It is generally agreed but never specifically discussed that there is a thing called the “summer jam.” I suppose it bears some genetic resemblance to the “summer read.” But the “summer jam” is both a more fleeting and a more dominating sort of beast. There is typically only one summer jam per season and there is no such thing as a repeat. You can only be the summer jam once.
The summer jam is an unpretentious thing. It goes directly to the very essence of pop music, which is to create a sound that is unique enough to catch your attention and almost impossible to ignore. But the summer jam must capture the mind immediately and more forcefully and purely than the pop music hit of another season. This probably has something to do with summer itself. Summer is the season of immediacy, of quick glances and shimmering surfaces. Summer has needs, and more than other seasons those needs have a desperate quality to them. I don’t know whether it really matters if summer jams are even “good” or “bad.” Summer jams are beyond good and bad. They are best described as phenomena, events, things that occur.
According to a yearly survey by the New York Post, summer jams (or what it calls Songs of the Summer) have included such tunes as “Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful (1966), “Unbelievable” by EMF (1991), and “Hot in Here” by Nelly (2002). There’s no doubt about those three songs — they are summer jams par excellence. But no amount of scientific analysis will yield the secret formula for the summer jam. Year after year, skilled musicians and producers, people who know and understand what makes a song a hit as well as anyone can, turn their attention to the summer jam. More often than not, they fail. The summer jam is as real as the summer itself, and the summer jam is a complete mystery. When the summer jam happens, it happens. You hear it congeal on the streets, you feel the dark wheels of popular consensus churning in the murky depths of the collective unconscious. And then before anyone has said anything the summer jam is here. Like a newborn baby it is simply and all at once part of our world.
Recently, I was standing on a corner near Union Square in New York City. A delivery truck drove by and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was blaring from its windows. The truck driver was singing the song; a group of twenty-somethings heard the song and started singing too, laughing to each other. The waitress in the café on the corner was also singing and doing a little head-bobbing number as she carried her tray. Summer Jam.
As I’ve intimated, there’s no way to analyze the summer jam definitively. There is no more reason to the summer jam than there is to the fact that there is Being and not Nothing. The summer jam is its own reason. But once you have a summer jam there are always a few things you can say about it.
Rihanna’s song reminds us that umbrella is a cool word. It’s fun to say “umbrella,” which comes from the Latin meaning “little shadow,” by the way. Also, it is double fun to say cool words in different and surprising ways. We normally think of umbrella as a three syllable word. Rihanna has made it four. Um-bur-el-la. It is also fun to say parts of words and sometimes just to make sounds. And that is what Rihanna does. It makes up the entirety of the “hook” of the song. She sings, “under my um-bur-el-la, el-la, el-la, eh, eh, eh.”
Those last three sounds are important. I don’t think “Umbrella” could have been a summer jam without the “eh, eh, eh.” She makes it a guttural sound that comes from the back of the throat, or maybe from down in the esophagus somewhere. As a friend pointed out, it is the same sound that comes out of the throat of the Cranberries’ lead singer in the song “Zombie.” Now “Zombie” wasn’t a summer jam but it was a huge hit and I think that had a lot to do with the noises. If anything, the Cranberries woman went a little overboard with the “eh”ing. Rihanna reigns it in and gives us an “eh” trinity, which is appropriate. The summer jam has to be tight.
But the “eh” makes the song. It is an old sound. It is a primal sound. Nietzsche would have called it “Dionysian.” There’s a wildness to it, a skein of sexuality, a pre-linguistic upwelling. I imagine satyrs dancing through the hills and letting out whelps of mixed terror and joy when I hear that noise. It is a scary and exciting noise. It gives sound to something simple and essential, like the fact of being alive right here and now and knowing that you must die. Put that in a pop song with a good beat and you’ve got something. In this case, a summer jam. • 6 August 2007