Where Did This ‘Song of the Summer’ Thing Come From?

An investigation into the origins of an annual tradition

Rihanna Umbrella 2007
rihanna Getty Images

In 2016 it’s taken for granted that with the summer comes the “Song of the Summer,” the one transcendentally huge single that worms its way into the ears of people across the country, and comes to define the summer for years to come.

But who decided that this would be a thing? Where did this annual tradition come from, and how long has it been in existence?

A quick Google Trends search turns up some minimal interest throughout the 2000s, with an explosion in popularity around 2013, but the phenomenon surely extends further back than that.

“It’s become both an American tradition, and something so overhyped it’s worth questioning,” wrote Slate’s Chris Molanphy in an attempt to investigate the phenomenon’s origins back in 2013.

Molanphy, who tracks the pop music charts for Slate’s culture blog Browbeat, traced the incarnation of the Song of the Summer competition back to early-to-mid ’90s hip-hop, and a 1995 New York Times Magazine cover story titled, “The No. 1 Summer Song of Love.”

However, as Molanphy also points out, the phrase gained real traction in the mid 2000s with the release of Rihanna‘s 2007 smash “Umbrella.” In June of that year music critic Kelefa Sanneh called the song “first serious contender for Song of the Summer” in his review of the pop star’s album “Good Girl Gone Bad” for the New York Times.

Following Rihanna‘s dominance that summer, more mainstream outlets began speculating about summertime hits in 2008, a season that would later come to be defined by Katy Perry‘s rock-influenced flirtation with lesbianism, “I Kissed a Girl.”

Vulture, for instance, ran a weekly feature beginning in May called “‘Umbrella’ Watch 2008,” a periodic check-in that evaluated the chances of songs like Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” and Estelle’s “American Boy.” (In August, the site would post the stubbornly-titled article “Six Reasons Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ Isn’t the Song of the Summer,” begrudging the final result).

By the 2010s, coverage of the phenomenon had exploded, and the race to crown one song the winner had become an annual tradition as common as fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Billboard launched its own “Summer Songs” chart in July 2010, putting Perry at the top of the list again with the sugary, Snoop Dogg-assisted “California Gurls.” By that point it was routine for nearly every pop culture publication to speculate about what the winner would be every year, whether it was an examination of Carly Rae Jepsen’s sudden appearance with “Call Me Maybe” in 2012, or the battle between Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” in 2013.

The MTV Video Music Awards added an entire “Song of the Summer” category in 2013, with One Direction taking home the trophy for “Best Song Ever” in its inaugural year.

Even less pop-focused outlets were getting their own cut of the pie by the early 2010s. Stereogum‘s “Indie Song of the Summer” poll first launched in 2011, crowning Foster the People’s “Pumped up Kicks” the summer anthem of the pop-disaffected. That same year, the hip-hop-oriented Complex named DJ Khaled’s “I’m on One” the “Hottest Song of Summer 2011.”

Music writers have also attempted to looked back and track down the biggest songs of past summers, extending the reach of the tradition into history. Billboard scoured its back catalog in 2010 to name the top 10 songs of every summer since 1985, a feature that was later updated to span all the way back to 1958.

But the breathless anticipation and endless examination of the pop charts every summer seems to be a relatively new phenomenon, one largely spurred by Rihanna‘s huge success in 2007, less than a decade ago.

So in 2016, a year when Drake can sit at the top of the Hot 100 for 10 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day without feeling like a truly inescapable hit, one has to wonder: Maybe the Song of the Summer contest is an entirely made-up tradition, and not an actual reflection of real a pop culture phenomenon at all.