Song of the summer contenders: Drake, Beyonce and The Weeknd vie for the anthem in this season of discontent, disease and unease.
Picking the song of the summer for 2020 will be a challenge, amid protests and Covid-19 social distancing Beyoncé’s Black Parade, Weeknd’s Blinding Lights and Toosie Slide by Drake are among the contenders.
Anointing the song of the summer was going to be a challenge even before protests roared to life in the United States in response to George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.
By shutting down so many of the activities that make a song of the summer happen – concerts, sporting events, pool parties involving people beyond the immediate family – the Covid-19 pandemic had already interrupted the annual process that led tunes like Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road and Luis Fonsi’s Despacito to warm weather cultural ubiquity.
But the explosive widening of the Black Lives Matter movement only deepened the task at hand: suddenly, the established hallmarks of the song of the summer – a casually flirty lyric or a groove to inspire a night without cares – felt insufficient to soundtrack a season of such righteous discontent.
So how do we pick the song that best embodies the spirit of a summer defined by contradictory imperatives: to stay inside or to take to the streets? Ideally, one song could exult, object, mourn, reassure.
And indeed, just such a tune appeared this month from Beyoncé, whose exuberant Black Parade – released with no advance notice but plenty of symbolic significance on Juneteenth – celebrates blackness in its many glories, even as it acknowledges the persistent threats of racism and police violence.
Over a swaggering beat brightened with wind instruments redolent of an outdoor march, Beyoncé boasts of looking “pandemic fly on the runway” and of having “made a picket sign off your picket fence”
She’s rapping and singing with equal command in another display of her mastery of synthesis. Blinding Lights by The Weeknd could be the song of the summer.
Often the songs competing in a given year are well known by Memorial Day – observed on the last Monday of May – which means you can think of the actual summer as the home stretch of a longer race.
(Last year, Old Town Road began its record setting 19-week run atop Billboard’s Hot 100 in early April.)
This summer, the Weeknd’s gleaming Blinding Lights and Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage – the latter best heard in a remix featuring fellow Houston native Beyoncé – are among the tunes that softened the ground well in advance; ditto Toosie Slide by Drake, who claimed the song of the summer in 2018 with the similarly sleek In My Feelings.
But these songs spent a relatively short time at No 1 – just a week each for Toosie Slide and Savage, and four non-consecutive weeks for Blinding Lights.
In fact, as nine different chart toppers emerged over the past three months – including Rain on Me, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s club jam for an era with no clubs, and DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s Rockstar, with its references to abusive cops – the top of the Hot 100 has experienced more churn, according to Billboard, than at any point since 1990.
That’s another sign that this fraught moment has splintered listeners’ desires, and TikTok, where many a smash first catches on these days, is chewing through new songs with increasing speed. One upside of this fragmentation is that it’s created a window for viral hits from outside the pop machine – see the irrepressible Lose Yo Job, with vocals sourced from a Facebook video shot in a parking lot.
No longer do listeners need giant record companies to tell them what’s happening; no longer do folks with something to say need those companies to help them say it. At a time when it feels like anything might happen, we should be on the lookout for major statements from anywhere.