Officially, the Song of the Summer is a matter of accounting. Billboard rolls out a chart every year in June that tracks the songs with the most radio plays, streams, and sales on its charts from Memorial Day through Labor Day. But the designation is obviously bigger than math alone.
Each year, music publications attempt to predict the song that’ll earn the Song of the Summer mantle in some sort of weird March Madness knockoff. Spotify also just unveiled a playlist of its Summer Essentials—tunes that can be used in a variety of ways over the summer, including “lounging by the pool” or a “summer workout.” This wide range of different vibes qualifying up a Song of the Summer hints at a larger problem with any objective attempt to award the title.
If something is to be crowned the Song of the Summer, it must be malleable enough to fit any possible permutation of warm weather celebration possible in the radio-listening Western world. Summer is a time of new loves and late-night bacchanalia, but it can also be a time for sweaty, bedroom-bound antipathy—the brain-frying months where you feel better off alone.
It’s an unenviable task to make a song that can be twisted to any listener’s purposes. So much great art comes from specificity, but making a song of the summer requires deliberate vagueness. No one understands this better than post-EDM/pop producer Calvin Harris, whose music seems engineered to work in virtually any environment.
This year, the producer rolled out two singles that fit the bill for an all-purpose summer hit—”Slide” featuring Frank Ocean and Migos, and “Heatstroke” with Ariana Grande, Pharrell Williams and Young Thug. Both songs—off Harris’ forthcoming album Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1—combine catchy synth refrains with easy, bouncing beats. To quote Grande on “Heatstroke,” they compel you to “release, let go, and have a good time.”
If any songs could claim the seasonal title this year, it’s these two. Sure, Harris might not be the most risk-taking producer out there—but with previous smashes like “Feel So Close” and “This Is What You Came For” under his belt, there’s no denying the man is a hit machine, especially when festival season rolls around.
So, are there lessons to be learned from patterns in his productions? Below, we’ve scrutinized Harris’ oeuvre, and come up an extremely scientific analysis of just what makes a Song of the Summer tick.
1. A Rihanna vocal
When making a song of the summer, get Rihanna. Sure, that’s a tall order, but festival dancers respond to this husky-voiced songstress as eagerly as Drake in the music video for “Work.” Seriously though, many of Harris’s summer-oozing hits feature Rihanna or another high-caliber singer like Ellie Goulding, Ariana Grande, or Frank Ocean.
It’s no secret that the public eats up collabs between DJs and well-known pop stars, to the point that it’s now a formulaic trope. That’s because making a song of the summer is not about originality: it is about the joy of our cyclical return to warmer, better days, embodied by the carefree voices of the stars we idolize.
Plus, science says that the sooner that songs bring in vocals, the more likely these tracks are to grab a listener’s attention and become hits (good luck with that mainstream summer hit, ambient producers!). So if you’re aiming to be a chart-topping maestro like Calvin Harris, find your RiRi and put her in quick.
2. Sing-along lyrics
Calvin Harris songs always have lyrics that are catchy as hell, but simple enough for anyone to sing along to after hearing them for the first time. Consider this verse of what is arguably his most summery song of all: “Summer.”
“When I met you in the summer / To my heartbeat sound / We fell in love / As the leaves turn brown.”
How does one fall in love to a heartbeat sound? UNCLEAR. But “Summer” just repeats and then devolves this one verse into a series of “Hey!'”s and “Oh!'”s, and suddenly we’re all in love to a heartbeat sound yet glad that we experienced summer love. This is the power of simple lyrics.
3. A fast tempo to make you D-A-N-C-E
We already know that 99.999% of the Songs of the Summer are about hitting the dancefloor/finding love on the dancefloor/finding yourself on the dancefloor. Luckily for Mr. Harris, this is his milieu. He is the master of creating musical climaxes that make you want to jump in the air, punctuated with periods of chilling out so you can go wild again.
Harris’ song structure has a lot to do with a fast—but not too fast—tempo, which a statistical analysis of pop hits shows is a growing trend within the pop world as a whole. According to research at Ohio State University, top-10 singles on the American charts from 1986 to 2015, have gotten faster and faster, with less time spent on intro instrumentals before you hear the singer wailing. All of this is happening as producers strive to keep up with one thing: our rapidly diminishing attention spans.
Over the summer of 2016, the internet freaked out over the so-called “millennial whoop,” a ubiquitous alternating-note melody sung with “Eh!’s” and “Oh!’s”. “Music, especially pop music, is based on patterns,” says the narrator in Quartz’s explainer video. “It makes new songs feel familiar, because you’ve basically heard them before.”
Naturally, Calvin Harris knows this trick. In 2017’s “My Way” and 2012’s “Feel So Close,” he employs a minor-4 chord to bring some faux dark complexity, then explodes into an upbeat guitar rhythm peppered with exuberant repetition. Both songs’ initial chord progressions are also nearly identical. Calvin, you sneaky dog.
5. Good timing
Calvin Harris likes to release his best tracks a few months before the heat really starts. “Heatstroke,” “Let’s Go,” and “Summer” came out in March, “I Need Your Love” and “This Is What You Came For” came out in April, and “Where Have You Been” came out in May.
This year, he got a jump on the competition with “Slide,” which came out in February. But maybe that release was all part of a diabolical plan to double chart with “Heatstroke,” which came out at the end of March. By giving his songs a few months to percolate before Memorial Day, Harris allows them to become associated with feelings of anticipation for those first whiffs of warm weather.
So what have we learned from Calvin Harris’ recipe for summer hits?
To create a song of the summer, combine a popular songstress with an up-tempo beat fit for the dance floor. Add a dash of sing-along lyrics and familiar musical patterns—maybe even a millennial whoop —and allow it to marinate for two months before the official summer charting begins.
Not all songs of the summer precisely follow the Calvin Harris Secret to Summer Song Success. But in his hits, we can see the ingredients for the real thing. More than containing any one identifiable element, they manage to capture an elusive, summer-specific feeling: exuberance, possibility, and eventually, nostalgia. Songs of the Summer are more than soundtracks for the present—hearing them transports you to past years of dancing barefoot under a warm sky.