Song of the Summer and the Middle Ground

Every summer there is a song of the summer. This song isn’t necessarily the best song and it might not even be a song you like. In fact, you might hate this song. However, by the end of the season, this song is everywhere – you walk into a store, a bar, a restaurant, you hear it blaring from cars with their windows open. It’s blasting from people’s decks and bedroom windows, while you’re strolling down the street. This is a critical feature of the summer song: it is inescapable.

The song of the summer is also palatable, meaning you can dance to it. Or, as Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris’ recent episode of Still Processing pointed out, it’s not just that you can dance to it, but that everyone can dance to it. It’s both light and lite – in that it’s the diet version of whatever it is that you usually listen to from that genre, whether it’s rap, R&B, pop, or rock.

Occasionally, the summer song is a hit from the start, but most of the time, it’s a victory of attrition. At the beginning of the summer there are a number of contenders, by mid-summer one pulls away, and by the end, there is one song to which you, and seemingly all of your friends and casual acquaintance, know all the words, trills, punctuated syllables and emphatic pauses.

The fact that we still have a song of the summer in 2017 is pretty impressive. Streaming services and blogs have been chipping away at the idea of mainstream music for years, making achieving consensus that much more difficult. The same is true for online content in general. Mainstream voices are competing in a much bigger field – which, although far from perfect – offers a wider diversity of opinion and subject matter.

Back in the not-so-distant day, companies used to want their ad, campaign, photo, etc., to go viral. However, virality is short-lived. Anything that scales those heights so quickly usually burns out just as fast. People get turned off from popularity just as much as they buy into it – so much that there’s now a “here comes the backlash” sigh that accompanies every widespread meme or comment: see covfefe jokes. For there to be a lasting positive impression, you want to be present without ever becoming ever-present and exhausting people to the point of frustration.

A lot of the problem with viral content is that it is too of the moment and it becomes victim of its own success. Ideally, you want something that speaks to the time but is forward-looking enough that it has room to grow into something more. A number of the songs of summer contenders are actually already out of the running because they’ve already played themselves out, or feel too done, despite it being early June. As Wesley Morris points out, the longevity in a summer song – and in a lot of internet content – is that it doesn’t necessarily completely break new ground, but instead reflects the zeitgeist while pushing its boundary slightly. Richard Foreman, an avant-garde dramatist, once said that with art, it’s the more low-brow, obvious kitsch that you remember because it doesn’t force anything new on you. It retreads familiar material. New things that push your boundaries are harder to recall because they’re presenting you with something completely different than what you’ve experienced before.

A summer song is a perfect storm, a magic formula. It speaks to some sort of cultural touchstone or creates one, providing just enough differentiation from the other songs for everyone to latch on to, but also nothing so strongly different that it alienates too much of the base. Slow-building ubiquity is key – and to achieve ubiquity, you have to have just enough of the right stuff that gradually, the variety of places you visit, and your disparate groups, are all playing the same song, and it all seems appropriate. Often, strategic placements are worth more than the abruptness of something crashing into every content space in your life. Plastering messages and information everywhere can result in the same sort of exhaustion as something going viral. When it’s everywhere, all the time, you tune out by default.

There are a lot of days when I have to censor myself with Twitter because I am a working professional and I need to get things accomplished during work hours. This isn’t because I’m looking at an endless stream of real-time updates and first-person narration, but because there are a handful of people whose feeds I go to for important perspectives, articles to read, music recommendations and the like. Basically, there are people who I’ve been following for a number of years whose tastes I hold in high esteem – whether it’s politics, literature, pop culture – and I go directly to their feeds, get lost in them for some time, open up an unhealthy number of tabs, and either read or bookmark a bunch of articles. I pay more attention when a critical number of people in this group are all talking about the same thing.

By filtering through the mass amount of content, I’m selecting people I trust to provide me with information that I find most important. Having a personal way into content is what makes it stick, and people consistently encountering material from sources they trust makes them more likely to spread it to their networks. Creating a sense of self-discovery is a critical element to avoiding someone feeling like they’re participating in marketing or something cheap and corporate.

To quote a classic 1999 teen film – that seems like it should be a summer movie, although it came out in the spring – “I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?” If you’re hitting the mark between these two, but in a sustained, focused way, you can achieve the illusion that something just happened to fall into someone’s life, rather than being forced into it. In terms of promotion or messaging, it feels more like a choice. While maybe slightly less erudite than Richard Foreman, the teen film makes a valid point – we tend to ignore the middle ground.

If you’re playing the long game, or promoting or building awareness, you don’t always need to be the guaranteed smash hit. Sometimes it’s best to go for the slow burn. It’s June 2017, but I can still tell you the songs of the summer going back to 2008. You don’t always need to overwhelm, and you certainly don’t want to underwhelm – but you can also be the song of summer and simply whelm for the win.