved the song had just been emancipated from school for a few months. Black Eyed Peas were everywhere in 2009 and refused to share. After Boom Boom Pow started to drift that year, it was immediately replaced by I Gotta a Feeling on the charts – nothing says mindless fun in the hot sun quite like the combo of will.i.am and Fergie. Last year saw a Pharrell-dominated mini-landslide of summer hits – Daft Punk’s Get Lucky followed by Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, both of which featured Williams’ vocals.

Though these monster songs all fit the template established in the ‘60s and then refined and modernised by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince in the ‘90s, it’s fascinating to look at some of the exceptions. Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 smash, Crazy, cut across countless radio formats and genre lines. It almost made one forget that the lyrics address the fine line between artistic risk-taking and insanity. Rihanna’s Umbrella dominated in 2007 -  even though the tune’s lyrics mirrored the year’s tumultuous weather conditions, which fluctuated between flooding and drought. And Foster the People’s Pumped Up Kicks was a major hit in 2011, even though it’s about a teenage mass murderer.

Nothing quite so dark is in the forecast for the summer hit of 2014. My money’s on Ariana Grande’s Problem, which besides being catchy as hell with that slinky sax riff, has two bonuses in its favour: a Jay-Z reference and an Iggy Azalea cameo. Then, of course, there’s Iggy herself with the ubiquitous Fancy. Calvin Harris makes his bid by simply calling his latest single Summer – every time it comes on the radio lasers shoot 100 yards into the sky and it rains confetti, or at least it feels that way. And Pharrell Williams’ Happy just keeps hanging around. It ruled the winter, and now it threatens to dominate beach parties for at least three more months. That’s not such a long way from Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

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