In 1978, it was Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing.” In 1988, “Roll With It” by Steve Winwood. In 1998, it was Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy is Mine.” In 2008, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” “It” is the top hit of the summer, as measured by Billboard. The competition is heating up for 2018, with top songs bouncing around Billboard’s Songs of the Summer chart by the week. In the digital era, even music discovery app Shazam is offering an opinion about which songs will reach “top hit” status by Labor Day. We all know a catchy summer tune when we hear one, but what makes a summer hit? Here, we break down some of the biggest features these blockbuster songs have in common. Then, we’ll see whether history is useful in predicting 2018’s song of the summer.
Tempo has an astounding impact on the energy and pace of a song. Too slow, and audiences tune out; too fast, and audiences flee, feeling overwhelmed.
There’s a sweet spot for top summer hit tempo, and it may be closely linked to our physiology. “We know that 60 bpm [beats per minute] works. We know that 64 bpm works,” songwriter Stephan Moccio, who wrote the Miley Cyrus summer hit “Wrecking Ball,” tells the CBC. “Our hearts beat at certain specific rhythms.” Coordinating the tempo of a song to the most common heartbeat rhythms, Moccio implies, has a certain effect on our mental and emotional processes — and can drive our affinity for certain songs.
Whether or not the heart is involved, tempo can set the emotional tenor of a song before the first chord is struck. “Tempo clearly determines whether music sounds sad or happy,” concluded the authors of a 2016 study published in Frontiers of Computational Neuroscience, which tracked the relationships that connect tempo, note value (the perceived length of notes in relationship to the underlying beat) and emotional responses.
Finding the right tempo doesn’t just make a summer song relatable. It also makes it adaptable. “It wants to be high energy enough to dance to and chill enough to hang out to,” Scott Harris, who co-writes with singer Shawn Mendes, tells the CBC. A song that fits in only one type of summer venue is far less likely to become a hit than one that blends well into both high-energy and low-energy environments.
But tempo isn’t enough. “You still have to write those notes in successions,” Moccio said. “You still have to take those twelve different tones and come up with a melody, somehow.” As it turns out, there are predictable patterns to the melodies in summer hits, as well.
We’ve already dissected what makes an irresistible earworm. Many of the principles that apply to the hook of a top summer hit apply to the song more broadly, as well: the rising melodic lines, the choice of time signature, the use of repetition.
But the structure of a summer hit by itself is at once familiar and unique. “If there’s one particular trend that crops up again and again, it’s the 6415 chord loop, otherwise known as the A minor, F, C, G sequence,” Lucy Doyle wrote for M Magazine in 2017. Doyle named “Despacito” and The Cranberries’ “Zombie” as just two well-known songs that use this particular chord progression.
Minor keys are becoming more popular, musicologist Richard Witts told Doyle. In 2017, every song on the August Top Ten list was in a minor key except one (“Your Song” by Rita Ora). “It really comes from the use of a more sophisticated repertoire of harmonies that originate from rhythm and blues, and jazz,” said Witts. As repertoire becomes more sophisticated, summer hits are starting to have that “little something extra” that makes them unpredictable, whether it’s unusual instrumentation, distinctive voices or the 30-second guitar introduction that made “Despacito” a surprise hit for many musicologists, including Witts.
And the hook, of course, plays a role in turning a summer release into a summer hit. Currently, a wide range of top summer hits use a hook that reappears in the chorus. “When the real chorus comes round, the audience’s ear has heard it before so it seems even more hooky,” musicologist Joe Bennett told Doyle
Many summer hits stick in our memories as belonging to a particular season because they’re specifically summer-themed. It’s easy to imagine listening to songs about the beach or bonfires when the days are long and warm — and when we’ve been trained for decades to associate summer-themed lyrics with their analogous season.
“In the 60s, pop built a micro industry around the notion that kids had even more leisure time in the summer and needed a soundtrack for it,” Chicago Tribune music writer Greg Kot wrote for the BBC in 2014. The result was a long string of hits with overtly summer-themed lyrics, from Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” to The Beach Boys’ long list of surf and summer driving-themed hits.
But summer hits “don’t have to be quite so literal,” said Kot. “What unites most of them through the last couple of decades is that they’re energetic and at least sound upbeat, even when they’re not.” Like the need for an upbeat-yet-chill tempo, upbeat-yet-chill lyrics lend themselves well to a wide range of summer settings, from lounging by the pool to a wild dance party.
Today, the most common summer hit lyrics focus on romantic relationships. A data analysis of lyrics in the biggest summer hits turned up four words used more often than any others: “love,” “baby,” “feel,” and “time,” musicologist Joe Bennett told Doyle. And they nearly always are paired with a rhyming word. Above all, “lyrics have to be sincere,” Moccio says. “And that requires vulnerability, which requires pain, which requires work.”
How Do Shazam’s ‘Song of the Summer’ Candidates Stack Up?
