Summer songs in the time of COVID

Lately every Saturday I look forward to watching a new episode of How Do You Play?, a Korean variety show that showcases the comedian and TV personality Yoo Jaesuk trying out different projects (learning to play the harp or running a ramen restaurant, for example).

How Do You Play’s latest project is to form a coed music group and release an album of summer songs. The show’s producer had seen that for the first time in 2019, Korean music charts were dominated by ballads even in the summer, a season when energetic dance songs should be most popular. He also observed the lack of coed groups in K-pop and challenged Yoo Jaesuk to form one as an homage to many popular late ‘90s/early ‘00s summer songs.

To Korean viewers’ delight, the show ended up recruiting Lee Hyori and Rain (both massive K-pop stars in 2000s-2010s) to join Yoo Jaesuk in forming the trio SSAK3. Based on Youtube comments and my personal feelings, these three have been bringing a lot of joy and laughter to Koreans stuck at home during this time.

Maybe it’s because I spent summer in Korea growing up, but there is nothing like a ‘90s Korean summer song to vividly paint a portrait of a cool, carefree, playful summer. It’s the saxophone intro of Deux’s “In Summer” and the ukelele following the shouts of “wow, it’s summer!” in Cool’s “Woman on the Beach.

SSAK3 let various songwriters pitch their versions of summer songs to them (watch below). These songs are upbeat with danceable melodies and catchy hooks, many of them with lyrics that tell a story (contrast this with more recent K-pop songs that emphasize simple and catchy lyrics over storytelling). Add some brass instruments, and we’ve got an instant summer brand.

What makes an American summer song? There aren’t many qualities besides danceability that unify recent top songs of the summer. There’s dancehall and afrobeat-inspired “One Dance” in 2016, reggaeton track “Despacito” in 2017, New Orleans bounce track “In My Feelings” in 2018, and country hip hop mashup “Old Town Road” in 2019. Perhaps the only defining rule to a summer song is virality, which goes hand in hand with novelty.

What’s your song of the summer so far? Can there even be a summer song without bars and parties to solidify it? My vote goes to “Rain On Me” by Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga, which hit me with a wave of uplifting energy and urged me to get up and spin around the first time I heard it. What more could I ask from a summer song than euphoria like this?