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The surprising history of the "song of the summer"

Beach party! But the song of summer is a lot older than 1960.
Beach party! But the song of summer is a lot older than 1960.
Archive Photo/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

This is the time of year when we search for the song of summer — the slightly sticky anthem that will define 2016. Is this year's top contender "Panda"? Or will another song rise to prominence?

One newspaper described the quest well:

The song of summer — in 1910.

The song of summer — in 1910.

New York Tribune Archives

That description doesn't hail from the sweaty summer of LFO's "Summer Girls" (1999) or even the season of the Beach Boys' "California Girls"(1965). It comes from the June 5 edition of the New York Tribune — in 1910.

We tend to think of the song of summer as an invention of the '50s and '60s, when convertibles and California first defined what was cool. But the song of summer has a surprisingly long history: the search for a summer song has been around almost as long as commercial music itself.

Popular music is invented in the 1880s, and a hit-driven market follows soon after

Tin Pan Alley in 1905.

Tin Pan Alley in 1905.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For centuries, summer has played muse to songwriters and poets (like those seeking to "sing a song o' summer"), but the true summer song couldn't be born until the music industry was.

Before music was regularly recorded, songs still circulated the country through sheet music, and it was possible for the right song to become a massive hit. As the Washington Post wrote on February 18, 1883, hitmakers like Stephen Foster were able to sell massive numbers of copies for music publishers — Foster's "Old Dog Tray," a less familiar song than "Camptown Races," moved 125,000 copies. Popular songs could go far back, too: for example, 1817's "The Old Oaken Bucket" was a consistent seller. Other tunes were drawn from operas or operettas.

Calling these songs "summer anthems" might be a stretch — many of them enjoyed extended sales cycles that allowed them to become popular over the course of a few years, not a single three-month period. But the speed of that sales cycle increased as the commercial publishing row called Tin Pan Alley became a force in the 1880s, making new songs profitable for both songwriters and printers of sheet music. As the music publishing industry grew, musical production increased. And the rise of the phonograph, which was invented in the 1870s and began to catch on in the early 1900s, only helped the industry boom.

The result was a climate in which songs could filter in and out of the public consciousness just as they do today, producing conditions in which a single song could become the "song of summer." On May 12, 1907, the Washington Post wrote about the most successful hits, and at that time the paper estimated about 6,000 songs were being published a year. There were a few big breakouts, though even the experts acknowledged that, like today, they had no idea which song would capture the popular imagination.

That didn't stop them from trying to guess what made a summer song pop, even in the early 1900s. According to songwriter Ron Shields, cited in the Post, hits needed a familiar ingredient: "It is the song that the drunk is going to sing that is the song that is going to be popular."

As with today, people were snobs about the hits. One songwriter snarked that "more songs fail because they are too good than because they are not good enough." But even if the songs weren't works of art, they could achieve massive success (with titles like "Brainstorms" and "I'd Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill").

Once a hit song was established, it was only a step away from defining an entire season.

The summer song sweats through the 1910s and into the Jazz Age

Three flappers in the summer of 1928. They probably were familiar with a summer song or two.

Three flappers in the summer of 1928. They probably were familiar with a summer song or two.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The same way we feel about Beyoncé's "Crazy In Love" or Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," people of the early 1900s started to feel about the summer hits of the era. By at least 1910 — and probably earlier — there were recognizable "songs of summer" that defined a particular year.

In 1910, the New York Tribune recalled 1909's summer hit "My Wife's Gone to the Country! Hooray! Hooray!" as well as "McGinty," "Elsie from Chelsea," and "Where Did You Get That Hat?" Predictions for the next summer's hits included something about Teddy Roosevelt and an ode to Halley's Comet, which appeared in 1910. It's clear that the concept of a "summer song" had been established. By 1919, there was even a hit song to mark the coming of Prohibition (the oddly spelled "Goodby Licker, Goodby Booze" was called "the drinking song this summer").

So it continued through the '20s, as music publishing, phonographs, and a new technology called "radio" began making headway late in the decade with the founding of NBC and CBS. During the summer of 1923, the New York Times chronicled the hit song of that summer, "Yes, We Have No Bananas!"; people complained about it (one music professor said "the song has no musical appeal"), but it sold a million copies in three months. By 1924, the New York Times was already waxing nostalgic for the "Songs of Yesterday" that had survived the Jazz Age.

As recorded music becomes more popular, the summer song becomes an institution

A poster for the 1966 film The Endless Summer, a classic surf movie that came to symbolize the season.

A poster for the 1966 film The Endless Summer, a classic surf movie that came to symbolize the season.

Movieplex Images/Getty Images

The summer song wasn't an invention of '50s and '60s pop rock, but that's when it became an institution, thanks to better industry reporting and the growing influence of music on pop culture.

By the time Billboard got involved with music, the summer song was already an established idea. The magazine published its first hit parade in 1936, and in 1958 the Billboard Hot 100 debuted. The Hot 100's launch made it possible to calculate exactly what was lighting up the charts.

The summer song phenomenon undoubtedly increased as radio and records rose in popularity. That eventually led to more advanced taxonomies like New York magazine's 1995 analysis of the song of summer, which gave it concentrated anthropological attention (according to New York, the summer song had to be released during the summer, had to be a little dumb, and had to be impossible to forget). But by the time the magazine documented the summer song, it was a long-established phenomenon. The concept had already been around for at least 80 years — and possibly longer.

So what does the summer song represent?

As long as it's been around, people have pondered the summer song's meaning: why do we keep searching for the summer song? The New York Tribune submitted a hopeful note in 1910:

The summer song is about hope.

The summer song is about hope.

New York Tribune Archives

Your pop-friendly translation: The summer songs — and summers — of the past haven't always lived up to our expectations … but there's always a new one on the horizon.

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