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Handicapping The Summer Song of 2014: This Ain’t the Summer of One posted on May 21st, 2014

By Sean Ross

If you don’t like the contenders for Summer Song of 2014, just wait. They’ll change.

If this column had been written in March, the leading candidate would have been Katy Perry’s “Birthday.” WWCK Flint, Mich., PD Jerry Noble led the charge, and he has a track record with these things, after early support of both “All Summer Long” and “Blurred Lines.” Now it’s looking like just another Perry hit.

If this column had been written in April, it would have been Ed Sheeran’s “Sing.” That song was still on programmers’ lists when I reached out, earlier this week. It’s No. 6 at this writing and Sheeran’s clear “hit single” breakthrough. But, as one program director noted, “It’s been six weeks already.”

At this writing, the PD momentum is with Ariana Grande f/Iggy Azalea’s “Problem.” Besides, Azalea looks to be providing her own Pharrell Williams-style competition with the already top 10 “Fancy.”

Then again, at this time last year, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was a fast-breaking hit, but no more, for most people, and the presumptive winner was Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

And not liking the contenders for Summer Song 2014 doesn’t seem to be a problem for most people. Unlike 2010 (“California Gurls” from the beginning) or last year (late-June upset), this will be more like 2011, where nobody argued with “Party Rock Anthem,” but nobody would have disputed “Give Me Everything” either.

To some extent, both a strong field and a seesaw battle are guaranteed these days. Consumer press speculation on the topic starts in the previous fall, in some cases. Labels have geared more of their release schedule to summer, including the Calvin Harris entry called “Summer,” even to the point where Q1 is no longer as exciting for new music.

So we will probably avoid the “Call Me Maybe” syndrome of a spring hit hanging around through the summer for lack of other candidates. There are still plenty of hits that take forever to connect (see “Happy”), but part of the excitement of “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” was that they weren’t hiding in plain sight for nine months. That didn’t hurt Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” but it does seem to have sapped some of the energy from “Birthday,” as does having a similar feel to “California Gurls.”

That doesn’t mean “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” were looking ahead musically. So even if “Birthday” doesn’t reclaim the summer crown for ’70s disco throwbacks, its usurpers are the Ed Sheeran song that invokes Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You” or the Ariana Grande song with a similar feel to “Thrift Shop.”

Of the current contenders, I’m inclined toward “Fancy,” just because it feels fresher, but I still wonder if I’m the only person who thinks of this non-crossover ’00s rap hit when I hear it. It’s also the poppiest distillation to date of the “Pong”-flavored hits that have ruled the R&B chart for the past few months (“Paranoid,” “Loyal,” “Show Me,” etc.).

Some random notes on other candidates:

Calling a song “Summer” will get Calvin Harris a summer hit. As with War in 1976, it probably won’t get him the summer hit (which went to “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” that year). He’s well-behind Grande and Azalea in PD mentions.

DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” got surprisingly few mentions. Timing may not carry it through the entire summer, but it is still a thematically appropriate summer party anthem. And DJ Snake has another one in the pipeline with the Dillon Francis collaboration “Get Low.”

“Rude” by Magic! is the biggest reggae summer contender in a while. Having been an Australian hit about six months ago and a Canadian hit in late fall, it comes to the U.S. having been both a winter and summer hit simultaneously.

Chromeo’s “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” is growing steadily at top 40, but still well behind most of the major contenders. But I’ve gotten unsolicited PD comments on it from the outset, and it did get a few more mentions when I reached out this week.

Usher’s “Good Kisser” is the fastest-growing R&B/hip-hop title this week. It’s getting only a handful of top 40 spins so far, but it’s definitely the song that has the interesting, off-kilter feel that “Blurred Lines” had at this time a year ago.

It’s hard to tell what Michael Jackson & Justin Timberlake’s “Love Never Felt So Good” is going to be at this point. Short-lived novelty? Surprise actual hit? If the latter, it will be Jackson’s first uptempo summer hit since “Wanna Be Starting Somethin’.”

There is still an uptempo Maroon 5 song coming in about a month. Another PD reports a new Nicki Minaj on the way. There are almost certainly 3-4 potential EDM anthems on the way before Labor Day.

Of the half-dozen alternative and triple-A songs that I cited last month as deserving candidates, only “Come With Me Now” by Kongos is in any way teed up as a pop hit at the moment. At this writing, its ascent is rapid by alternative crossover standards, but nowhere near the major candidates.

That said, I am in no way backing off my contention that alternative is full of songs that sound like pop hits (you can add Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)” and Dirty Heads’ “My Sweet Summer” to that list) regardless of whether they get there. Under any circumstances, there will be a major hit from a rock act this summer. Paramore’s “Ain’t It Fun” is no less rock than much of the alternative chart at the moment, but it says something about the current system that the band needed to not start at rock to finally have the pop hit they’ve deserved for years.

Country radio has been as overtly targeted with summer hits as pop radio for a while now. The country hits likely to be sent to pop radio for the summer were winter/spring hits: Jerrod Neiman’s “Drink to That All Night” (remixed with Pitbull) and Luke Bryan’s “Say It Again” (just peaking now). But there are a half-dozen overt candidates at the format, including Jake Owen’s “Beachin'” and Lady Antebellum’s just-released “Bartender.”

Finally, it is time to ponder the downside of having the Song of Summer. No artist has parlayed having one into a sustained hit streak since Perry in 2010. LMFAO managed one more legit hit in 2011 before breaking up. Jepsen released two more singles, then turned her attention to acting, but is still signed and back in the studio.

Then there’s Robin Thicke. He had a decade’s track record at urban AC and the industry’s respect for having earned a career over that time. After a few less successful follow-ups to “Blurred Lines” and one heavily publicized divorce, Thicke has become a consumer press punching bag, perhaps in retaliation for upstaging Daft Punk. Of course, Daft Punk hasn’t managed a follow-up either.

Sins of omission are never intentional. Send me your candidates. As in summers past, I’ll be scoring the Summer Song battle week by week. You can look for each week’s winner by following my tweets at @RossOnRadio. We’ll be back with a winner — perhaps not one from the above list — around Labor Day.

Addendum: I didn’t want to make “Summer Song of 2014” too much of a laundry list. Including every possible uptempo hit would have made it too much like a mere chart recap. But listeners did chime in with suggestions and omissions.

Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong” is already becoming the same smash that it was around the world. I didn’t include it under my “summer means tempo” rule, but its tropical feel should have qualified it.

Onerepublic’s “Love Runs Out” does have the appropriate feel. It’s experiencing the same gradual build as “Counting Stars,” but as reader Norm Fisher points out, it’s picking up speed now. And Interscope has had the summer song winner for each of the last three years.

Pharrell’s “Come Get It Bae” was brand new two weeks ago and I was still trying to sort out whether it was a hit at all. But “Blurred Lines” felt similarly odd at first, and it’s now building nicely as well. So is Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle.”

The rumored Nicki Minaj single dropped a few days later. “Pills N Potions” is a midtempo change of pace without a particularly summer feel. But WBZZ (100.7 Star) Pittsburgh APD Scott Alexander’s left-field pick, “We Are Done” by Madden Brothers could have been the summer hit of 1969, and has finally been released.