By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
The first time Justin Timberlake ventured into “grown and sexy R&B” (as it was known in the far away world of Urban AC) was “Suit And Tie.” It was amicable enough, but without the shock-of-the-new that had powered “SexyBack” past a field of likable and like-minded retro-soul exercises in summer 2006.
Then came “Take Back the Night,” which was “Suit and Tie” but with even more distinct echoes of Michael Jackson.
Then he rode shotgun on “Love Never Felt So Good,” the song that lasted just long enough to give Michael Jackson his posthumous chart hit.
Then he released “Can’t Stop the Feeling”—punchier and more calculated, but still of a piece with other “retro disco/soul Justin” entires—and within hours it was the presumptive Song of Summer 2016 winner.
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” also has echoes of the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” 2015’s Max Martin-produced, MJ-conjuring Song of Summer contender, but with the Weeknd’s lyrical edginess sanded off. Maybe a little bit of Jason DeRulo’s “Want to Want Me,” too.
I find “Can’t Stop the Feeling” pleasant enough. I can find you friends and a few Ross On Radio readers who are less charitable than that. (“If that’s the anthem, just honor the Ice Bucket challenge again,” said one Facebook comment, referring to my refusal to name any song in 2014.) A few readers are holding to their prediction of Kent Jones’ “Don’t Mind.”
But the rest of the world spoke quickly. By the first night of its release, ROR friend/reader Chris Granozio reported Yankee Stadium crowds swaying to it. By the following Tuesday, it was the first song added by the entire Mainstream Top 40 panel in its first chart week.
I’ve often quoted Bob Costas’ observation that “’American Pie’ came out on Monday and everybody knew it by Friday.” “Can’t Stop the Feeling” came out on a Friday morning three weeks ago and everybody knew it by lunchtime. Radio can be proud of that.
Could anything else be song of the summer? JT’s timing was pretty canny. Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” arrived with just enough lead time for everybody to get used to it, then decide that “Blurred Lines” song was pretty good, too. And fresher. Any song that pulls off something similar this year is going to have to arrive post-Memorial Day like “I Gotta Feeling” or “Can’t Feel My Face” and be of that magnitude.
The songs that would otherwise be battling it out for the lead—Drake’s “One Dance” and Calvin Harris & Rihanna’s “This Is What You Came For”—aren’t going away, either. With an entire summer of exposure, it’s possible that listeners could decide that “One Dance” is pretty great, too, and a little more ambitious.
But that might be missing the point. If “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is Song of Summer 2016, it means the following:
Listeners want an “American Pie”-like shared experience. Radio wants to yield that type of agenda-setting power again. And while there are plenty of places to discover a song instantly these days, I’m more than willing to give this one to radio for its hourly first-day exposure. (More than a week later, at least one major-market CHR was again playing it hourly.)
Listeners don’t want anything that might make them feel bad about their Summer Song choice later. They are not up for a “Blurred Lines”-type debate on what exactly “I know you want it” means, and they are trusting JT to not implode personally in front of them by September. (Or even to squander his career momentum the way 2015 winner Omi did.)
Listeners do not want even the slight edginess of an Iggy Azalea “Fancy,” the almost Summer Song of 2014.
Listeners want tempo. And top 40 radio needs it. Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” another 2015 contender, unleashed an entire year of downtempo electronica. After a year of gently robotic bleeps and bloops, the invitation to “dance, dance, dance” seems like a pretty good idea now.”
Listeners need the Summer Song to be a happy, crowd-pleasing experience. “Pleasant” is not a readily available commodity in real-life these days. (And they don’t need that commented on either. Kenny Chesney’s “Noise,” the song that most captures the societal moment sped to No. 11 at country, then dramatically slowed. It’s Keith Urban’s “Wasted Time”—with its echoes of “All Summer Long”—that will be country’s summer crowd-pleaser.)
The summer song is the one time every year when music can mean to adults what it used to mean to them in high school, without having to live in the past. America wants its summer song experience. And they’ll take this one, please. Maybe this is the summer they’ll get to the cottage with no traffic.