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Ah, summertime, when the living is easy — and the music is hard-hitting. At least the biggest songs of summer have been pretty feisty for a few years now, best epitomized by “I Love It,” Icona Pop’s sassy split-personality kiss-off/self-empowerment jam featuring Charli XCX. Perfectly realized as a modern-day summer anthem, the 2013 Capital Pride headliners managed to make their debut single, first released in spring 2012, stick around for two summers in a row.
But what, precisely, distinguishes a song of summer? To a degree it’s an arbitrary exercise. After all, the songs that become hits during summer aren’t all that different from those that hit any other season — electronic/dance music is now the predominating sound year-round. Also, few songs are specifically written for summer — or any other season really, other than the year-end holidays. Of course there are exceptions, from Calvin Harris’s current hit “Summer” to Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun” in 2002 to possibly the entire oeuvre of the Beach Boys.
Still, many singles are released with visions of a summer hit dancing in a record executive’s head. It’s not hard to see why: Summer is the season of outdoor concerts, dance parties and festivals, unofficially launching with Pride. It’s also the season of informal outdoor destinations, from picnics and BBQs to tailgate parties to beach vacations. All in all, people dance and congregate in summer to a greater extent than at any other time of year, besides during the holidays. And they’re also listening to and engaging with music at these varied events — plus road trips to and fro — in a kind of shared, communal way that is rarely seen other seasons.
To try to stoke a summer hit, record executives usually start work in the spring, because it generally takes at minimum a couple months to make a hit. Aiding in the hit-making cause is if the single somehow evokes the feelings of the upcoming season. When you think of winter, for example, you might think of Adele, most of whose recent gloomy singles have hit in back-to-back winters seasons.
By contrast, an enduring summer jam is usually buoyant and vivacious — and female-driven — effectively capturing the wild, party spirit that is summer above all others. Naturally, the thrill can be as fleeting as summer loving — immediate enthusiasm and joy spoiled too quickly by overexposure and overfamiliarity. This may have happened to you, say, with “When Love Takes Over,” the 2009 summer jam by David Guetta featuring Kelly Rowland that was so overplayed, you often heard it several times a night — sometimes at just one bar.
Yet the success of Guetta and Rowland in the clubs raises a subtle distinction worth noting between the type of electronic-oriented songs that top the pop charts and the ones that actually move crowds on the dance floor. In gay venues, especially, the biggest summer hits often diverge from those that top Billboard. While “When Loves Take Over” took over summer 2009 in clubland and the Billboard club charts, it only reached No. 78 on the Billboard Hot 100, which was ruled by “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas. A few years prior, Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” was heard everywhere, including gay clubland, courtesy of Peter Rauhofer’s stirring and transformative remix. But still more ubiquitous in the clubs that summer of 2005 was “Don’t Cha,” the saucy, taunting jam that introduced the Pussycat Dolls.
Other summers offer even starker contrast between the biggest summer jams in the pop mainstream and those in the gay demimonde and clubland. While Katy Perry came to fame in 2008 playing “the gay card” with “I Kissed A Girl,” Ida Corr stoked gays into a frenzy that summer singing on Fedde Le Grand’s sassy, brassy great jam “Let Me Think About It.” Similarly, Eminem and Rihanna may have ruled Billboard in 2010 with the harrowing “Love The Way You Lie,” but no one fired up a chanting sing-along from gay crowds that summer better than DJ/producer Dennis Ferrer and the wild, raspy British Noisettes singer Shingai Shoniwa.
“And I heard you say,” Shoniwa repeatedly calls out, to which everyone within earshot responds in full voice, “Hey Hey!” — each and every time, making an indelible impression, a great summer memory to savor.