Want to know what people are listening to this summer in Minneapolis? Take to the streets, literally.
Go for a walk downtown and watch for passing cars. Try to decipher what’s coming out of that beat-up sedan with the windows rolled down, the one with the speaker rattling to the point of incoherence. See if you can make out the song, its perceived frequency and pitch falling as the car sweeps by.
Granted, it’s a fairly rare sight in my adopted home of Minnesota. Nobody wants to be exposed to the elements. My friends and I noticed how few cars were blasting music on the glorious weekend that followed April’s cruel blizzard. The snow had melted, the sun was shining and all I heard was one lousy Foo Fighters tune.
Couldn’t be me. Catch me behind the driver’s wheel and you’re sure to hear whatever the local hip-hop station has in rotation. Pass by my apartment on a humid day and there’s a good chance I’ll be out on the balcony, blasting something funky from a Bluetooth speaker. Give me enough beverages and an aux cord and you’ll have a hard time getting it back.
For the past five years, I’ve chronicled my personal search for Song of the Summer (SOTS) on social media, in my college newspaper column and via my personal blog.
I always kick it off by posting about the season’s first big song, usually in April or May. A month or so later, I’ll weigh in again with a comprehensive list, outlining the various contenders with arguments for and against. Then I take to Facebook and provide updates on which songs have risen and which ones have fallen off. Yes, Billboard magazine is the ultimate SOTS arbiter. But I’m an independent by nature; I like to pick my own song.
I was there for the “Get Lucky” vs. “Blurred Lines” battle of 2013, for the initial rush (then irritation) of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” in 2014, for the undisputed joy brought by “Trap Queen” in 2015. I saw Drake do his “One Dance” in 2016 and Calvin Harris get his “Slide” on the following year. (Some will think I’m not qualified to cover SOTS, having not picked “Despacito” for 2017. Well, if you’ve listened to Latin pop radio in the past 15 years, you’ve heard “Despacito” a million times before.)
To my ear, the sound for Summer 2018 is optimistic, with earnest representations of what the United States (and, erm, Canada) have to offer. I like Kacey Musgraves’ “High Horse” and a pair of Drake tracks. But I’ll predict I’ll go with “I Like It” by Cardi B, an artist who was but a blip on most of the country’s radar this time last year. I usually announce the winner on social media at the end of August.
This year’s small but mighty batch of SOTS contenders boasts global influences. Together with reggaeton superstars J Balvin and Bad Bunny, Cardi B looks to her Latin American roots with “I Like It,” flipping a 1967 boogaloo sample into a colorful trap anthem. Tracking the rise of Cardi and other Latin artists makes me proud of my own ethnicity. (I’m originally from Chile.) It shows not just in the sheer number of us living here, but the strong impact we have on the rest of the country, even if a majority of Minnesotans can’t understand all the lyrics.
Sounds like summer
My SOTS tradition has garnered a good number of followers over the years. Friends try to influence my pick via text messages, by sharing articles from national music outlets or by sending their personal SOTS favorites via Snapchat. People sound off in the comments of my blog, asking why I didn’t include a particular track on my list.
And the quest has persisted no matter where I’ve lived — be it Phoenix (where I went to college) or Seattle (where I moved for an internship) or Boston (where I moved for another internship). This year — my second in Minnesota — my search feels somewhat somber. Maybe it’s because I’m not in college anymore; maybe it’s because I’m removed from all my old friends. I worry I’m not creating memories worthy of summer’s best song.
But I carry on. After all, with Minnesota’s short summer, crowning an annual SOTS is more than a hobby; it’s a responsibility. It’s a search for sounds that capture this particular moment, the annual song that hooks people’s attention from coast to coast. SOTS tells us where we are and where we’re going. And years from now, it will bring back memories of this current moment. I believe SOTS captures our nation’s mood better than any election or Twitter feed ever could.
So I turn on the hip-hop station whenever I’m en route to an assignment, keeping an ear out for the songs with the most airtime. I check the Spotify charts, a reliable measure of the week’s trending songs considering the power of streaming these days. And I consult Billboard, which has published its Hot 100 list since 1958.
But I don’t rely on the charts. SOTS has to sound like summer, and I have my own personal rubric for picking a favorite. Where can you see yourself hearing the song? Is it upbeat or does it sag? Does it cool you down or make you feel even hotter? Some producers may try to create that SOTS feeling in vitro (i.e. DJ Khaled’s saccharine “I’m the One” or Justin Timberlake’s plastic “Can’t Stop the Feeling”), but I know a good SOTS when I hear it. As you can tell, the process is extremely scientific.
Last month, as I left the Twin Cities Pride festival and walked out of Loring Park, I made a point of listening to the passing cars, the day’s exuberance emanating from their speakers. I caught two Cardi B songs, including “I Like It.” It didn’t matter whether people understood the words. What mattered was that the song was shared, with volume and harmony.
So I’ll keep looking for SOTS this year and every year — until the radio stations go under and streaming algorithms destroy any remnants of collective listening. Because every summer there’s a song (or two) that comes close to capturing our shared American experience, and I think that’s worth celebrating.
Miguel Otárola is a Star Tribune reporter covering the suburbs.
Check out Miguel's SOTS Spotify list: