Apr 16 2005

The Summer Buzz: Cicadas and Mariah Carey

There is no Grammy category. No way to vote. No agreement about the criteria. No irrefutable proof, even, that such a thing exists. And yet the old-fashioned scramble persists, as favorites and - especially - underdogs compete to create the song that will blare out of car stereos and iPods and sand-flecked boomboxes all season long. Everyone wants to release the song of the summer.

It has been two months since Memorial Day, and a couple of clap-along club tracks have earned pride of place on the summer soundtrack. Back in June, when summer seemed to have enough room for all the big plans and lazy days you could dream up, Gwen Stefani's cheerful (and, thanks to its pom-pom-inspired beat, cheer-full) hit "Hollaback Girl" taught listeners across the country how to spell bananas. And now, with the specter of Labor Day growing increasingly and distressingly hard to ignore, the Barbados upstart Rihanna is mounting a campaign of her own, buoyed by an exploding pop-dancehall confection called "Pon de Replay."

But to both Rihanna and Ms. Stefani, this much must be said: nice try.

The truth is that this year's race to crown the song of the summer was about as suspenseful as the Tour de France. Back on Memorial Day the No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot 100 chart was Mariah Carey's sublime ballad "We Belong Together." And if you check the charts this week, you will see that same song in that same position, which it has occupied almost all summer.

According to Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems, which tracks radio airplay, "We Belong Together" had 195,535 radio plays, or spins, from Memorial Day through last week. "Hollaback Girl," which has already started sliding down the charts, was a distant second place, at 115,532 spins. And although Rihanna has been surging (her song quickly leapt to No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100), her "Pon de Replay" has received only 65,771 spins; she would need an unprecedented groundswell to surpass Ms. Carey before Labor Day, especially since "We Belong Together" is still getting played more than just about anything else on the radio.

After last week, when Attorney General Eliot Spitzer of New York got Sony BMG Music Entertainment to pay a fine of $10 million for improper promotional practices, listeners may be especially skeptical of songs that monopolize radio the way Ms. Carey's song has. But as she can attest, money and fame are not enough to prevent a big star from releasing a big flop. Even the cleverest promotional campaign is not enough to persuade the country's radio stations to play a single song a quarter of a million times in three months. And this summer, everyone seems to be singing her song.

In years past, the song of the summer has been a hip-hop track built for the clubs, like the gruff but effective 2004 hit "Lean Back" by the Terror Squad (Fat Joe's group), or the exuberant 2003 disco-rap hybrid "Crazy in Love," by Beyoncé and her boyfriend Jay-Z.

That's why "We Belong Together" didn't initially seem like a favorite for song of the summer: it's a light, graceful ballad with a few simple piano chords and a slow, mellow backbeat. Unlike "Lean Back," it hasn't spawned a catchphrase; unlike "Crazy in Love," this song doesn't beg listeners to scream along; unlike "Hollaback Girl" and "Pon de Replay," this song doesn't even command listeners to dance. And Ms. Carey never even wails the titular phrase: she sighs it, as if her ex-lover ("When you left I lost a part of me/ It's still so hard to believe") were already a lost cause. It's the most melancholy song to rule the summer in years.

Suffice it to say that Ms. Carey's slump is over. After the spectacular implosion that was "Glitter," she returned in 2002 with "Charmbracelet," a pretty good album that didn't quite put her back on top. But her current album, "The Emancipation of Mimi" (Island Def Jam), is her best since the 1990's; she has re-established herself as a neo-disco diva while subtly updating her approach.

In the mid-1990's Ms. Carey pioneered a subgenre that some people call the thug-love duet. Nowadays clean-cut pop stars are expected to collaborate with roughneck rappers, but when Ms. Carey teamed up with Ol' Dirty Bastard, of the Wu-Tang Clan, for the 1995 hit "Fantasy," it was a surprise, and a smash. A decade later, the thug-love era (as epitomized by Ashanti, a thug-love specialist) has come and gone; nowadays rappers often do their own singing, and singers borrow cadences from hip-hop

R. Kelly taught a generation of R&B stars how to spit phrases like rappers, and Usher has perfected this slick, verbose approach. Ms. Carey has been paying attention. On "Mimi" a singer once known for melisma adopts a lighter, more agile style, upping the words-per-note ratio considerably; instead of moving a single syllable up and down the scale, she often uses just a few notes to deliver a nimble burst of words.

This style is part of the reason why she has been able to turn a ballad into a summer smash. "We Belong Together" doesn't have a guest rapper (except on the excellent remix, featuring Jadakiss and Styles P.), or a hard-hitting beat, but Ms. Carey's tricky vocal lines give the song more propulsion than you'd expect, with tightly coiled counter-rhythms that tug against the beat. This song seems simpler than it is, and while it doesn't sound like a mishmash, the liner notes credit no fewer than 3 producers and 10 songwriters. The second verse cleverly incorporates two predecessors: Ms. Carey imagines turning on the radio and singing along to Bobby Womack ("If You Think You're Lonely Now") and Babyface ("Two Occasions").

It's true that the song of the summer is an illusion, or at any rate an exaggeration: during the summer, as during the rest of the year, people listen to all sorts of stuff. And when was the last time you actually saw a boombox on the beach, anyway? Still, for many of us, "We Belong Together" has already come to seem inseparable from the season it has dominated. The gone-too-soon lyrics match not only the season's good times, but its broken promises as well; turn it up, and you can remember all the fun you almost had.

LINK: The Summer Buzz: Cicadas and Mariah Carey
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