You know it when you hear it. That’s usually the real test of a song of the summer, the anthemic melody that seeps into every corner of the season, from block parties to mall trips to late-night drives. But what happens when the parties are canceled, the shopping is on pause and there’s nowhere to go? The official song of the summer for 2020 has yet to be crowned. There just hasn’t been that one, singular track with the level of ubiquity we’re accustomed to. And in a strange, sad summer of emotional and political upheaval, the bubbly joy of past hits seems to strike the wrong chord. But DaBaby’s “Rockstar,” Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” and a notable hodgepodge of other songs have their claims on our attention still. Below, TIME’s Andrew R. Chow, Cady Lang, Judy Berman and Raisa Bruner discuss what the charts say, why this summer is so different and which song—or songs—deserves to be crowned the winner.
What the charts say
Bruner: The ultimate song of summer, for me, is 2017’s “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. It was inescapable. It was buoyant. It felt like a hot day and a tropical cocktail and a dance party rolled into one. And its preeminence was reflected in the charts, where it topped the Billboard and Spotify lists easily. Last year’s “Old Town Road,” propelled by TikTok and the charisma of Lil Nas X, created a similar consensus. This year, the charts crown “Rockstar” by DaBaby feat. Roddy Ricch as the official selection of 2020; the melodic rap, boosted by a topical protest-referencing remix, has reigned at number one for 11 weeks.
Despite the relevance of “Rockstar,” however, it feels like this summer there is rift between what the numbers bear out and what our summer experiences have to say. I haven’t listened to the radio or gone to a party in six months, so maybe I’m an outlier. But the main place I’m finding some kind of cultural connectivity—across generations, geography, levels of isolation—is on TikTok. Hits there, like the slow-burning “Roses” remix or Louisville rapper Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin,” also seep over into Instagram and my consciousness pretty regularly these days.
Chow: Regardless of TikTok’s tenuous current existence or its potential future role in international geopolitical relations, the app has had a staggering effect on the music world. Just last summer it was still somewhat of a novelty to see a TikTok-spurred hit like “Old Town Road” cross over to the top of the charts. Now, it’s the main highway to success: top-10 hits like “Don’t Start Now,” “Say So,” “Rockstar,” “Savage,” “Gooba,” “Toosie Slide,” “Roses” and “What’s Poppin” all owe some or all of their success to their virality on the app.
I think it would be disingenuous to say that TikTok and its 15-second timeframes have had a dumbing-down effect on pop music. These songs feel pretty similar to the hits of three years ago (“Bad and Boujee,” “Shape Of You”). Moreover, major labels have caught on to TikTok’s importance, making it at times difficult to discern whether a song like “Don’t Start Now,” whose singer Dua Lipa is signed to Warner, rose organically or through strategic marketing.
But I do think that the TikTok community’s preference for upbeat grooves has warped the charts so that they aren’t reflecting the anxious state of the world. The songs that defined this summer have been danceable, communal songs—we’ve just been dancing to them alone in our bedrooms.
What our hearts say
Bruner: I think it’s safe to say the numbers don’t always reflect our moods. I like “Rockstar” and I love “Savage,” especially the Beyoncé remix, and of course Megan Thee Stallion’s late-addition “WAP” with Cardi B, a brash and fabulous jam that’s suited to a much more free-wheeling life than the pandemic might allow. But more often I’ve turned to albums that echo my solitude, taking long walks soundtracked by a single artist. Fiona Apple’s stunning April album Fetch the Bolt Cutters resonated deeply with me. Run the Jewels’ prescient latest album, released just as protests were sweeping the nation, felt appropriately tense. And Taylor Swift’s surprise album Folklore and Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher have been on heavy rotation; their hazy, aching lyrics remind me of loves lost and self-knowledge gained.
But when I do want to have fun, it’s been Dua Lipa—”Don’t Stop Now,” “Levitating,” “Hallucinate”—that has done it for me. (Honorable mention to Harry Styles with “Watermelon Sugar.”) My song of the summer, though, is Saint Jhn’s “Roses,” remixed by the formerly-unknown Kazakh producer Imanbek. From the drop, it just has that undeniable energy.
Berman: This quarantine summer has been more about albums than singles for me. Like Raisa, I’m living for Fiona, Phoebe and Taylor. Their latest releases, along with Waxahatchee’s homey March record Saint Cloud, feel like whispered conversations with friends; I can silently fill in my side of the exchange. I think a lot of us have been missing that kind of intimacy in our daily lives these past few months.
When I need to take a walk and remind myself there’s still a world out there waiting for me post-pandemic, I tend to go for immersive sounds. Inlet, the latest and best album by shoegaze vets Hum, is a whole mood. The frenzied, metallic skronk of New Orleans punks Special Interest’s The Passion Of makes a convincing substitute for the bustle of a city that’s thriving rather than mourning. Yves Tumor’s funky, dreamy Heaven to a Tortured Mind is a spaceship to a galaxy where touching the skin of another human being isn’t just safe, but sacred.
But it’s not like I’m immune to earworms. And at this point, to get my serotonin flowing, they’ve got to be big, audacious, silly, extra. I apologize in advance to anyone I’m introducing to the lethally hook-laden remix of electropop buzz band 100 gecs’ “ringtone” featuring Charli XCX, Rico Nasty and Kero Kero Bonito. Okay Kaya’s overlooked “Psych Ward” is the melodramatic anthem of my own personal padded cell. Even as she recovers from a shooting that shocked fans, Megan Thee Stallion may be the only person in America having a hot girl summer in 2020. There’s no denying “Savage” or “Girls in the Hood,” but in keeping with my recent attraction to all things unsubtle, I’m mostly feeling the song, music video and lifestyle that is “WAP.”
