Great Britain

How the chaos of 2020 changed the song of the summer

In the summer of 2017, Despacito travelled through the air like pollen. From February that year, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s reggaeton single climbed with the mercury from No 88 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart to No 1, where it sat, unchallenged, for a record-tying four months. It wasn’t just the song of that summer: “It was the biggest song of probably all the summers,” jokes the singer-songwriter Poo Bear, who put together the smash-hit remix featuring Justin Bieber.

By this point in the year, the song of the summer is usually obvious. “It’s the song you hear at a bar, in a club, coming out of a car, or in a grocery store,” says Hanif Abdurraqib, a poet and cultural critic based in Ohio. But in 2020, the race has been disrupted by coronavirus. In lockdown, says Abdurraqib, “there’s no mechanism where a song could come on and you could see a mass of people rushing to revel in it”.

Record labels typically release potential summer smashes in late winter or early spring, timed to peak by early June. But this year many major releases, including albums by Lady Gaga, Disclosure, Haim, Alicia Keys and the 1975, were pushed back due to pandemic uncertainty or in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. As Poo Bear says: “It doesn’t feel like summer.” Could a singular smash still emerge? Or will 2020 mark the end of the song of the summer as we know it?

The critic Chris Molanphy has been analysing Billboard’s dedicated Summer Songs chart since it was established in 2010, and says 2020’s odds have been “murkier than usual”. Since April, nine songs have topped the Hot 100, including six in as many consecutive weeks, a turnover not seen since autumn 1990. The UK charts have been equally volatile, the swift rotation reflecting the chaos of these unprecedented times. The video for Drake’s Toosie Slide, a No 1 from early April, shows the rapper quarantined inside his Toronto mansion. Stuck With U, Bieber’s charity duet with Ariana Grande, raised funds for Covid-19 relief and reached the top. The current US No 1 is the Black Lives Matter remix of Rockstar by the rapper DaBaby, released with a new verse referencing police brutality amid civil unrest in June.

It shows the speed, in the streaming era, with which artists can respond to the moment, says Molanphy. Although Billboard’s retrospective analysis has defined prevailing hits of the summer as far back as 1966 (the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City), Molanphy says it was the rise of social media that made the song of the summer into a thing: the viral success of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe in 2012 sent it to No 1 before Billboard even counted YouTube plays. “It’s the organic mix of the song, the artist, the memes, the social phenomenon,” he says.

In that regard, last year’s song of the summer casts a long shadow over 2020. “Everybody learned from Old Town Road,” says Molanphy. Lil Nas X’s rap-country fusion spent 19 weeks at the top of the Hot 100 (beating the record shared by Despacito and Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s 1995 hit One Sweet Day). In the US, remixes count towards a song’s chart placing – and a steady stream of Old Town Road revamps kept interest high. But a viral TikTok “challenge” drove the phenomenon and overhauled the rules of engagement for any would-be hit single, from how it is written and discovered to the potential dance crazes it might spawn. What happened naturally for Old Town Road is now a matter of concerted industry reverse-engineering.

A recent report found that half of British children aged eight to 15 regularly use TikTok (while use among under-18s surged last year). Engagement has thrived in lockdown, creating “a big knock-on effect to the charts”, says Molanphy. It is responsible for many of this year’s biggest hits: The Box by Roddy Ricch, Say So by Doja Cat, the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights. The current UK No 1, Savage Love, came about after singer Jason Derulo found a beat posted to TikTok by the 17-year-old bedroom producer Jawsh 685. Molanphy says the most “shameless” attempt to exploit this dynamic is Drake’s Toosie Slide – named after an influencer and released with a ready-made dance. In her remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, Beyoncé describes how her “hips tick-tock” – “inviting listeners to create their own version of the dance”, Molanphy says.

The 20-year-old New Zealander Benee did not have TikTok when her song Supalonely sparked a dance challenge in early February. “I got it to look at people dancing to my song,” she says from her home in Auckland. Six weeks later, it peaked at No 18 in the UK – the self-pitying lyrics (“I’m a lonely bitch”) resonating in quarantine: at the time of writing, it is soundtracking 12.2m videos on TikTok. Although plays do not bolster chart positions or revenues, it drives engagement, says Benee. “People go out of their way to find you on other platforms. There are kids who will comment saying: ‘I spent an hour learning this dance, so you’d better like it.’”

