Summerjams (my chosen stylization of the term) are the songs that characterize a summer. The music that scores the highs and lows (both meteorological and emotional) of the season that is best understood as the time between years of education, or if you are a farmer, the sowing and the harvest. To understand summerjams is to understand having a good time, a bad time, one of those times where you stand in the shower and listen for crickets and that other time where you lean your head against the car window and it’s cold even though everything else is hot.
To understand summerjams you have to understand summer. To understand summer you have to understand liminality.
“Summer,” as it is understood in a modern context, has very little to do with the season itself. Some of this is to do with climate change and global warming. Some of it with modifications in agricultural techniques, government mandated education, and increased industrialization. Regardless of dominance, at the intersection of these forces is “Summer,” an in-between place and time that offers a seemingly limitless possibility space if only one was less lazy, less sweaty, or wasn’t consistently tired.
Summer can be happy. For students and their educators it is a well-deserved break. It can mean not waking up early and waiting for a bus, or staying up, half-doing homework and half-watching late night talk shows. It’s barbecues, it’s beaches, it’s also running a raid ‘til 5AM with your friends (it is okay to be up early if you get loot at the end). Summer is warm like the sun, soft like good sand or damp grass—in general, happy.
Summer can also be sad. Summer is when your friends go away. Summer is summer camp, math and science workshops, SAT Prep. It can be more school even when that shouldn’t be happening. Summer is sunsets and unbearable heat and the looming specter of whatever the hell a “summer fling” is. If existential dread were a season, it would be summer.
This unrelenting in-betweenness, a tension between what was before and what’s coming next, describes a concept that already exists. Liminality. Originally from the field of anthropology, the concept of liminality has expanded to a variety of different fields. It’s that feeling of being in-between. In-between steps of a ritual or stages of social development. A sort of non-space where disparate things come together to form new, strange, and unique entities. Liminal spaces are where identities are formed, feelings are crystallized and unexpected action is taken. All things that fit comfortably in Summer, the ultimate In-Between.
Knowing this, a summerjam becomes much simpler. Good jams (“bop” or “hot track” are equally acceptable alternatives) capture the liminal spirit of summer. They are many things and they are nothing. The best summerjams work just as well driving down the coast with the top down as they do crying in your room or sitting on the roof and staring at the moon. They are chimeras of feelings, past and future actions and excellent hooks. Triumphantly sad and thoughtlessly thoughtful. Which is to say that summerjams are odd creations. In the liminal spaces that summer generates, they are unique things that these disparate parts form. They take strange shapes, often using familiar methods, but speaking to new or unforeseen feelings and experiences. This lets them dodge easy definition or hold contradictory qualities. They’re more elusive and far more personal, but that much more meaningful. And this is true anytime. Feeling “In-between” is best suited to the purposelessness of summer, but it can happen and is happening more or less all the time. A summerjam, then, never has to go stale. The feelings and the quality of the music are evergreen. This is perhaps a more unsettling thought in macro, but it remains in my estimation, true. Being in the “In-Between” doesn’t have to be bad, because the power to make that designation lies within those caught in that same space. They are the playlist maker, the liminal being, and 2017 has blessed them with much:
“Signal” by Sylvan Esso is my personal summerjam for 2017. Like much of their music, “Signal” is lyrically sort of obtuse. Sing-songy in some sense, perhaps simplistic, but able to convey a deeper, more nuanced emotion. It’s about finding sense in nonsense, some kind of meaning after a loss or deep within unfamiliar territory. This is summer in a nutshell to me, a time for having the best time in the worst of circumstance. The repeated bells and proud rhythmic march of the song speak that triumphant sadness, the relentless lurch towards something that wavers between clarity and complete confusion. Besides all that it just sounds pretty. I like bells.
“Go Gina” by SZA is the de facto summerjam of 2017 for everyone. It’s hazy and lazy. Beautiful, if sort of withdrawn. SZA is a hypnotic singer, the effortless kind. “Go Gina” is loopy, less of a musical journey and more slow-motion donuts in a parking lot. It feels like a rest, and in a year where mere existence is under fire yet again, a rest is good and deserved. It’s got bell sounds too, but I swear that’s not a theme.
“Chanel” by Frank Ocean continues a surprising trend of actually releasing music rather than cancelling concerts with a song that is better than a lot of BLONDE. Less specific and album-y (hence the single release), but damn good. “Chanel” is that exact kind of melancholy that is all too common in summer. Sort of lovesick and resigned, commenting on duality and bisexuality with clever metaphor and a catchy chorus. It’s been on repeat more or less everyday for me and has confirmed that yes, I am attracted to Frank Ocean. And that’s fine.
