The History Of The "Song Of The Summer" Is A Wild Ride

It's summertime and the living is easy. But whether you're enjoying an early Friday off from work, taking a weekend road trip, or just sitting outside and sipping some rosé, there is one thing every summer needs: music. Be it blasting out of your car or through your earbuds, there's no way you're getting through the summer without a soundtrack. And the key to the perfect hot weather soundtrack is the "song of the summer."

Everyone wants to have the song of the summer. It's that one joint you can't escape, that we all fall in love with and play and replay until it makes us sick. And — this may come a a shock to those of you who thought the Beach Boys or Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" invented the genre — the tradition goes back to at least 1910 (seriously!), when a newspaper first pondered what would be the sound of the summer. (That year, the sound was country.)


There is no doubt, however, that the 2000s and 2010s have been a golden era for songs of the summer. Billboard introduced a Summer Songs chart in 2010 to make it not just an honorary title but an actual competition. Not since the days when Tin Pan Alley and Broadway dominated songwriting in the 1930s to the 1950s have so many great songs been in contention for the coveted title. Take a look back at the songs that encapsulated the summertime vibe for Americans over the last century. You might be surprised to find that some of the old hits are just as catchy as the modern classics.

Megan Thee Stallion — "Savage" (2020)

Classy, bougie, ratchet. Even if you don't know the TikTok dance, you know the lyrics that inspired the viral trend that followed the hot single from Megan Thee Stallion's Suga. "Savage" gained so much attention after it dropped that the OG Houston hottie Beyoncé jumped on the remix. Now that's real hot girl shit!

Lizzo — "Truth Hurts" (2017)

Though it technically came out in 2017, "Truth Hurts" was undoubtedly the power anthem of summer 2019. Two years after its original release, the song had all of us feeling like we were one hundred percent that bitch.

Cardi B feat. Bad Bunny & J Balvin "I Like It" — 2018

Cardi B was 2018's newest and biggest superstar so of course she owned the summer. Her Latin-infused track was such a hit for two reasons: the desire for more Cardi and the earworm that the sample of Pete Rodriguez's 1967 hit song "I Like It Like That" created in all our heads.

Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee "Despacito" — 2017

"Despacito" may be one of the most devisive songs of the summer to go down in history. A lot of people absoutely loved it, and it topped the charts for pop, adult-leaning radio, and Spanish-language music. And it was a very slow burn — it dropped in January and took months and the addition of Justin Bieber to the track's remix to make the track inescapable. The people who didn't love it? Maybe they hate slow jams, maybe they were offended by the raunchy lyrics, maybe they think it sounds too sad — or maybe they're really into that border wall thing. Politically, the year after Trump's election and on the heels of his Muslim ban and "build the wall" chants, "Despacito" was a deeply political song of the summer, masquerading as a love song.

Calvin Harris feat. Rihanna "This Is What You Came For" — 2016

Baby, can you believe it's been this long since Taylor Swift (who co-wrote this track) and Calvin Harris were a thing? Or that Swift doesn't have her own song of the summer yet — just a writing credit on one?

Some people might want to argue that Drake's "One Dance" was 2016's song of the summer but those people didn't dance in circles to Rihanna hitting the high note on "Baby" as the beat dropped, or had her stuttering "you-ou-ou-ou-ou" take over their soul.

OMI "Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)" —2015

"Cheerleader" is catchy song with a long backstory: It was released in 2012 originally, remixed in 2014, and somehow found its way to the top of the pops in 2015. Unfortunately, it has sexist lyrics in which women are relegated to a cheerleader role in the relationship rather than granted the chance to be the star. Oh well, can't get 'em all right when it comes to songs of the summer.

Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX "Fancy" — 2014

She may be problematic now, but Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" was her coming out party and the song no one could get enough of in 2014. That Charli XCX chorus is a banger still today and the nostalgia-fueled video, a takeoff of the 1995 classic movie Clueless, definetly help keep us all hitting replay on this track.

Robin Thicke feat. T.I. & Pharrell "Blurred Lines" — 2013

Right, so let's talk about sexism in our songs of the summer one more time. This one from Robin Thicke, produced by Pharrell and meant to evoke the vibe of the classic Marvin Gaye song "Got to Give It Up" (and yes, that did end in a massive lawsuit), was another divisive song of the summer becuase those blurred lines they're singing about ignored the idea of consent. So what do you do when the bop of the summer is full of questionable messages? Most people hit play anyway.