It is Gen Z “who are driving these hits – not the festival generation,” says Sammy Andrews of Deviate Digital marketing agency. “They’re potentially changing the narrative for what a big summer track is.” Pop-punk band Simple Plan’s 2002 track I’m Just a Kid recently went platinum after sparking a dance challenge. That said, Andrews adds, “there is no direct equivalent” on digital for how a song might come alive on stage. Festivals are a crucial source of field data for streaming services’ playlist pickers, says Charlie Harding, co-host of podcast Switched on Pop: “That’s the only place you can really gauge the fervour of a fandom.”

While making her album Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa had conceived the song Hallucinate, a shimmering slice of disco with a rippling chorus made for a mass singalong, as the centrepiece of her live set. “She always talked about dropping that record for Glastonbury,” says Joe Kentish, who signed Lipa. “For her in particular, those mass cultural moments are super important.”

After Glastonbury was cancelled, Lipa was named Spotify’s most-played artist from the festival’s planned lineup. It is emerging artists who are thought to be suffering from the loss of live music. “I was supposed to be breaking this year,” says singer-songwriter Becky Hill. A semifinalist on The Voice in 2012, she had a UK No 1 with Gecko (Overdrive) in the summer of 2014. This was set to be Hill’s “perfect year”, with her first US show at California festival Coachella, followed by a UK tour, then the festival circuit – all now cancelled. Even as Spotify’s second-most streamed UK female artist on Spotify (after Lipa), Hill says, she worries that this fallow period “has pushed me back”.

But Sulinna Ong, Spotify’s head of music for the UK and Ireland, says summer’s social, joyful essence “is just being played out online, rather than in a field”. Streams of its “summer BBQ” and “summer garden” playlists have increased by 67% on last year, with spikes often correlating to the weather. There is also an appetite for “feel-good, party music”, says Ong – such as Harry Styles’s Watermelon Sugar, originally released in December 2019 and currently No 6 in the UK charts. Streams of Spotify’s Ibiza-themed playlists are also up by 45% from 2019.

“There’s something very strange about making club music when there are no clubs open,” says Guy Lawrence, half of Disclosure, whose third album has been pushed back to next month. He says people want to hear “uplifting, positive, energetic” dance music: “Every time we’ve released a song this year, the comments have been like: ‘This song will save lockdown.’” The singer Kiesza, who recorded Hideaway in 2014, had been set to make her comeback this summer after recovering from a car accident in 2017 – but in the absence of live shows, she says fans have been sending her clips of their “solo dance parties” to her new single. She is glad she decided to forge ahead with her album release: “I think it’s helped a lot of people through quarantine.”

The post-Covid-19 boom in streaming is testament to the power of pop music as “a source of escape and relief”, says Nate Sloan, Harding’s co-host on Switched on Pop. Indeed, after years of “sad bangers” swamping the charts, pop has been getting faster and (lyrically) happier in 2020, with the average tempo of the 20 bestselling songs being 122 beats per minute: the highest it has been since 2009. Take Rain on Me, Gaga’s duet with Grande, from her album Chromatica, an upbeat dance song with the chorus, “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive”. The former UK No 1 carries “a message of resilience that resonates right now”, says Sloan. Beyoncé’s Black Parade – released on Juneteenth, marking the emancipation of enslaved people – similarly connects celebration with protest, he says, affirming “that activism can be joyful and positive”.

For many, protest may be their predominant “communal activity” this summer, says Molanphy. If DaBaby’s Rockstar, with its Black Lives Matter reference, continues to climb the charts, “you can’t say that the songs of the summer did not reflect where we were at as a culture this year”, he says. Abdurraqib says chants of Kendrick Lamar’s Alright and This Is America by Childish Gambino have soundtracked his limited time outdoors, previous years’ pop songs reborn as protest chants. Both have climbed the streaming charts since June, testament to how the current political moment is, according to Molanphy, “rightfully drowning out the present pop”.

Ultimately, analytics tools such as Sodatone (showing worldwide spikes in song-listening stats) and Shazam (an app identifying songs, which compiles user searches into charts) cannot replace that in-person response to a hit. “Being in a club and watching the euphoria and connection still counts for a lot in A&R,” says Guy Moot, head of publisher Warner Chappell. “That simple reaction of hearing a great song and being in a bar and going: ‘What’s that?’”

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