Ah, the end of summer. Time to pack in all those pool parties, the outdoor barbecues, and maybe have one more fling out on the beach before –ugh—school or work starts in earnest in September. Summers are, after all, made for relaxing and not really having a worry in the world. High gas prices? Pschaw! Georgia being pelted by Russian surface-to-air-missiles? Where’s Georgia? (Or where’s Russia?) Democratic Convention starting tomorrow in Denver? Ugh. What a snoozefest. Offshore drilling as a strategy to help the energy crisis? Offshore what? Dude, let me get back to my tunes. Don’t we want to remember this time for all the cool tunes that summers are made for?
There is some truth in this. Every summer does seem to have a song that gets a lot of airplay and seems to blare out of every speaker, window sill, bodega, monster SUV, or requisite poolside. Only now we don’t really say “airplay” too much anymore, now that we are in the MP3 age. That iTunes is the most preeminent venue for consuming music and, in the parlance of the record industry, it’s the place where all the new music “drops” every Tuesday. And given that a lot of young people are home during the summer, what better time to focus on those songs that linger, those tunes that you just can’t get out of your head, no matter how hard you try.
So what exactly makes a summer jam? It’s got to have a rousing beat. It has to grab you instantly and allow you not to get physically sick after the first, maybe 400 times, you’ve heard it.The trend these days is more hip hop or rap than anything else, this being the street cred’-makin’, mollifying pablum of the shopping mall masses. It worked for Mariah Carey and her enormous “We Belong Together” a few summers back, though that wasn’t so much a jam for the crowd of homies at the club as much as a monument to melisma, done by almost retro diva in stiletto heels and Juicy Couture shorts. In short, the defining songs of summer have to make an impact on the suntanning masses across America. Moreover, they have to say something about the artists themselves. The songs have to be either new and exceptional unveiling of an artist (“Genie in a Bottle, summer 1999, for Christina Aguilera) or a hit that sets an existing artist off into the stratosphere –Beyonce’s pitch-perfect “Crazy in Love” (also with Jay Z) in 2003 or 2006’s “Sexy Back”, a song that initially irked but which launched an entirely different and more mature direction in Justin Timberlake’s career.
So what do we have for summer 2008? The New York Times tried to pose this question in an unusual graphic this past week. In it, it asked whether there was one defining song that you hear all the time and maybe don’t regret it. The chart below makes a funny claim –that we are somehow stuck in bed and some idiot is driving by at night blaring this song all the time and, according to their pick for the winning songs, “Lookin’ Boy” by Hotstylz and the massively hyped Lil Wayne’s “A Milli”, the songs are “good enough to hop out of bed and jam to when a car drives by boomin’ this at 4 am!”. Lying in bed must be the ultimate barometer of a great song nowadays, and while I don’t like in an urban neighborhood like Soho, I do admit cursing the occasional yahoo who decides to cruise by in his 20-inchers playing the latest Young Jeezy track. What I want to know is this: how does a song make you want to get up and jam so that you aren’t sick of it?
Of the songs that the Times has selected, probably “Put On”, the one with a little help from Kanye, is probably the least offensive and thus the one that would not make you want to pull your hair out. “Disturbia”, on the other hand, was concocted in a corporate board room by geezers who wanted to pair up sexy Rihanna with the creepy dude from Maroon 6, a band so edgy now that it tops the “Adult Contemporary” charts. Worse, the video looks like a gauzy Mastercard commercial. That leaves Chris Brown and the Abba-like “Forever”, a song that seems overly synthesized as to dilute any soulfulness or meaning altogether. It’s a paint-by-the-numbers dreamscape for the Gymboree and American Girl set. The 19-year-old is getting the (over)exposure because of his far superior songs, “With You” and “Run It”, both instant, gliding classics, but neither of which was released in the summer. Formulaic? Yes. Ka-ching? Are you kidding?
Finally, the song that cannot be beat has to be Katy Perry’s crassly infectious “I Kissed a Girl”. Yet the incessant lines “I kissed a girl/And I liked it/ The taste of her cherry Chapstick/I kissed a girl just to try it/Hope my boyfriend don’t mind it” and the fact it’s been a huge chart-topper may say something about our social attitudes in this 2008 American summer. First of all, didn’t indie rocker Jill Sobule do something similar back in 1995? Oh yeah. We weren’t ready for that back then. It’s a little pathetic that a ditty about girl-on-girl kissing stands for something cutting edge nowadays in a world where Lindsay Lohan has a girlfriend (and the media doesn’t blush) or where Abercrombie & Fitch still trades on same-sex cheek-to-cheek Aryan models and erect nipples in wall-size displays at suburban shopping malls. Katy Perry, in her bad dye job and grrrl-ish demeanor is just kidding with you! She isn’t really into girls because she has a boyfriend. Is this song popular this summer because, as the Onion’s Pop Culture Love Letters claims, “Drunk sorority girls want to feel edgy too”?
The song isn’t “controversial”; if it were, no one would be buying it. Yet the fact that people pretend it is makes for a lot of curiosity and mass appeal, especially those impressionable tweens confused by all the mixed messages of a Miley Cyrus who sounds like she’s 40 and the chaste, though admittedly tuneful teen rockers The Jonas Brothers. Parents are even into it, so it must not be that cool. That cultural touchstone of soccer moms, “The View”, even had Katy Perry on recently, with host Whoopi Goldberg giving a full mouth kiss.
Summer’s ending and something’s got to give. Some fluff, no matter how stupid, has to rise above the fray. Girl-on-girl, even if just for a test drive, can be just as Americana as, well, you know….