Carly Rae Jepsen "Call Me Maybe" — 2012

Ah, the year that Carly Rae Jepsen reminded us how great it can be to have a collective musical experience where we all just enjoy a song because it's damn good. The world hadn't gotten together behind a song like that since Kelly Clarkson dropped "Since U Been Gone." It was nice, if only for a summer or so, for us to all get along when it comes to music.

LMFAO feat. Lauren Bennett & GoonRock "Party Rock Anthem" — 2011

This is not a smart song, but it is a good party song. And in the summer of 2011, that was just what a lot of people needed.

Katy Perry "California Gurls" — 2010

California, and its women, get an idealized makeover through the eyes of Katy Perry on the song (and album) that helped her step into the upper most echelon of pop stars. Giving propers to the sunny Southern Calfornia lifestyle got Perry one of the biggest songs of her career — she owned the summer of 2010.

Black Eyed Peas "I Gotta Feeling" — 2009

If you went to a party in 2009 and didn't hear this song at least twice, you might have been living on Mars. And the party didn't stop in 2009. This track went on to break digital sales records, sell 10 milion copes and earn diamond status, and become a pop anthem that stuck around at weddings, bat mitzvahs, and birthday parties long after summer faded.

Coldplay — "Viva La Vida" (2008)

What was it about this song that made us want to scream at the top of our lungs on a humid summer nights? Maybe it's the swell of the instruments near the bridge or Chris Martin's signature rasp belting out an urgent melody...either way, viva la vida forever.

Rihanna feat. Jay-Z "Umbrella" — 2007

Slow jam for song of the summer? In 2007, everyone said, "Don't mind if we do!" Rihanna won over anyone who was still not fully on board with this song about a love that will never die and left us all saying, "ella, ella, ella" to our boos.

Gnarls Barkley "Crazy" — 2006

R&B was not at its peak, but Gnarkls Barkley (Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse) managed to summon a moment for it out of thin air with the undeniably catchy "Crazy." Was it a bit dark, lyrically, for a summer song? Yes. Did we let the beat and Green's yowling, growling voice suck us in anyway? Absolutely.

Gwen Stefani "Hollaback Girl" — 2005

It's rare for a revenge track to become an anthem, but Gwen Stefani seems to specialize in them. From "Just a Girl" to "Spiderwebs" to "Don't Speak," Stefani had been sharpening her knives as a lyricist for years. When she dropped "Hollaback Girl," allegedly written in retaliation to Courtney Love calling her a cheerleader in Spin, she tapped into something that we couldn't get enough of.

Nina Sky — "Move Ya Body" (2004)

Twins Nicole and Natalie Albino really snapped with their self-titled debut album in 2004. The project featured the Billboard Hot 100 banger "Move Ya Body," which would go on to be a staple for any summer function worth attending for years to come.

Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z "Crazy In Love" — 2003

Looking back on this iconic summer jam, it's easy to see that it was as hot as the burgeoning relationship between Bey and Jay — and an introduction to Bey's incredible solo career.

Nelly "Hot In Herre" — 2002

Some summers just beg for a song about the weather that you can dance to. True, the "in herre" that Nelly refers to is the club, and the heat it coming from the sexual tension between himself and...probably several ladies. But wow did it feel right in the summer heat.

Eve feat. Gwen Stefani "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" — 2001

Name a more iconic duo from 2001, I'll wait. Now stop trying, because it's impossible. They did, in fact, blow our minds.

Len "Steal My Sunshine" — 1999

This particular summer jam is not for everyone — some people found it to be less of a summer song and more of a one-hit-wonder pop annoyance. But if it makes you happy, and in the summer of '99 it made a lot of folks happy, then why not blast it?

Dr. Dre & Tupac "California Love" — 1996

In the West verses East Coast beefs, the East never stood a chance at owning a song of the summer. We've learned this lesson time and time again: California knows how to party. And no one, absolutely no one, can capture the feel of summer like Cali.

Sir Mix-A-Lot "Baby Got Back" — 1992

Song of the summer or song of the year? You knew it was coming everytime you heard, "Becky, look at her butt." And you cranked it. Years later, Beckys still can't catch a break. Now that's an enduring legacy.

DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince "Summertime" — 1991

This track perfected the lost art of making a song about summer and turning it into the sound of the summer. If you weren't flipping it on while you cruised around with the top down, you weren't living in '91.

New Kids On The Block "Step By Step" — 1990

Teen girls ruled the Earth as the '80s turned into the '90s and they turned this pop gem into an inescapable song of the summer. Never doubt their powers.

Whitney Houston "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" — 1987

Whtiney Houston was already a superstar when she dropped this gem and put her stamp on the summer of 1987. Whether you were crushed out or coupled up or just besties, this became a song to slip onto the dance floor to.

