songs of our summers

a reflection on call me maybe and shared experiences

In the fall of 2011, Carly Rae Jepsen released her single “Call Me Maybe” in Canada. By the following spring, the song had blown up internationally with a little help from fellow Canadian and pop star, Justin Bieber. He signed Jepsen to his label and pushed her song into the public spotlight through his presence on platforms like YouTube and Twitter. In 2012, “Call Me Maybe” reigned triumphant as the Song of the Summer. This title is determined almost entirely by tracking sales, as opposed to by an assessment of the actual value of the product, much like the race to the top of the box office list is determined by ticket sales for summer blockbusters.

It is intuitive that music is strongly connected to memory, that hearing a familiar song can immediately transport its listener to the time and place that it represents in their life. A 2009 study from the University of California, Davis made the finding that listening to familiar music activates brain regions linked to autobiographical memories and emotions. “Call Me Maybe” immediately transfers me to the summer before my senior year of high school. In a way I can’t verbalize, I feel what it’s like to be seventeen again. Regardless of whether I enjoy the song, it’s a fact that it wormed its way into my life.

Jepsen’s single had the ability to invade all aspects of my daily life. People were eager to show each other the video during class. The song played on the radio constantly, at every party, from the speakers of every passing car. Other groups adopted the song for their own videos, from Justin Bieber and his crew (including Disney stars Selena Gomez and Ashley Tisdale)—the video in question is purely of them running back and forth across the screen, lip-syncing—to the US Olympic Swimming Team during the London Olympics, filmed lip-syncing while in an airplane, at events, and even in the pool. One particularly notable aspect of the song’s quick rise to the top was its presence on social media, which hadn’t been a factor in past years. (Think back to LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” in 2011 or Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” in 2010: their popularity was less sudden, less exciting).

I spent part of that summer at a camp called Girls State, where hundreds of rising seniors met for two weeks to create a mock state government. Perhaps predictably, “Call Me Maybe” had even entered the sphere of campaign speeches. One candidate’s successful bid for State Supreme Court Justice ended with the line: “I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my platform, so vote for me maybe.”

The Song of the Summer has the power to become this massive shared experience during the months when people come back out of hibernation to enjoy the return of the sun and each other’s company. It manages to invade every aspect of our lives for that crucial period and then claims a spot permanently in our memories and cultural awareness. According to an article in the New York Times, the label “Song of the Summer” can be traced back to the 1950’s, “when transistor radios spread and teenagers emerged as an economic force.” That was the first time that music labels and radio stations could conspire to determine which song would dominate the airwaves, creating a collective summer experience marketed toward a new audience.

Carly Rae Jepsen released a new album last month titled Emotion. The name itself is imbued with the same lightheartedness as her music. The lead single, “I Really Like You,” is accompanied by an adorable music video featuring a chipper Tom Hanks lip-syncing to Jepsen’s vocals and dancing at about half speed to the choreography. The song is catchy and upbeat, but it hasn’t reached the level of her first hit. It’s not even a contender for this past year’s Song of the Summer.

The songs that have managed to claim the Billboard Hot 100 include The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” (a personal favorite) and OMI’s “Cheerleader.” “Lean On” from Major Lazer and DJ Snake featuring MØ has also been a huge contender. In a different way, so has Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”: although her single hasn’t risen to Song of the Summer status, she is winning at something else entirely with her insane summer tour—featuring a new guest musician in every city and flaunting her friendships with pretty much every celebrity out there. Amidst this race with so many contenders, news outlets from The Huffington Post to The New York Times have proclaimed that for 2015, there was no Song of the Summer.

This could be due to the increasing popularity of streaming services like Spotify. Radio isn’t the only means anymore by which popular songs can be dispersed throughout a general audience, and it’s not the only avenue creators have in mind. The number of ways to reach a target audience has increased dramatically since the 1950s. Listeners can bypass radio altogether, and reject what labels are trying to sell them. It is also easier for musicians to self-release their music and promote it online. Music labels are still important for promoting new artists, but they’re no longer essential (consider artists like Amanda Palmer, who very publicly denounced her label and crowdfunds her music projects, or the Silversun Pickups, who just released a new popular single—“Nightlight”—without signing to a label). The social media spread of “Call Me Maybe” is now more commonplace and is essential to the way we interact with music.

Whether inadvertently or with great intention, we are all amassing a soundtrack of our lives. The Song of the Summer, during its brief rule, causes our playlists to converge. In some ways, it seems like a shame to lose that connection to each other. But it also seems arbitrary that one song should dominate that space. After all, it’s lonely at the top. There’s no cap on how much music we can listen to and enjoy, only on the amount of hours in a day. If there’s no clear winner, every contender should be able to metaphorically join Taylor Swift on stage simultaneously for a mash-up, making one out of the many songs that made this past summer a little brighter.