In the wild animal kingdom that is the pop music landscape, the Summer Jam is a fickle beast. You know a good summer jam when you hear it, because it sounds like getting buzzed off wine coolers feels: sweet, reckless, and not unlikely to give you a headache later. A summer jam should sound like it has maybe always existed in a parallel universe, blasted on repeat since the beginning of time, perhaps from the speakers of an immortal Chevy Malibu doing perpetual donuts around the sun.
This might sound formulaic. But a really good summer jam, it turns out, is surprisingly tough to fabricate in a laboratory setting, even given today's technology. (I count Max Martin as a form of technology.)
No, the recipe for a real Song of the Summer is still something of an elusive mystery. There's the fact that it must sound good played very loud, in large groups of people enjoying vastly different levels of intelligence, education, and sobriety. Lyrically, this usually means a commitment to blissful, purposeful inanity -- lines about drinking and putting your hands in the air are a good bet if you want to get a bunch of drunk people excited about putting their hands in the air. Songs that reference the season itself, warm temperatures and/or the sun never hurt either.
But good summer jams also have a dash of something human, something precious, temporal and desperate: an awareness that ice cream melts, that tans fade, that the dreamy lifeguard you met at sleepaway camp is terrible at writing letters, and now that you think about it, conversation never was his strong point. Good summer jams have a bottom to them. In 1998, Len's "Steal My Sunshine" delivered the stoney, sun-baked goods. The summer after I graduated high school, the suburban wistfulness of Nelly and Kelly Rowland's "Dilemma" ruled the day. Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith's "Summertime" is, it should go without saying, a quintessential if entirely literal summer jam.
Here's the rub: Summer jams are far from egalitarian. Summer of 2013 delivered Robin Thicke's problematic-guilty-pleasure "Blurred Lines" and Daft Punk's inescapable disco banger "Get Lucky." By contrast, summer 2016 got only Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling!," notable mostly for its children's movie tie-in and for making a shit-ton of money despite being a middling, whiter approximation of Pharrell's then-two-year-old song "Happy" (which was of course a great summer jam despite being released in November).
Still, the insatiable appetites of the market demand that several dozen wannabe Songs of the Summer are churned out each May, like so many promising, neatly wrapped Wonka bars. Which will contain the golden ticket??
The fun, of course, is that we, as consumers, get to decide. It is with this lengthy preamble that I give you: a sampling of 2017's contenders.
Katy Perry, "Bon Appetit"
Bracketing for a moment the one-trick-pony of this song's central double entendre, which makes Austin Powers' sex jokes look like a masterclass in subtlety -- "I'm spread like a buffet," really? -- this is just a depressingly bland song. Following February's reggae-tinged "Chained to the Rhythm" (which has grown on me, kinda!), Perry's going for something like dancehall-flecked EDM here (the presence of Migos is supposed to make that seem authentic, I guess?). But the result is awkward at best, even before you consider the squirmy video. For context, summer jam-wise, Perry was once nearly untoppable: "California Gurls," "Teenage Dream," are you kidding me? I like her, but these days she's suffering from the ultimate cool-killer: Trying too hard.
Selena Gomez, "Bad Liar"
A refreshingly lo-fi offering from a pop singer I've mostly found to be the human equivalent of a high-budget Target commercial [Note: Emma has been fired for saying this. —Ed.], this song has a fun, late disco/early New Wave feel that lines up with the tempo of chewing bubble gum and likely serves as a great accompaniment for driving with the windows down (have not tried this yet). It does unabashedly lift the bassline from the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," and I also think Gomez sounds like she's doing a straight-up Lorde impression, but I love "Psycho Killer" and I like Lorde, so, I guess, whatever?
DJ Khaled ft. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne, "I'm the One"
This song feels sort of like DJ Khaled's bar mitzvah, for lack of a better term to signify that age-old transition from sentient internet meme to actual human celebrity made out of (and capable of creating) large piles of money. The tune has a laid-back, simple, lightly nostalgic warmth to it, somehow made more earnest by the approximately zero effort this all-star crew put into the video: I imagine the direction was like "I dunno, find us a mansion with a pool and a hedge maze and some girls, we have Bieber and Lil Wayne and Chance here, it's not like we need this thing to be interesting." A male Divas Live, if you will. [Note: Emma has been hired back. —Ed.] Chance also raps about dating a lady who doesn't have any furniture, and Wayne pretends a bottle of liquor is a phone. What I'm trying to avoid here is that I like "I'm the One" more than I want to, in a way that feels like it's somehow against my will. That's a marker of a good summer song.