Donna Summer "Bad Girls" — 1979

It's that "beep beep, toot toot" at the beginning that makes this song unforgettable. Donna Summer dropped it at the peak of the disco era and wow, did it make a splash. For the last summer that disco was cool, Summer ruled supreme.

Aretha Franklin "Respect" — 1967

In the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the push for equal rights for women, Aretha Franklin captured not only the feeling of so many one summer but the feeling of a generation in this stellar song.

The Rolling Stones "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" — 1965

The summer of '65 was also the summer of one of the great rock songs. When the Rolling Stones dropped this one, they secured their place in music history.

The Beach Boys "I Get Around" — 1964

Nothing says summer quite like the early Beach Boys albums. If you had a muscle car and dreamed of living on a beach, they probably put both of those ideas in your head. The guys defined summer cool.

Ricky Nelson "Poor Little Fool" — 1959

Ricky Nelson was America's hearththrob in the '50s, so of course he captured a song of the summer. But, this one is a little bit special: it was written by Sharon Seeley about her relationship with Don Everly, another '50s teen heartthrob and one half of the Everly Brothers. For her troubles, Seeley became youngest woman to write a No. 1 in America thanks to this track.

Rosemary Clooney "Come On-A My House" — 1951

This seductive jazz vocal standard by Rosemary Clooney (yes, aunt to George Clooney) was all everyone wanted to hear in the summer of 1951.

Nat "King" Cole "Nature Boy" — 1943

Nat "King Cole didn't just run a summer, he ran all the charts nearly all of the time in the '40s and '50s. His stature as a beloved artist did earn him song of the summer for this slow ballad.

Ethel Waters "Heat Wave" — 1933

The temps hit a high of 102 degrees in July of 1933 and it inspired Irving Berlin to write a song about it for a musical review he was working on that opened on Broadway in September. That ditty, sung by Ethel Waters in As Thousands Cheer, became part of his songbook and one of the great songs about summer weather, but the story of the woman who sang is and first got it on the charts is way more interesting. She headlined Black vaudeville shows, toured clubs in the South with Bessie Smith, and became a star of the Harlem Renaissance before this song even existed. With her performance in this review, Waters became the first Black woman to integrate the theatre district in NYC and thanks to that gig plus her jobs singing in nightclubs and with Jack Denny & His Orchestra, she became the highest paid performer on Broadway.

Waters had a lot of milestone moments: she was he first Black woman to introduce 50 Broadway songs that became hits (including this one). She was the fifth Black woman to make a record, becoming the highest paid Black recoridng artist in the 1920s. She was the first Black person with their own TV show, in 1939, when NBC gave her a variety special. Later, the second Black woman nominated for an Academy Award, garnining a 1950 nod for Best Supporting Actress in the film Pinky, and the first Black performer to be nominated for an Emmy in 1962.

She opted for more mainstream fare than many contemporaries, but this boundry-busting singer, actor, and performer put a spin on a song about an unforgettable summer that deserves attention.

Great White Way Orchestra with Billy Murray "Yes! We Have No Bananas" — 1923

If you grew up watching The Muppets, you may remember the Swedish Chef doing parodies of this 1923 banger. It was inspired, as the lyrics show, by a Greek man with a fruit cart in Long Island (and possibly also by the very real 1922 banana shortage) and became the little joke song that could for decades and decades — probably because it's one of those earworms that is near impossible to get out of your head. It was revitalized (and rerecorded) for decades after it's release, with an inclusion in Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a big resurgence after WWII, and popular reinterpretations recorded by Spike Jones and Louis Prima. In more modern times, the song has been used on The Brady Bunch, The Simpsons, and, of course, The Muppets.

Bob Roberts "I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife, But Oh You Kid!" — 1909

Who knew there were viral hit songs before the internet? This raunchy ditty had the nation singing about an adulturous affair and could possibly be the first ever sound (or song) of the summer. The chorus of the song became a catchprase that people heard and saw everywhere, using the slang term "kid" in the same way one would say "baby" or "bae" now. Slate has a collection of cartoons it inspired, saying it was not just emblazoned on the pages of the paper but in Broadway shows, ads, and even an altered version that was performed for President William Howard Taft at the White House. When everyone was burned out on "Oh You Kid," a little upstart songwriter named Irving Berlin co-wrote a copycat track that dropped in 1910 called "My Wife's Gone to the Country! Hurrah! Hurrah!" It became his first hit of many — and the song of the summer the following year.
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