By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
In choosing the Summer Song each year, I’ve always reached out toward the end for reader feedback. Much of what makes a song “the summer song” is indeed group consensus and shared experience. And the choice of the Ross on Radio readership is clear. But there were times over the last week where I was tempted to go rogue.
A week ago, I was drifting toward The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” Competing against “Cheerleader,” which had been around long enough to be Australia’s song of the summer, there was something exciting about a mid-June release that was already inescapable by mid-July. Besides, after a few years of career implosion by Song of Summer artists, the Weeknd was already established as an artist of substance, and had already beaten the one-hit wonder jinx. The only possible stopper was that, like several other perfectly serviceable recent hits, “Can’t Feel My Face” still felt a little like the two summer contenders of 2013. The title referred to being numb, but it might have as easily been called “Get Blurry.”
A few nights ago, I started wondering if I should go for the more provocative choice: Silento, “Watch Me (Whip/Ne Ne),” one of the summer hits that could truly be called a cultural phenomenon. A few nights ago, I walked by a neighbor’s house to hear him and a friend on the front porch riffing on it. But by then I knew that it had already infiltrated middle-aged America through their kids in a way that, say, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” never did. According to Chris Granozio, the audio engineer/DJ at Yankee Stadium, it was also the biggest of any summer song in terms of fan reaction/requests (after only “Uptown Funk”) this summer.
“Watch Me” also joins “Trap Queen” as an abrupt throwback to R&B and hip-hop’s last moments of top 40 dominance in the mid-‘00s. Like Jay Z’s “Holy Grail” two years ago, it was as if pop audiences wanted hip-hop back, but didn’t know where to start, except where they left off. Choosing “Watch Me” would have been a shot across the bow of the whole process, and yet, when Richard Linklater makes “Boyhood II,” it will be the song used to signify that we are now in summer 2015.
Boost 101.9 St. Louis OM Mike Couchman made an impassioned plea, on behalf of Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” for me to overturn my ground rule that the summer song must be uptempo. Couchman reeled off a series of summer ballad smashes—“Right Here Waiting,” “Vision of Love,” “Everything I Do (I Do It for You),” “I Swear,” “Waterfalls.” Couchman’s list is hard to deny, and Billboard may yet agree with him about Khalifa. For myself, I’m looking for energy from both the Summer Song winner and the format. And even going back to “Alone Again (Naturally),” summers dominated by ballads often turn out to be slack times for the format itself.
I’ve heard some grumbling about the available product this summer. I’ve done some grumbling myself, not so long ago. I’m less concerned about the available product than the way that radio deploys it. Top 40 would have been even better this summer if it had gotten to “Ex’s & Oh’s” or “Renegades” or “Uma Thurman” sooner. But I enjoyed what it did play.
And in the end, though, the reader e-mail was firmly in favor of Omi. “Cheerleader” was perhaps the first time since “California Gurls” that a song remained a front-runner from Memorial Day to Labor Day, although there were a few negative whispers at the beginning (one PD told me that the women he played it for didn’t like it) and PDs who came up to me midsummer and admitted they didn’t like it at first.
It’s hard to come up with a more profound case for “Cheerleader” than the one made for it in May: “reggae + dance music = extra summer smash insurance in 2015.” But after “Blurred Lines” and “Fancy,” the song’s sweetness probably counts for something as well. You can also say that about “Shut Up and Dance” or “See You Again” after a glut of “Elastic Heart”-type midtempo harshness in the format.
When we gather to handicap the Summer Song of 2016, objects in the rear-view mirror will be both closer and further than they may appear now. Seeing “Don’t Stop Believin’” emerge as a far more durable hit from fall 1981 than “Physical” teaches you that. Major Lazer’s “Lean On” may loom larger than any of the songs discussed here. Demi Lovato’s late entrant, “Cool for the Summer,” released too late to be the Summer Song, will still be remembered as a hit of summer 2015, not just a few weeks’ worth. But “Cheerleader” has done a good job of defining this summer, and is the Summer Song of 2015. And now your thoughts are welcome.