Miley Cyrus, "Malibu"
I'm so bored by this song I can't even muster up strong feelings about it, positive or negative. (Just read this excellent Awl piece instead.)
Carly Rae Jepsen, "Cut To the Feeling"
Say what you will about Canada's tiniest Madonna wannabe, but Carly Rae Jepsen understands how good pop songs capture the ascent of something -- the sparkle of a new relationship, the beginning of a warm night, the power of pure, rose-colored potential. She's also figured out that our ADD-addled brains do best with short songs comprised nearly entirely of chorus, the first instance of which should arrive less than 30 seconds in for maximum endorphin rush, which makes "Cut to the Feeling" something of a thesis statement for the singer. This song is made of pixie dust and dance-movie training montages and vodka-spiked lemonade sipped from a Big Gulp down by the boardwalk. You're allowed to think Jepsen sounds like a chipmunk or that her songs have no meat on their bones, but this is unequivocally a good summer song. (Or, as the kids say, a bop.)
Haim, "Want You Back"
Are Haim derivative? Kinda. Am I okay with a sister trio who make not entirely original folk-pop songs in the style of a Fleetwood Mac cover band with way better production value? Pretty much. I delighted in listening to this song four times in a row the day they released it, but then I forgot about it entirely, not unlike a delicious but ultimately unsatisfying extra-large tub of fake-butter popcorn at so many summer blockbusters.
Train, "Drink Up"
Here's a sentence I never imagined I'd type: Jim Breuer, you're better than this.
That was one of several thoughts that raced through my confused, shame-ridden mind one Thursday afternoon a couple weeks ago when I found myself watching the above video at my desk, as my brow furrowed and my jaw dropped cartoonishly to the floor. "What ... Train? ... why ... Marshawn?!" I sputtered, before hitting "replay."
Three times. Three times in a row. That's my professional recommendation for the minimum number of times you're going to need to watch this video to absorb the fantastically inconceivable stupidity of its premise and the naked desperation of its execution. For those of you who can't stomach that or have, like, things to do, the plot of the music video is this:
Pat Monahan, the lead singer of the San Francisco band Train, a group best known for "Drops of Jupiter," the song Most Likely to Make You Look Forward to Your Root Canal When It's Inevitably Played In Your Dentist's Waiting Room, is friends with an ethnically diverse group of middle-aged comedians, namely George Lopez, Jim Breuer and Ken Jeong. Monahan is best friends with Marshawn Lynch, Oakland's prodigal running back, a.k.a. "Beast Mode," but in the video's plot, Lynch failed to invite any of these genuine friends to his nuptials. (This already dubious premise is made sadder by the fact that the very week this video dropped, Lynch threw an actual party with his actual friends, including Mistah F.A.B. and Draymond Green, to celebrate his return to Oakland. But I digress.)
The comedian crew, being a fun-loving group of guys led by known fun guy Pat Monahan of the band Train, decide to crash the wedding. If you are now wondering "Do hijinks ensue that are ripped directly from Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, spliced frequently with awkward product placements from Instagram and Snapchat?" I can tell you enthusiastically that THEY DO.
It might be noted here that this anthemic, Black Eyed Peas-esque drinking song is something of a departure for Train, who as previously noted mostly make bleating, watery love songs that compare relationships to soy lattes. Not here:
So take this moment
And put it in a glass
If you want a sip, I got memories on tap
Drink up, drink up
Write your name on a cup
Drink up, drink up
Write your name on a cup
I turned to the lyrics website Genius.com for some help interpreting this complex metaphor.
I love you, Genius.com.
I also, despite my best intentions, have grown to love this song. Call me crazy, but if there's one thing I find endearing it's an expensive, 11th-hour bid for relevance from aging pop culture figures receiving terrible advice from their marketing teams.
"I found this year's 'BYHB!'" I excitedly wrote to several friends, referring to my own personal Song of the Summer 2015, a summer in which I damaged or ended multiple friendships by texting people the link to "BYHB" once a week for several months.
"I hate you," my boss replied. It was the correct response.
But it also solidified for me that I had found it: the summer song that this incredibly stupid year deserves. The best song to blast this summer out of your imaginary Chevy Malibu at the beach, at top volume, just after the California sun sinks into the horizon but before the third wine cooler kicks in. After all, September will be here soon enough, and that romance that seemed so simple when everything was Slurpees and drive-ins and flirting with Danny down by the snack bar will soon get more complicated, as these things inevitably do, especially when you learn about John Travolta being a Scientologist.
What I'm trying to say here, my friends, is that we'll deal with the headache tomorrow. For now? I'm sorry. But drink up.