At this point, we have a model that’s potentially robust enough to be predictive. Any good song of the summer candidate should have:
- A tempo that can fit both high-energy and chill moods
- A melody with a little something extra
- Upbeat-yet-chill lyrics that reveal vulnerability
So, let’s return to Shazam’s predictions for song of the summer. Billboard’s Kevin Rutherford notes that, at the time of selection, five of Shazam’s 10 predictions were already charting in the Hot 100’s top 10:
- Drake’s “Nice for What”
- Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”
- Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry”
- Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up”
- Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin’s “I Like It”
Let’s run each of these five frontrunners through our model to see whether any of them have what it takes to become the iconic track for summer 2018.
‘Nice for What?’
At first glance, this song doesn’t seem to fit the bill at all.
At 93 BPM, Drake’s big summer hit moves a little fast for low-energy moods. And while that Lauryn Hill sample gives the listener some lyrical vulnerability (“There for me, there for me, said you’d be there for me / Cry for me, cry for me, you said you’d die for me”), those sped-up, stepped-on vocals reduce Hill’s lines to mere texture. Drake isn’t offering up any vulnerability in his verses.
All that said, the song is irresistible. “It’s fast instead of slow; its chorus is memorable but inimitable; it’s structurally unsound, opting to meander rather than repeat,” writes Rolling Stone’s Brendan Klinkenberg. “There’s a lot that shouldn’t work, from the bounce-indebted beat to the very idea of a Drake-led female empowerment anthem. And yet, it’s clearly working.”
‘This Is America’
Childish Gambino’s first No. 1 hit is an important song, but it’s not the song of the summer. The lyrical content and the tempo nullify any possibility of attaching the all-important word “chill” to this track.
Vanity Fair’s Josh Duboff makes the point that the song’s message, the accompanying video and Donald Glover’s visibility will keep “This Is America” at the forefront of cultural conversations for months. But trying to attach song-of-the-summer status to the track does it a disservice. We should be talking about it as song of the year.
‘No Tears Left to Cry’
Ariana Grande’s entry to the song-of-the-summer competition follows our rubric to near perfection.
First, that tempo. Even at 122 BPM, the song wouldn’t be out of place on a dance floor or by the poolside. It’s malleable enough to fit most moods.
So are the lyrics. While “No Tears Left to Cry” implies a sad story, the lyrics actually tell an optimistic one (“Right now, I’m in a state of mind / I wanna be in, like, all the time / Ain’t got no tears left to cry / So I’m pickin’ it up, pickin’ it up”). Vulnerability? Check. Still upbeat? Check.
Finally, there’s that chorus melody. As writer Robert Joffred points out, it’s an unusually long melody for pop music. “The initial chord progressions starts vi-V-IV-V,” Joffred writes. “Super common, nothing special. This repeats. BUT THEN! The progression switches to I-ii-vi. This isn’t unheard of but it’s certainly not a common progression.” Those are the first three measures in the chorus. The fourth measure, he notes, adds one more twist: “[W]e ride out the I chord until the verse begins. This is a very rare case (in top 40 music) where we hear a long-form progression.”
That’s what we’re talking about when we say a melody “with a little something extra.”
Back to heartbeat rhythms. At 82 BPM, “Boo’d Up” has the tempo of a quickened pulse. That hi-hat topper and those handclaps are reminiscent of an earlier generation of R&B, too, so the song is able to communicate chill, romance, anticipation and nostalgia all at once.
All of those themes were present at the moment of the song’s inspiration, says songwriter Joelle James. She tells Fader that, originally, she wrote the song to a Johnny Gill sample. But she wasn’t actually trying to evoke old school R&B, nor was she trying to build around an invented phrase.
Instead, she was just trying to express something fundamental to herself. “All I knew was that I was in a situation where I wanted to tell this boy how I felt about him and I really couldn’t,” James says. “The only way I could was through music and a song. I wrote it and it literally almost wrote itself. I started off the first line, ‘Feelings, so deep in my feelings,’ and the whole thing kind of wrote itself from a real raw, authentic place that I was feeling at the moment.”
If it’s not the song of the summer, “Boo’d Up” will at least be the soundtrack to thousands of summer romances.
‘I Like It’
Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin hack the model a little bit by sampling Pete Rodriguez’s boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That.” That means the song doesn’t have to create its high-energy-but-chill vibe from scratch, but build upon an older version of it.
“The Rodriguez sample grants the song both vigor and intergenerational appeal; even family members who may balk at Cardi’s more brazen lines will be charmed into a two-step by the familiar Rodriguez refrain,” The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis writes. “The homage may be calculated, but its success—like Cardi’s—is irrefutable.”
Throw the model out with “I Like It.” The lyrics are triumphant rather than sincere and vulnerable. The melody you’ve heard before. The tempo doesn’t even tolerate chill moods.
But the moment that dragging bass first drops in? You know you’re hearing a special song. Music is a uniquely and universally human endeavor. So, while analyzing common features can help us understand how top summer hits are made, the real key to song-of-the-summer status might always be how the track speaks to us, collectively, in its given moment. That’s why “I Like It” is the song of the summer.
Image by: Aral Tasher, Tim Gouw