Each summer, a song emerges that comes to define those warm, sunshiny months for seasons afterward: Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.” Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” Usher’s “Yeah.” Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love.” And, unfortunately, the “Macarena.”
But not all songs released in the summertime can become the next “SexyBack,” the Justin Timberlake jam that had clubs rocking last summer, or “I Get Around,” the Beach Boys 1964 cruising hit, or even the “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” which Bryan Hyland made a No. 1 hit in 1960.
What raises a song beyond just a hit to the level of a full-fledged summer classic is an intoxicating mixture of star power, smart songwriting and slick production. And while blockbuster summer songs have been as varied as the artists who’ve performed them, they all share a some common thread: They make you feel good.
That may be the secret sauce.
“(It) needs to remind you of when you had three months off every year and that feeling that you got in the pit of your stomach,” said Lou Brutus, a program director at XM Radio, which kicked off the start of this summer with a three-day marathon of summer classics. “Anything that can capture that burst of energy is pretty fair game.”
“You just want to jump up and down in place and scream at the top of your lungs with, you know, a zest for life,” Brutus enthused.
An upbeat sound — perfect for road trips, club-hopping and watching Fourth of July fireworks — is key in crafting a summer song.
“It has to have some tempo, it has to have some energy,” said Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research, which surveys the radio industry. “It has to have sort of a breezy feel to it.”
Chart-topping, head-bopping examples range from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 ode to skirt-chasing, “Summer in the City,” to Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage,” which the Grammy-winning rapper took in 1994.
The feel of 'Summertime'
Will Smith made a seasonal statement in 1991 with his hot-weather hit “Summertime.” The actor-rapper sets a happy-go-lucky scene, waxing nostalgic about “the smell from a grill” and advising listeners to “break to ya crib, change your clothes once more/Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4.”
The song is successful because it paints an inviting picture of summer, said singer Fergie. Further, it has another essential ingredient: a relaxed vibe.
“In the summertime, I think it’s chillin’, not really so much fast-paced,” the solo act and frontwoman for the Black Eyed Peas recently told The Associated Press. “It’s more of a laid-back joint for me.”
Pop divas think alike. The Barbados-born Rihanna, who has a No. 1 smash with rock-tinged jam “Umbrella,” said songs that hit big during the season can be on the slower side yet remain upbeat. Her example: Mariah Carey’s 2005 comeback single “We Belong Together,” a bittersweet and bouncy ballad about a woman pining for an ex-boyfriend.
It should make them feel sexy, too.
In this day and age, a slickly produced, sexually charged sound is a big part of what makes a song popular during the summer, said music producer Danja. Take note, would-be hit-makers: Danja worked with Timbaland on “SexyBack” and “Promiscuous,” two of the sexiest, most hook-laden tracks of 2006.
“It’s the summertime, and that’s how everybody is feeling — sexy and promiscuous,” he said. Yet another Timberlake tune, “Summer Love,” is rising on the charts this summer.
“It’s a good summer song because it feels good,” said Danja. “There’s the feeling how people meet over the summertime and springtime, how people find love over the summer. A lot of people break up over the same time so they can be promiscuous through the summer.”
The warm temperatures, however, summon canoodling couples as well as singles on the prowl to the local parks and watering holes. As the heat rises, so does the libido.
Which means the music becomes more flirtatious, easy-breezy and, well ... summer-y. Although the biggest hits may continue ruling the radio through the fall, their impact hits hardest and burns brightest in July or August.
So which song will define this summer? With Labor Day several weeks away, it’s a tad too soon to tell.
For now, we can stand under Rihanna’s “Umbrella.”