“american dream” by LCD Soundsystem could have been the one, but then everything else happened. It has summerjam written all over it. It’s a sad ballad-waltz thing about the trials, tribulations, and soaring feeling of loving and being loved. It’s about broken ideas, personal and societal, and a stubborn insistence to keep existing. It’s the perfect song to fall in love to or perhaps fall out of love to. Very summer. Just not number one because LCD Soundsystem are an old reliable and there has been so much other stuff.
“See You Again” by Tyler, the Creator is an unexpected beauty. I know there is not much love for Tyler, the Creator around these parts. (It’s understandable.) He’s long been angsty, loud, and offensive. For a long time he created music that was good, but sort of deliberately ugly, as if doing so was making some kind of point (even though it was probably just a lack of perspective). That’s what makes this most recent album and “See You Again” so surprising. They feel deliberately beautiful, adult, and reflective. This is the kind of song that if it came on during shuffle you’d feel no shame singing along to. It’s about longing and just grows and grows as it goes along, pulling you and everyone in, because it’s afraid to lose you. That’s me with my friends during summer. It’s probably you, too.
“North Star” by Future Islands was probably the first song that I heard this year that I thought felt deliberately aimed towards the “summer.” It marks the band’s continued push into a polished, nostalgic ‘80s sound, something I’ve come to realize is to their benefit and detriment. Regardless, “North Star” is the good kind. Evoking that vague kind of Afrobeat and good, heavy synths that the band specializes in; it’s very much tasty stuff. I’m pretty sure everyone should wish they could sing, “What if the sun don’t shine” like Sam Herring does, because it’s never not fun. Thinking further, a song about searching, traveling, and finding one you love speaks to the often travel-focused feeling of summer and the search for new meaning in old pairings. Plus you can dance to it! And you should! It’s fun.
“Cut To The Feeling” by Carly Rae Jepsen would probably be The Summerjam in any other year. She practically invented the form, with the kind of pop music perfect for driving with the top down or crying about a boy. She’s North America’s treasure, Canada’s star. “Cut To The Feeling” soars triumphantly, using interesting references to film editing and a frequent use of “woo.” It’s aural gold and it feels especially strange to learn that it was a song cut from E.MO.TION, because it feels particularly suited to that masterwork. Whatever, trust CRJ. She knows. She’s good. She lives a better summer than anyone.
“STAR” by BROCKHAMPTON is just as fresh and funny as the boy band that produced it. It’s got shameless pop culture references (to actual things a young person in 2017 might recognize), heavy Shawn Mendes stanning (that’s super charming, especially if you follow Kevin Abstract on Twitter), and a pretty badass music video. More than anything, “STAR” represents the exact kind of excitement everyone should be feeling about BROCKHAMPTON, an originally Texas-based rap/hip hop group inspired by Odd Future. They’re young, passionate and unabashedly unconventional; inspiring in how they’re making something out of void of nothing. Kings of Summer, one could say.
“Blade Running” by Current Joys is some hipster bullshit, but gosh darn it if it doesn’t capture that foggy, not-sure-if-I’m-happy-or-sad feeling that defines summer for a lot of people. The song’s sort of lo-fi, somehow sung from a distance with drums out of an a-ha song and guitar strumming that never lets up. It’s the kind of song that should score a montage. Like if we’re gonna be honest, take those disposable photos you have of your friends, scan them, make a little movie, and put this song under it. Before you know it you’ll be smoking American Spirits and feeling sort of sad. But it’ll be okay because you’ll see them next weekend and you can have Four Lokos. You’re never really more than six days from Four Lokos.
“Boss” by Lil Pump is inscrutable in the way that makes me wish I was drunk and sweaty. I really don’t know what he’s saying for at least a third of the song, but I know I could dance to this and I might feel a bit like trash, but it’s okay, because his album cover is a Bitmoji and he samples an iPhone text tone. Put this on when you wrestle control of the party playlist and be confident that people will love it. How could you not?
Whether danceable or not, having the power to make meaning, finding that power that is inherent to someone in a liminal period, should be the focus when making a summerjam playlist. A summer playlist of summerjams is as much a plan for a Friday night as it is a statement to yourself that you have control over what you do next, but even more importantly, what you do now. Hopefully those plans surprise you, scare you and show you that there is more to everything, even yourself. You just have to look, choose, and press play.