Has Coronavirus Killed the Song of the Summer?
With album postponements and tour cancellations, is a massive summer hit even possible this year?
“Old Town Road” feels like a million years ago. Granted, so does anything that happened before a pandemic swept in and confined us all to our homes indefinitely, but at the risk of reaching “Does anybody remember laughter?” levels of melodrama, Lil Nas X’s inescapable ode to horse-riding and its chart domination last summer feels like a relic from some quaint, bygone era. Remember when one could simply take their horse to the old town road and ride till they can’t no more without having to worry about contracting a deadly virus?
It’s not just that, though; last year’s song of the summer — which spent a record-setting 19 consecutive weeks at No. 1 — was ubiquitous in a way that feels impossible now. Under normal circumstances, now is the time that music publications would start speculating about which newly released single has the staying power to dominate this year’s cookout playlists or be blared over the PA at public pools across the country. But now that we’re facing the distinct possibility of a summer spent inside, away from all the communal experiences we tend to associate with the season, will there still be one runaway hit to claim the title, or will the coronavirus kill the “Song of the Summer” as a concept?
The pandemic has already shut down nearly every other aspect of the industry. Tours have been canceled or postponed to 2021. Summer festival season has been scrapped entirely. Promotional appearances on late-night TV shows have been reduced to stripped-down acoustic performances recorded from home — something that lends itself well to certain genres but provides a hurdle for pop or hip-hop artists who typically rely on a more elaborate setup. It’s hard for viewers to get a true sense of a song when they’re hearing it for the first time over Zoom.
That inability to properly promote new music has led to many artists postponing their planned album releases. That, of course, means that we’ve got fewer “Song of the Summer” contenders to choose from. Do limited options diminish the chance that one of them is catchy enough to worm its way into the monoculture? Or will that void make us all rally around whatever we get, much like fans starved for anything sports-related pounced on The Last Dance like they were Joe Exotic’s tigers chasing after scraps?
Without the ability to discover or experience a song in the wild, so to speak, our exposure to new music is limited to whatever we seek out at home. Will something like “Rain on Me,” the Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande duet slated to drop this Friday, soar to the same heights that the Cardi B/Bad Bunny/J Balvin collaboration “I Like It” did in the summer of 2018 or Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” did the year before simply because we’re hungry for it? Or will it suffer from our inability to passively encounter it in our daily lives?
Of course, in recent years, the song of the summer has actually made its debut during earlier months before picking up steam and entering the zeitgeist during the dog days. “Old Town Road” was originally released in December 2018 and first hit the charts the following March. “Despacito” first came out in January 2017. Drake’s “One Dance,” 2016’s song of the summer, was released in early April that year. So there’s still a good chance that a song that was released before the coronavirus decimated the industry will surge in popularity in the coming months.
But even if that’s the case, are we even in the mood for a Song of the Summer right now? Not every summer hit makes direct reference to the season, but it’s hard to imagine Nelly’s 2002 smash “Hot In Herre” taking off in, say, December. And there’s a reason Harry Styles waited until May 18 to release the music video for “Watermelon Sugar” despite the fact that the song dropped last November; no one wants to see a bunch of sexy people sucking down summer fruit while lounging on a beach when they can’t do the same thing themselves. (Though it must be said, Styles is definitely the first person to sing about “that summer feeling” while rocking a sweater vest.) The video was obviously filmed before social distancing was a concern, and it recognizes that with an opening title card that reads “This video is dedicated to touching.” But do we really want to be reminded of what we won’t have this summer, or will we skip listening to anything that evokes that kind of sun-drenched imagery because it feels too cruel?
Even when they don’t lyrically make reference to warm-weather clichés, the best songs from this time of year have visuals that offer some summertime vibes. Would 2012’s song of the summer, Carly Rae Jepson’s infectiously optimistic “Call Me Maybe,” hit differently if the video didn’t feature a hot shirtless guy with a dopey “The sky is the limit” tattoo mowing the lawn and washing his car? Does any of that even matter when the song currently sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 is the quarantine-themed “Stuck With You,” whose video consists entirely of footage shot remotely at home?
I remember walking through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on the Fourth of July last year and eventually losing count of how many times I heard “Old Town Road” blasting from a boombox while people grilled. There’s no telling how things will progress over the next few months, but that kind of thing feels impossible right now. We already know so many summer touchstones will be missing this year: we won’t get the feeling of walking into the frigid air conditioning of a theater to escape the heat or the very particular type of bliss that comes from sitting at a ballpark with a hot dog and a cold beer in hand.
These days, we need whatever shreds of normalcy we can get. We need to feel connected to each other however we can. Fingers crossed that comes in the form of some massive feel-good hit that can offer a temporary distraction and help us look ahead to 2021, when our biggest concert concerns will hopefully be staying hydrated and remembering to reapply sunscreen.