Do all the good songs come out in the summer, or do we just remember it that way? When my parents tell stories of that hazy period before I came into the picture, they're invariably driving around in my dad's MG, with the top down and Smokey Robinson or the Supremes on the radio. I don't remember what was on the radio the year I moved to New York, but all I remember about the summer before is driving around with Odelay all over the radio and the windows rolled down, trying to get as much out of my car and my hometown as I could before I left them both behind.
Car radios are okay in the winter, making the cold, cramped space a little more comfortable, but car radios were made for summer, when you can roll the windows down and turn the music up loud and drive real fast even if you've got nowhere to go. And certain bands are made for summer driving: The Stones. Chuck Berry. The Ramones. And of course, the Beach Boys -- hell, even their Christmas album is good summer-driving music. These bands played catchy pop songs, but at the heart of it, good rock and roll.
Nowadays, the summer radio single is like the summer action movie -- substance isn't important, it's all about the hype, the gross, shattering all the records, ads everywhere you look. I remember seeing something on TV parodying both 'N Sync and Armageddon, or maybe it was the band parodying the film, but whichever the case, they've seemed to blend into one in my mind -- clean-cut guys trying their best to look telegenic in their white jump suits/white space suits. And they're both sinister, overbearing, mainstream, but also somehow alluring. Both the blockbuster movie and the hit single work on the same principle: Just as we all broke down and saw Independence Day and Jurassic Park and enjoyed them in spite of ourselves, each of us has, in some guilty moment, gleefully sung along with the chorus to "Tubthumper" or "MMMBop."
The summer single is the ultimate guilty pleasure, and it's an unavoidable one. No matter how much you may try to ignore the trends and hide from the hype, you can't shut yourself off from the world in the summer. Everyone's outside, all the windows in the apartment are open, the warm breeze buoys jokes and songs and idle chatter, and if everyone else is listening to a song, you can't help but absorb it by osmosis. When a summer hit reaches peak saturation, you don't even have to own a radio to hear it -- when Puff Daddy remade "Every Breath You Take," the snatches of the song escaped from car windows so often that your subconscious could piece together all the fragments into a complete song. After a while, it was like someone was just playing that sample on an endless loop, blaring it into the intersection for the benefit of anyone passing by.
You can't hide from these songs, but you can try. A few summers ago, when I started reading about a family of Midwestern kids who played bubblegum pop and used way too much conditioner, I decided to hide from Hanson. I avoided the radio, avoided MTV, and cowered behind my vinyl collection, afraid of what new horrors these kids represented. I had already gone through it the year before with the Spice Girls, so I figured I was prepared. But one night, there they were on Saturday Night Live, in a sketch where kidnappers were forcing them to listen to their own song as insidious torture. Seeing the kids pretending to writhe in pain at the sound of their own overproduced hooks, trying not to burst out laughing, I gave in and started liking them. I couldn't help it.
And loathe as I am to admit it, I couldn't help liking Alanis Morissette's first single. For a year afterwards, that album just grated on me -- bleating, strained vocals with bland accompaniment, and not even a tiny bit ironic. But that first summer, when "You Oughtta Know" was blasting out of every radio, I couldn't help but sing along with her off-key wailing. It wasn't much better than any of the songs she put out later, but it was great summer music. In the summer, Alanis and Hanson and even Sporty and Ginger are exuberant and alive and everything you want summer to be about; school's out, and it's time to play. In the summer, cheesy pop songs are mindless fun. In the winter, they're just mindless.
Mindless works in the summer, but that doesn't mean summer music has to be mindless. Sure, even the classics didn't have much substance. As we've pointed out before, "Everybody'd be surfin'/like Californ-I-A" ain't Shakespeare. But there was one summer when things were different.
1994. The music biz was still reeling from Nirvana, and in their confusion, the powers-that-be accidentally put good music on the radio. We were giddy and disoriented, turning the dial and hearing Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey. Steven Malkmus was railing against all the other bands, and when he sang about his career, careah, Korea, it seemed like maybe the good guys had won. Of course, it was a short-lived victory, but for one magical summer it seemed like summer music didn't have to be a guilty pleasure. It was just a pleasure.
But whatever a song is really like, summer makes us remember it better than it was. When I hear the Backstreet Boys' big hit from last summer, I don't think about flipping past MTV and wishing it would go away. I don't remember being trapped in the office with the radio turned to the Top 40 station and no escape in sight. I remember the day my girlfriend and I went to Coney Island, where, alongside the faded glory of the run-down amusement park, someone had set up a karaoke booth near the beach. Every third song was "I Want It That Way." Unless you were actually riding the roller coaster and screaming loudly, snatches of the melody would reach you no matter where you were. Eventually, we went down to the beach, where a small crowd was gathered around the karaoke booth. In front of the mic was a young boy, probably five years old, struggling through the afternoon's hundredth rendition of "I Want It That Way." The kid would squint to see the TelePrompTer, mumble a few words, make a few more up, almost give up, but then stick it out until the chorus, which he knew. He'd declare "Tell me why!" and the crowd would respond with "Ain't nothin' but a heartache," and he'd smile because he knew he'd got it right. It was the most wonderful song ever performed.
Jaded indie rocker that I am, on that hot day there was no place I'd rather be than listening to a five-year-old sing the Backstreet Boys, just because it was summer. Whatever problems you may have during the rest of the year are overshadowed by sunshine and ice cream and baseball and cute girls in tank tops and driving fast with the wind blowing in your face. Everybody's happy and every day is a good day and every song on the radio is your favorite song.
So whatever new flavor of bubblegum does come along, I'm not going to fight it. When the sky is gray and there's snow on the ground, I'll grumble all I want about the worthless crap that makes it onto the airwaves. But when the sun comes out, I'm gonna roll down the windows and turn the radio up.