What Makes a Song Into a Song of the Summer?

Fans loved Steve Aoki's recent show at Talking Stick Resort.EXPAND
Fans loved Steve Aoki's recent show at Talking Stick Resort.
Jim Louvau

"Summer, it turns me upside down / Summer, summer, summer / It’s like a merry-go-round …” That’s what the Boston-born rock band The Cars said about the warmest of the seasons in their ’80s hit song, “Magic.” Both sweet and quirky, theirs is one of a zillion takes on summer romance. And romantic unions, from hookups to breakups, are only one of several subjects commonly present in summertime songs.

Though it’s probably not worth fighting over, there are folks out there who enjoy debating what makes a song a “summer” song. For some, it’s a song of the summer: a hit tune that tops the charts while it’s hot out. Its ubiquitous presence helps solidify the the single as a soundtrack to the lives of the masses. Other people, however, could give a fuck about when the song was unleashed to the world. For them, it’s the insinuation or direct mention of the season — anything that may be indicative of summer.

There’s no need to get riled up about it because, turns out, there’s no right or wrong answer.

Chances are, if you’re a music fan, you like a lot of songs, and the ones you dig about summer aren’t limited to just one of those scenarios. Before Billboard started charting hits back in the late 1950s, plenty of songs about summer existed. Ska-punkers Sublime didn’t just come up with that “Summertime and the livin’ is easy” lyric, y’know. Jump back in time with Billie Holiday’s “Summertime” from 1936 to hear that vocal delivered with more sweetness and soul. And while you’re there, listen Jo Stafford’s “The Things We Did Last Summer,” and Larry Clinton’s “Summer Souvenirs.”

If your world is bettered by top-10 tracks, then Pharrell’s “Happy” might’ve been more your speed. Those clinging to the ’80s might remember 1984 a great summer, when Prince dropped “When Doves Cry” and Bruce Springsteen got everyone “Dancing in the Dark.” Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” from 1970 is a song released in the summer, about the summer. Another one of those is Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park,” from ’62.

Every season has its music, obviously. Wait in line at a grocery store anytime between November 1 and December 31 if you want to drive that fact home. But it’s summer that truly dominates the musical landscape when it comes to capturing a particular time of the year. And the reason why isn’t complicated. The Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s blitz, while not without its sadness, has just a couple of focal points. It’s a religious celebration for many, and for others it’s simply a time to congregate with loved ones and make some merry.

The winter holidays are so commercially driven that many people strive to make everything perfect. To best themselves from prior years, to find the ultimate gifts, host the top party, the kind of stuff that really has nothing to do with the “let there be peace on earth” sentiment. Trust me, ain’t nobody ever found peace in that six-hour Christmas Eve line at Best Buy.

It’s just so loaded with pressure, and that’s how summer kicks its ass.

Summer is all about taking that tight cap that holds life’s bullshit in place and unlocking it, unscrewing it, and sighing into a state of relaxation as all the gunk and pressure releases itself. Hell, even if the release is only a temporary fix, it still feels heavenly, because at its core, that is what summertime is all about: freedom.

Why wouldn’t we be nostalgic for our summer childhoods, before adult responsibilities came into play? It’s like what Alice Cooper reminded you of that in “School’s Out,” no more studying, no more jaded, grumpy authority figures bossing you around all day. And if you’re out of school, that easily transfers to demanding bosses, nagging co-workers, and anything contained in the daily grind. There are no rules or standards on how to do summer. Load it up with activities or lay by some water and soak up the sun; it’s certainly the “you do you” time of the year.

Bands like The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, The Ventures, and Dick Dale created music that both reflected and shaped beach and surf culture. From catching waves and falling in love to cruising in some cool hot rod or another, they helped define a summer sound. Every genre, though, is loaded with summer classics.

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Country singer Brad Paisley’s “Beat This Summer” talks about a summertime love that can’t be topped. The country-fried and Trump-loving Kid Rock had a big hit with “All Summer Long.” Jake Owen’s “Beachin’” follows in Kid’s footsteps and manages to be maybe a little more trashy, if that’s possible. Clint Black got ready for the season with “Summer’s Comin’,” back in 1994, and in 2010, Keith Urban had a “Long Hot Summer.” Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” is a rockabilly classic that explores some of the downsides of being on vacation, like when you want to just chill and go on dates but you also have to hold down a job.

Hip-hop’s got a bunch, too. The early ’90s barely got started when DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince gave us “Summertime,” encouraging with its catchy chorus us to “sit back and unwind.” Chance the Rapper has “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” and 213 told us about “Another Summer,” in 2004.

The Fourth of July is a summer marker that gets its fair share of attention. Bruce Springsteen’s “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” and X’s more punk “Fourth of July” come to mind, as both tug at the old ticker a bit. Speaking of punk, The Ramones took us on a trip to “Rockaway Beach,” and newer acts from the world of alternative music have laid down some fun summer songs of their own. The Ataris took on Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” which touches on the starkness of the season — as well as other things in life — coming to a close. New Found Glory has “Summer Thing, Don’t Mean a Thing,” and Blink 182 have penned more than one, including “Feeling This” and “I Miss You.”

The songs and styles are all over the place. It’s the combined elements of summer’s magic that threads through them all, the good and even the bad.

The heat, the love, the heartbreak, the laziness, the edgy sadness in anticipation of its end — all of it. What happens in the summer leaves an indelible mark.

Jonathan Richman — another Massachusetts rocker and the founder of The Modern Lovers — perfectly captures the way the season sticks with us in his song “That Summer Feeling,” and how it creates a longing that lingers, at times even despite the actual experiences.

“When the playground that just was all dirt comes hauntin’ / And that little girl that called you a flirt, memory comes tauntin’ / You pick these things apart, they’re not that appealin’ / You put them together and you’ll get a certain feeling / That summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.”


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