Lang: Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve been relying on music to safely get my thrills this summer, and it’s been the ladies of rap who’ve been delivering them. Like Raisa and Judy, I am enthralled and delighted by the unapologetic bad-bitch energy of “WAP” and its takeover of the charts and the Internet. Cardi B is my president and Megan Thee Stallion is a national treasure!
Meg and Bey’s winning “Savage Remix” has been on repeat for me, as has Doja Cat’s “Say So” and “Like That”—Doja turns out perfect pop-rap specimens that I’ve been unable to resist despite her seeming cancellation (it appears that TikTok has also been unable to resist her charms). The City Girls’ new album City on Lock more than delivers. Mulatto’s “B*tch From Da Souf” remix with Saweetie and Trina begs to be bumped in a car that’s cruising on a hot day. But I think it’s Flo Milli’s braggadocious, irrepressibly fun mixtape, Ho, Why Is You Here?—and its cocky IG freestyle-turned-hit “Beef FloMix” that’s buoyed my mood all summer, a veritable confidence boost whenever you listen to it.
Chow: There’s only one song that spoke to the pandemic in a way that captured all of its existential dread, black humor, and desperation for normalcy—and it was penned by a gangly HBO sidekick. “DO YOU HAVE THE ANTIBODIES? DO YOU WANNA BE WITH ME?,” snarls Nicholas Braun, better known as Cousin Greg on Succession. Give the man his Emmy—and throw in the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance while you’re at it.
In a normal summer, however, we would be hearing Chloe x Halle‘s Ungodly Hour blasting from speakers everywhere. Ungodly Hour is a tidily constructed, no-skips album—an exceedingly rare feat these days—that alternates between celestial harmony and sly menace. The most irrepressible hit on here is “Do It,” a featherweight mission statement accompanied by one of the best music videos of the year.
Why is this summer so different?
Lang: We’re living through an unprecedented global health crisis, engaging with a national reckoning with racial violence, and steeling ourselves for the inevitable economic depression. To say that this summer is different from years past is a huge understatement, and it’s only natural that our musical tastes reflect that. Many of us crave comfort and connection or escapism—something lighthearted or fun that can bring joy or take our minds off the dark and looming issues of the world. On the flip side, it’s also worth considering that songs that would have thrived in the club don’t quite hit the same way when you’re in pajamas at home, dancing by yourself in Club Quarantine.
Chow: While we have lived fragmented physical existences this summer, I would actually argue that our collective yearning for shared experiences has led to a return to monoculture. That’s been most clearly evidenced in TV, with Tiger King and The Last Dance running Twitter for stretches.
But it’s also played out in music, especially as TikTok has created a culture of mandatory inclusion in dance crazes. So many chart-topping songs have simply been stand-ins for mammoth cultural capital-M Moments, whether it be 6ix9ine’s reckless approach to liberation or Taylor Swift’s indie turn. I don’t think it’s surprising that 8 of the 10 number one songs since May 9 have been collaborations—we just want to see our favorites with our other favorites! And it’s also no coincidence that the biggest hit of the year is driven by the line, “brand new Lamborghini, f-ck a cop car.”
Bruner: That’s a fascinating point, Andrew. We are whiplashing between wanting to see celebrities we like succeed (and have fun while doing it, so we can live vicariously through them) and trying to find songs that say something meaningful about the world right now. There’s a reason Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain On Me,” which is frankly fine but not entirely memorable, still has a passionate following. Nothing really checks all those boxes at once, although the two pop queens sort of tried.
Is the song of summer dead?
Berman: As far as I’m concerned, it has always been a flawed concept—but one that can nonetheless yield great conversations about the music of a particular moment. Unless you’re speaking strictly in terms of the Billboard Hot 100, a single, consensus song of the summer is pretty rare. “Crazy in Love” (2003) and “Eye of the Tiger” (1982) are outliers. Ask four people whether Drake’s “Nice For What,” Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin’s “I Like It,” Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry” or Kacey Musgraves’ “High Horse” was 2018’s song of the summer, and you might get four different answers. Our culture is fragmented! We’ve got boomer songs of the summer vs. Gen Z songs of the summer, red-state songs of the summer vs. blue-state songs of the summer, chart-topping songs of the summer vs. underground songs of the summer. In years without “Old Town Road,” we have rap songs of the summer and country songs of the summer.
It’s still a fun and useful debate to have, though, and one that definitely helps to surface cultural trends. When “Despacito” dominated 2017, it was confirmation that Latin pop had conquered the American mainstream. For better or worse, some Billboard-certified songs of the summer—“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by The 5th Dimension (1969), TLC’s “Waterfalls” (1995), Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” (2008)—are time capsules of very specific moments from decades past. Something would be lost if we didn’t take stock every Labor Day. But especially now that the ubiquity of a song can be hard to quantify and cultural impact is diffused over competing platforms, from physical albums and radio to Spotify and YouTube, I think our best bet is to preserve the field of contenders rather than try to whittle it down too much. Why settle for one song of the summer when you can have a whole mixtape?
Bruner: Exactly, Judy. Despite this summer’s dearth of live music—and the delay of many project releases—we ended up with a rich selection to work with right now. Music isn’t a zero-sum game. And next year? I hope this slowdown produces some rich material and creative opportunities for artists to experiment. And I can’t wait to dance to it all, sweaty and exalted on a dance floor, again.
And the winner is…
“Rockstar” for the numerically-oriented, “WAP” for the celebratory—and an eclectic mixtape of great songs for everyone else just trying to take things day by day.