Every year, as soon as the weather starts to turn warmer and sunnier, I get the itch, a craving to create that year’s ultimate Summer Jams playlist. Summer Jams are essential for maintaining the vibe at a barbecue or making a long drive with the windows down more pleasant. Summer Jams come in all genres as well. There is no standard tempo or instrumentation. So the question is: How does one define a Summer Jam? Is it like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography in that “[you] know it when [you] see it?” Or is there a firmer rubric?
While there is no 100% accurate way to diagnose a Summer Jam, I offer a few guidelines towards pinpointing whether a song has that certain essence that makes it idea for cookouts, road trips, and beachgoing.
Have you ever pounded the roof of your car while listening to it while driving?
Simple question. Have you ever heard the song on the radio/shuffle/purpose and been moved to rhythmically (or otherwise, depending on your ability) beat up some furniture/your knees/a motor vehicle. I mean this out of enthusiasm, not rage. Like when I hear “The One I Love” by R.E.M. and just want to bang my head against a grenade.
The ultimate example of this is when The Dude, drinking a beer, smoking a joint, and driving cannot help but smack the ceiling in time to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Looking Out My Back Door.” Creedence passes the “slap test” with flying colors. In fact, I might go as far as saying that The Big Lebowski is the film equivalent of a summer jam. But also maybe not.
When the song comes on, is there a general surge of enthusiasm among all present?
Here’s the scenario: You’re sitting with a group of friends on a porch. There’s conversation and hamburgers and probably also veggie burgers if your friends are like my friends. People are enjoying potato salad and trying to enjoy macaroni salad. A boom box (or iPod dock, which is a way less fun phrase) is blasting out some tunes.
Suddenly the song shifts. It’s not a surprise. That’s just what songs do. At some point, though, whether it’s the opening notes, the chorus, or the bridge, someone stops and says “I love this song.” Everyone, or at least everyone except that one guy who hates everything on principle, agrees. Bonus points if people start to sing along (almost always happens with “Nothing But a ‘G’ Thang”). Double bonus points if people divide into lead and backup vocals (almost always happens with “American Girl”).
If the song in question induces this kind of behavior, chances are you have a bona-fied Summer Jam on your hands.
Is it inconceivable that you would listen to this song in any other season?
If someone put on “In The Summertime” by Jerry Mungo and the temperature was less than 80 degrees, you would probably try to restrain that person because he or she would clearly be insane and possibly a danger to him/herself and others. Same goes for “Summertime” by Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (and “Parents Just Don’t Understand” for that matter). I would also feel the same about someone who decided that “Summertime” by Sublime needed to happen. But that’s primarily because there’s not really ever a reason/excuse to hear that song.
Personally, I can only listen to The New Pornographers and certain De La Soul albums when the heat index reaches a certain point. Until then it just feels wrong. Like seeing a baby smoking. Or seeing someone wearing a tie listening to NWA.
With those three guidelines, I think we can home in on what makes a Summer Jam so special. I’d recommend that before giving a song serious consideration, you must make sure it meets at least two of these criteria. Example: “Stir It Up” by Bob Marley is only listenable in the summer, but I wouldn’t include it on a list of Summer Jams. That may, however, stem from my prejudice that nowadays reggae has become techno for people who are too scared to try hard drugs.
Similarly, people are often willing to sing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but it’s not great for amateur percussion, and it certainly sounds as good in October as it does in June. “Hey Ya” is too catchy all the time. Not quite a Summer Jam, even though it’s great to hear in the summer.
It’s a fine line, guys. But I think with a little more overanalysis, we can continue to categorize and segment things we like rather than just enjoying them on a pure, wonderful, reptilian level. And isn’t that what summer is about? No? Well, it is what blogs are about. So good day sirs and madams. Enjoy your summer of Summer Jams!