A guide to summer jams: pop edition

By Peter Valelly

You can take me out of the Arts Section, but you can’t take the Arts Section out of me. Case in point: every summer, I get psyched not so much for the warm weather or returning to my friends from home, but for the sheer amount of free time to consume music, film, books, and more. School’s over, a little voice inside my head tells me, so now you can finally spend all your time listening and reading and watching. But with each passing summer, it seems harder to even find the time for consumption since all of my time is taken up by sitting, sleeping, eating, and other hardcore vegetating. Which is why this summer, I finally reached a new low – or scaled a new peak, depending on your perspective – by fully embracing the most effortlessly appealing musical phenomenon on the earth: the summer jam.After all, if there’s one thing you can always rely on from the summer, it’s that there will be certain songs that are totally, utterly inescapable. And while quality and popularity are hardly ever tied in pop music, the summer seems a time of especially lax airwave standards; the plain fact is that whether or not a song has any merit whatsoever has nothing to do with how many of the words you know by late August.
So was the case with many of the jams that ruled my psyche this summer. Sean Kingston’s endearing but grating “Beautiful Girls” was a favorite for a stretch of July, but now I think I can do without hearing it for at least a year. Then there were those tunes whose inexplicable appeal completely overshadowed their should-have-been crappiness. Take T-Pain. I literally can’t fathom why this man got a record deal, or how he went from last fall’s two-hit-wonder into essentially the reigning champ of R&B, yet I still rejoice whenever I hear his robot-voiced epic “Buy You a Drank.”

The obvious reigning champs had their shot. When Beyonc turned every single song from her year-old “B’Day” into a single with an elaborate video, she furnished us with an embarrassment of bleating, wailing R&B tunes both good and bad. Meanwhile, superstar producer Timbaland’s solo career was bolstered with the catchy if grammatically iffy “The Way I Are.” There were underdogs, too, like Lloyd’s slinky and addictive “Get It Shawty,” easily one of the best pop singles I’ve encountered this year.

Yet as I lay lazily adrift in this sea of imminently forgettable songs, I couldn’t help but wonder what had made me so susceptible to their disposable ways. Even as I’ve found the last few years profoundly lacking in good music on nearly all fronts, there are still great bands putting out great records that I literally didn’t even bother to check out. New indie, electronic, or underground music drifted completely past my ears as I kept my radio tuned to any of several mainstream rap, R&B, and pop stations.

While I’m always one to proclaim pop music’s capacity for nuance and sophistication, I found most of this summer’s jams as tepid and uninspired as anything else happening lately, yet continued to listen to them. I suppose there’s just something so simple in the appeal of turning on the radio or MTV and being spoonfed music that is engineered to be as palatable to as many people as possible. Yet pop’s own “pleasure principle” – the idea that the joy derived from listening to radio singles is reason enough to praise them – has never held much weight for me, and seems less and less to influence the output of today’s pop market. These are songs not so much produced by people with an ear for sheer aural enjoyment as much as they are songs consumed by a public perpetually ravenous for this joy whether or not the music can deliver.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, so I can’t say I feel guilty about my summer of pop hedonism, but I can say that while nearly every hit I relished this summer may soon drift out of my mind, there was at least one song that deserves a place on any best-of-2007 list: Rihanna’s “Umbrella.”

It is one of the conundrums of contemporary pop that a song can reach #1 in 12 countries simultaneously with a beat composed of a slowed-down drum part from Apple’s Garage Band and what seems to be the sound of a synthesizer being sat on. Yet it is the magic accident of pop, and the reason that I continue to defend its potential, that this effortlessness still constitutes one of this summer’s transcendent musical experiences.
There’s something brave in the song’s petulant refusal to play into the raunchy rules of most R&B and pop. It is, after all, a love song more about friendship than romance and sex. And if Rihanna’s voice isn’t well suited to emotion, it somehow carries the song’s wonderful, triumphant hook better than her oversinging contemporaries could. The only way the song could be improved is by excising old-timer Jay-Z’s clunky intro verse, and thankfully many edits doing just that are available online. Here, finally, are all of the things we should be able to expect from pop as much from underground hip-hop, punk, indie, and all of the other genres so frequently championed as being more complex than radio fare. Affect, nuance, originality – it’s all here.

So while it’s doubtful that “Umbrella” will serve as inspiration to the rest of the pop universe, it at least reminded me that as great as sheer, lazy pleasure is, pop music is always capable of more than that. Here’s hoping for more of these happy accidents.