To every season there is a song—several songs, actually. But for every "Autumn Leaves" or "It Might As Well Be Spring" or "A Hazy Shade of Winter," there are dozens of songs about summer, many of them familiar classics that remain oldies radio staples. It's not hard to see why. A bunch of leaves signifying lost love, a couple of buds on the trees spelling evanescent hope—these can't compete against sunshine, time off, and flings.
A good summer song takes you somewhere. Think of The Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk," an alluring scenario of one man's escape from the heat, and the madness of the world, "on a blanket with my baby." The details—the sounds of a carousel, the smell of hot dogs and French fries—evoke the season on a sensory level. So does The Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City," its grinding opening notes and traffic noises conjuring a heat-ghosted breakdown lane on the highway to hell; or The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," the musical equivalent of nodding off in a shaded hammock. Those songs aren't just concerned with summer; they pulse with its fulgent essence.
- Illustration by Chris Williams
Heat may have become such a prominent element in songs of this period because there was no escape from it. In 1965, a year after The Drifters released "Boardwalk" and a year before the other pair, just ten percent of American households had air conditioning. To varying degrees, America sweltered together, which made a song about ditching the crowd for a beach-blanket tryst all the more relatable to the radio-listening populace. By the mid-eighties, as A.C. caught on, people had stopped writing about summer the old way. Chart hits like Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" and The Motels' "Suddenly Last Summer" were powered by icy synths; they didn't waft the warmth of the season so much as emit temperature-controlled coolness.
In the next decade, somewhere around the time that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince resurrected "Summertime," the summer song turned into the summer jam—or the summer anthem, something like that. These songs are less interested than their predecessors in summer per se. They're principally bound by the fact that they were big hits during the summer months and work great at pool parties. Think Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," which vied for summer-song dominance with Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" in 2013. At the moment, Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling!" looks like the one to beat, and OK, he has sunshine in his pocket. But you don't exactly feel its glow. He's telling, not showing. The modern summer song has become analogous to a popcorn movie: catchy, lightweight, fun.
In some distant summer, these songs will feel antiquated, too, and people will wonder whatever became of those jams that defined summer as we knew it in 2016. You can count on that, just as sure as the days grow short when you reach September.