Every summer, like clockwork, we get a song that stands out as The Song of the Summer. It’s the pop song you can’t escape, the feel-good tune that’s blaring from every car stereo and played at every club and cookout. Most of the time, there’s a clear consensus on what that song is — there is no doubt that Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” owned 2003, or that Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” dominated 2008, or that Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was unequivocally it last year. But sometimes we have a lot of great options, and it’s more subjective. Take 1999, for example: It was the summer of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills,” LEN’s “Steal My Sunshine,” and Smash Mouth’s “All Star” all at once.
It’s pretty obvious when the Song of the Summer has arrived — usually it’s a done deal by the beginning of July — and that’s why this summer is a bit strange. Right now, the most obvious contender for the crown is Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” — it’s a huge radio hit, it’s selling very well, it has inspired viral parodies, and it will definitely be played at most parties you will attend through September. But all the same, it feels just slightly off: Too mellow, maybe? It’s groovy and fun, but conspicuously lacking the bombast and urgency of a classic summer hit. It sounds like a song of the summer, but not the song of the summer.
The second-best contender is Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” It’s been around a little longer than “Get Lucky” and has more traction on the radio; it’s one of the biggest songs of the year so far, no question. (It also features Pharrell on guest vocals, which guarantees that you can’t listen to pop radio for more than a half hour without hearing his voice right now.) But just like “Get Lucky,” it’s just a touch too chill — definitely not a bad quality for summertime music, but it doesn’t quite scratch that summer-jam itch. Also, for a song that is so popular, it hasn’t yet inspired any notable memes or parodies. It occupies a similar space as Maroon 5’s “Payphone” last year: a ubiquitous hit that has very little cultural impact.
The rest of the summer-hit contenders are either even more sleepy, or just lack the momentum necessary to reach critical mass by midsummer. Selena Gomez’s “Come & Get It,” Ariana Grande and Mac Miller’s “The Way,” Mariah Carey and Miguel’s “#Beautiful,” and Demi Lovato’s “Heart Attack” are hits, sure, but haven’t connected beyond their base audiences. Florida Georgia Line and Nelly’s “Cruise (Remix)” is a smash and is custom built for summer driving, but if you ignore country music, you probably haven’t heard it. (A true Song of the Summer cannot be avoided.)
So what else is there? There’s Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” which is blowing up on the radio and certainly feels like a proper summer hit, but is over a year old by now. (Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” was in this zone last summer — a big summer hit that was tarnished slightly by its sloooooow ascent to the highest reaches of the charts.) Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” is hugely popular, but it’s more about that duo’s continued success than something pegged to the season. Kanye West’s new album Yeezus will be all over the place soon, but going on the two angry, deeply political tracks he performed on Saturday Night Live, this record probably won’t have a fun summertime hit. Justin Timberlake seems to be coasting on the momentum of “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors” until he puts out the second half of The 20/20 Experience in the fall, and Beyoncé seems content to keep teasing us with random new songs like “Grown Woman” and “Bow Down” than push a proper single.
Even if the current pop hits fail to boil over to Song of the Summer status and no established stars come out of the woodwork with a huge hit, there’s still hope that something can come out of nowhere and go viral. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” — still a Top 20 hit, by the way! — did just that last summer, though they didn’t fully explode into the mainstream until the fall. There doesn’t seem to be a contender on this front just yet, but it’s impossible to predict this stuff. With a bit of luck, there are a few songs that could tip over to left-field hit status — Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young” is just at the edge of crossing over to radio, the New Zealand teen singer Lorde’s song “Royals” is rapidly building buzz, and the British dance duo Disclosure’s new single “When a Fire Starts to Burn” is exciting, catchy, and perfect for dumb summer fun, and it has a video that is ripe for parody. It may seem like a fallow season right now, but the summer is still young and anything could happen.