Handicapping the Summer Song of 2021

Olivia Rodrigo Good 4 You

There is always a Song of Summer. There was one last year, despite both the travails of pop music and the insanity of the (can’t-go-) outside world. The real question is whether there will be depth. In music’s best summers, 1979 for instance, there are so many great choices that some big radio hits aren’t even considered contenders to be the Song of Summer. 

A summer of great music is the summer we all need this year. Providing a better soundtrack is the thing that radio can do for audiences to prove their ongoing value. Having enough Summer Song candidates for a photo finish on Labor Day weekend gives music a place in the cultural conversation and radio a place in helping drive it. 

As recently as 10 days ago, I was having a conversation with a radio person about available current product. “Where are all those major releases that you said were going to start flowing in every Friday?” he asked. Only one uptempo song of the sort geared for summer dominance was climbing the charts at that moment — Doja Cat f/Sza’s “Kiss Me More.” But BTS’s “Butter” is out tomorrow. Maybe Marshmello/Jonas Brothers too. PDs are also expecting new Ed Sheeran and Jason Derulo/Tesher.

Last year, I declared “Watermelon Sugar” the Song of Summer 2020. Some readers felt strongly that it was “Blinding Lights.” (I always try to go with a song from summer; as it turns out, there were greater slights for the Weeknd in store.) This summer, Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” is resurgent, and will likely be in power rotation well into the summer. I’m good with that; it went away in February before I was ready.

Dua Lipa Levitating

Last summer, Lipa was waiting for “Don’t Start Now” to run its course while “Break My Heart” was scaling the charts, bolstering her place in a not-crowded-enough field of CHR hitmakers. To some extent, good things have already happened for the other top Summer Song contenders. “Kiss Me More” has cemented Doja Cat as an artist beyond “Say So.” “Butter,” even before its release, has made CHR eager to play a superstar act that they were skeptical about, even as “Dynamite” climbed the charts last year.

On the Summer Energy 2021 playlist unveiled here a few weeks ago, we’re up to 60 uptempo or summer-feeling songs, including all the current songs mentioned in this week’s column. Some songs are in play already at radio, or already hits elsewhere in the world. Some just ought to be. I’ll be adding to the playlist throughout the summer. 

If you’ve been following our 15 years of Song of Summer columns, you know I feel that a true “Song of Summer” should be uptempo, or at least breezy/tropical or summer-themed. Justin Bieber’s “Peaches” certainly counts as summer-themed/summer-feeling. So do Kali Uchis’s “Telepatia” and Anitta’s “Girl From Rio.” And ROR readers, less hung-up than I am on this topic, advocated for Masked Wolf’s “Astronaut In The Ocean,” Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” and “Leave the Door Open” as well, although I’m particularly curious about the next Silk Sonic single as well.

Doja Cat Sza Kiss Me More

A number of ROR readers felt that “WAP” was the Song of Summer 2020, even without radio’s full acknowledgment. This year, Cardi B’s “Up” is geared for summer and just cracking top 20 pop at this writing. Saweetie f/Doja Cat’s “Best Friend” is just about to crack top 10 pop, while her even-more-uptempo “Fast (Motion)” is already in play at Hip-Hop and Rhythmic Top 40.  

I have felt for months that if Nelly & Florida Georgia Line’s “Lil Bit” hung in there until Memorial Day that it would be a Song of the Summer contender. It would also be not just a song that broke from radio, as opposed to streaming, but a song that broke from secondary-market radio, something we haven’t seen in too long a while. Another pop/country collaboration, Elle King & Miranda Lambert’s “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” is climbing the Adult Top 40 chart. There are no firm plans yet for it at Mainstream CHR yet. It will definitely be worked at Country now, giving it a shot at the same sort of multi-format lateral support that helped “The Bones” by Maren Morris.

In the last few weeks, Regard f/Troye Sivan & Tate McRae’s “You,” Riton x Nightcrawlers f/Musafa & Hypeman’s “Friday,” and Joel Corry, Rae & David Guetta’s “Bed,” all proven international hits, have already lined up in formation. Having multiple dance/pop hits was a big part of CHR’s 1997 comeback. In the radio summer we need, dance hits won’t be fighting for one or two slots. So also listen to Afrojack & David Guetta’s “Hero.” 

Summer songs have always been a way to propel acts back into contention at CHR, from Kid Rock to Enrique Iglesias. Coldplay’s “Higher Power” isn’t an obvious “All Summer Long”-type bid, but does harness the ‘80s appeal that drove “Blinding Lights.” Onerepublic’s “Run” is right next to Coldplay on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits and has an early supporter at KLLC (Alice 97.3) San Francisco. They’re not intended for CHR, but yesterday afternoon, there were new singles from Duran Duran (“Invisible”), Garbage (“Wolves”), and Aly & AJ (“Pretty Places”). 

BTS Butter

I predicted last Memorial Day that the Song of Summer 2020 might not exist yet but might be a phenomenon that developed at the speed of streaming. That prophecy had to wait for January and “Driver’s License” to be fulfilled. Now, Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” is off and running, even with “Déjà Vu” still growing.” There are also a number of PDs already advocating for Bella Poarch’s “Build a Bitch” as the next phenomenal record to emerge from streaming.

From the pop/punk intersection, there’s also Illenium and Iann Dior’s “First Time” and All Time Low’s “Once in a Lifetime,” following up their “Monsters” breakthrough. There’s the well-timed “Cloud 9” by Beach Bunny. There are a half-dozen other viable Alternative titles on the Summer Energy 2021 playlist,  although, as usual, those that cross may take longer than three months to get here. One particular left-field favorite is the Maine’s “Sticky.”

Country has always had its own suite of summer song candidates. This year, I’m going to give them their own story. Look for “Handicapping the Country Summer Song of 2021,” and some thoughts about the landscape challenges that entails, next week. 

That’s my list of Summer Song candidates. What are yours? Here’s to a better summer for all.


This story first appeared on radioinsight.com