Summer unofficially began few weeks. And how can we say it’s not summer? Barbecue season is here, the weather is getting warmer and the music on the radio is getting more poppy!
Around this time of the year, people begin to talk about whose song they think will be declared the song of the summer. But do we ever think about where the term “song of the summer” originates from? Many people believe the term comes from the 1950s and ’60s during the rise of teenage beach culture. While this holds some historical truth, the term and cultural phenomenon finds itself rooted much deeper in our collective cultural history.
We technically define the song of the summer as the song that has the most number of weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between Memorial Day and Labor Day. This chart ranks popular songs in every genre based on sales, radio play and, most recently, streaming.
To start off our dive into the history of the song of the summer we first have to acknowledge that this phenomenon couldn’t have been developed without the development of the modern music industry. In order to get an idea of the foundations of our modern music industry we first have to take a look at music history.
A (brief) history of the Music Industry
The idea of popular music is thought to have originated around the 1880s (I told you we’d have to go back into history). Before we recorded music, music was distributed by circulating sheet music (sounds obvious, but stay with me). Surprisingly, this led to songs becoming popular and major hits were created as a result. Another place where songs became popular and spread to the masses was through operas and operettas.
Due to the long sales & distribution cycles, it was common for songs to be consistently popular for a few years in a row as opposed to a few weeks or month like we’re used to now.
Around this time, the music industry saw growth from another thing. Around 1877 the phonograph was invented and began to grow in popularity. This device was used to record sound and recreate that recorded sound. This invention would later give rise to the record players.
With the invention of the phonograph, new opportunities and business models opened up for artists, songwriters, and sheet music printers. This also led people to try and develop songs that would be popular and accessible to a large audience. This new rapid means distributing and consuming music arguably created the environment in which a song could one day be called the song of the summer.
In the early 1990s is when we first see a recognizable “song of the summer”. During this time, we begin to see the earliest conversations of people talking about what song they felt defined the summer season that year. In fact, a New York Times article from the 1920s declared the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” the summer’s hit song. Many people met this with anger and dissatisfaction.
The ’20s also usher in the rise of the radio as well as NBC and CBS. Both of these things allowed for an even wider spread of music and shorter distribution times on music.
Rise of the Recording Industry
Like we said before the song of the summer wasn’t invented in the ’50s and ’60s during teen beach culture, but it is when it became a fully formed cultural institution. This is because of the recording industry, as we know it, was developed. This new industry focused heavily on developing songs that would have mass-market appeal in order to develop large revenue streams for their owners.
This is also the time when Americans saw the rise of car culture and many teenagers beginning to get their drivers licenses for the first time. With more people, teenagers, in particular, driving around town with radios in their car, this gave recording companies and radio stations a captive audience with whom to share their music. The entertainment industry took advantage of teenagers' newfound independence and worked hard to really build out this cultural phenomenon at this time.
Around this time Billboard magazine redesigned its rating charts, which allowed people to have a measurable indication of what the song of the summer is. Additionally, New York magazine in 1995 attempted to define what it thought the song of the summer meant. Their definition is that it has to be a song that’s released in the summer, is a little dumb and impossible to forget. Although by 1995, the idea of a song of the summer was already a notion that was widely held.
Today, the song of the summer is something we obsess over because it defines the year. When I think about my first summer I spent in Portland while in college back in 2012, I’m reminded of friends and me blasting Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” out the car and singing at the top of our lungs on our way to get cheap sushi. When I see a movie that’s supposed to take place during summer 2007, I almost expect to hear Rihanna’s “Umbrella” on the soundtrack.
The song of the summer serves as a cultural landmark for any given year. It connects us to times long gone and maybe even helps us hold on to some part of our youth.
So, what's your pick for song of the summer? Are you already a fan of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” or are you a fan of “Work from Home” by Fifth Harmony? Let us know! Tweet your pick to us at @getaudibility.