The Music Beat: How Do You Make the Song of the Summer?

June 18, 2024
Illustration of a cassette on a background picture of a music-themed scene.

The idea of the song of the summer has been around since the 1990s. But what makes a track the theme for those warmer months? (Illustration by Meredith Michael Smith, University Communications)

A group of Irish pre-teens may have written the song of the summer, according to the New York Times.

The kids wrote the upbeat track, “The Spark,” for a songwriting program. It quickly took over the internet just a few weeks ago, when a choreographed music video of the tweens rapping “think you can stop what we do? I doubt it!” in an Irish accent dropped. People across social media platforms declared it the “song of the summer.”

The jury’s out on whether you’ll be blasting “The Spark” at your Fourth of July barbecue or on your summer road trip. But chances are, you do have a song that will become the soundtrack of the season and can point to the songs that became themes of previous summers. Last summer, you might have been playing “Dance The Night” by Dua Lipa from the “Barbie” soundtrack, or “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2” by PinkPantheress and Ice Spice. Maybe 15 years ago, “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas was blaring from your speakers.

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The concept of the song of the summer dates to at least the 1990s, according to associate professor of media studies Jack Hamilton.

“It’s one of those things that once it’s coined, it seems natural, like it’s always been that way,” Hamilton, who is also a pop culture critic for Slate, said.

A summer song can belong to any musical genre – rap, pop, R&B, rock and beyond – but it must be high-energy.

“I can’t think of a song of the summer that was downbeat or sad. By definition, a song of the summer is a hit,” Hamilton said.

They are danceable, the kind of thing you can play while at the beach or in the car and get everyone to sing along with you.

The reason why we have a song of the summer, and not say, a song of the winter (except for some holiday music), is simple.

“During the summer, we’re doing all of these things where music would be playing – a pool party or a barbecue or something like that,” Hamilton said. “Summer is just a time when people congregate to do fun things.”

Despite its ubiquitous feeling, the phenomenon of the summer song may be something of a media construction (hence the New York Times story, and an abundance of others from outlets like GQ, The Washington Post and Variety). There are also plenty of podcast episodes from legacy and nontraditional media, plus social media speculation from pop fans.

Portrait of Professor Jack Hamilton.

Jack Hamilton, an associate professor of media studies, predicts that “Not Like Us” by Kendrick Lamar will be this year’s song of the summer. (University Communications photo)

“I’m obviously a big music person. I can’t really remember having that many conversations with friends, like, ‘What’s the song of the summer?’ I think that the concept is something that is largely fed by the media,” Hamilton said.

References to the song of the summer proliferate on social media, too, where the term has become something of a marketing tool. Emerging musicians will film themselves asking the camera, “Did I just write the song of the summer?” followed by the new track they’re trying to promote, dancing awkwardly to the beat.

Usually, though, those songs don’t take off. Landing on the song of the summer is a communal effort, happening in fan communities online or your own social circle. Companies often use songs of the summer that emerge organically in their advertisements.

“I think you want the impression that that’s happening organically, even though obviously people are promoting it, trying to make it happen,” Hamilton said.

The soundtracks to summer are upbeat and easy to sing or dance to, regardless of genre. They also often come out a couple months before summer begins.

“For something to take on song-of-summer status, there’s usually going to be something of a runway, because the other thing is, it’s got to have staying power,” Hamilton said. “Song of summer implies that it’s something people are listening to throughout the summer.”

Hamilton’s own prediction for the song of the summer certainly ticks off all those boxes: “Not Like Us,” by Kendrick Lamar, a diss track that blasts Canadian rapper Drake.

If you’re looking to reminisce on past summers, Hamilton made a playlist just for UVA Today readers, with some of his favorite summer songs.

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Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications