It seems with each year, the hallmarks of a summer song seem to change as often as the seasons. Like Potter Stewart once said about pornography, "I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it." The same is true when you hear a great summer jam.
And while today's summer song might be anything from Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend" to Maroon 5's "Payphone," the further you go back in the charts, the more obvious the summer songs become, with most of them actually having the word "summer" in them. Listen to the lyrics and there's no mistaking the intent or the content. Summer songs are not just meant for the young at heart, but for the young, period.
"Let me tell you something about rock and roll ... this is music for kids in Grade 8," says professor Robert Harris, musicologist at Laurentian University. "Donnie [Kirshner] told me that Carole King had ... when she was writing "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", nine year olds, 10 year olds in mind. [King] was only 17 but this was music, literally, for kids in Grade 9."
By 1960, there were over 15 million 10-14 year olds in the United States, with baby boomers being the 13-14 year olds of that pack. America was relatively flush at that time, and these kids were given allowances of probably no more than a dollar a week. That’s approximately 15 million disposable dollars a week in the hands of teens and pre-teens.
Fifteen million allowance dollars over 52 weeks equals in excess of $750 billion a year (and that’s in 1960 dollars) that these kids could spend on chewing gum, comic books or, you guessed it, records. There’s your formula. It’s no wonder record companies were writing songs for kids who were 13. And it’s no accident that they ramped it up in the summer months.
The second wave in the perfect storm that birthed the summer song was that, while Nashville cranked out country music and Detroit churned out R&B/soul, pop music was coming out of New York, where summer actually meant something. Had the music come out of California, where it’s summer all the time, the feel of pop music would have been very different.
Added to all this was the fact that the average lifespan of a song in the '60s was about six weeks. It made perfect sense to record a song in May, release it in June, and if it stayed on the radio until August it had a good run. The immediate result was that summer songs were about being on summer vacation. The songs didn’t sound all that different from what else was on the charts at the time, but the lyrical content and attitude changed.
"Heat Wave," Martha and the Vandellas (summer 1963)
"The Twist," Chubby Checker (summer 1960)
Not surprisingly, as the boomers progressed, pop music went right along with them. But by 1966, those 14 year olds were now 20, and listened to the Doors, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. Pop music got serious.
“As the market wasn’t kids in Grade 10 anymore, the idea of writing songs about summer vacation didn’t make any sense," says Harris. “So the summer song became the song that was allowed to be pure pop, and that was OK.”
"Wouldn’t it be Nice," the Beach Boys (summer 1966)
We could have our guilty pleasures and not have to admit it because everyone else was doing it, too. The groundwork had already been laid in the youth of the boomers: the rules of aural engagement changed in the summer. And as swing fell out of favour and rock 'n' roll evolved and began to rock a bit harder and take itself more seriously, pop music continued to be that space on the musical landscape where every summer we could just relax. That vestige remains today.
“Cee-Lo’s "F--k You" was a summer song," Harris answers, asked for an example of summer musical surrender. "It has nothing to do with summer, but it has that pure pop feeling. We’re just allowed to enjoy a well made song that has no redeeming features. It isn’t about anything. It’s just fun.”
It's that simple. The formula was economics rubbing up against geography, and the fluke is in the sound. We continued to surrender every summer when Kylie Minogue couldn’t get us out of her head, Whitney Houston wanted to dance with somebody and Rihanna had issues with her umbrella (-ella, ella, eh). Despite their subtle differences, they are all cut from the same sonic summertime fabric woven 50 years ago. This year, Carly Rae Jepsen's going to call us, maybe, and we'll surrender once again.
Listen to your ultimate summer songs playlist
CBC Music's 2012 Festival Guide
on Jul 04, 2012