Elaine Dovale was walking along Miami Beach in late April when she heard Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's Justin Bieber driven hit "Despacito" pouring out of a restaurant. She immediately began singing along involuntarily. She knew exactly what that meant.
A 22-year-old marketing student at Florida International University, Dovale loves to debate with her sister and friends about which song will become Song of the Summer (SOTS), the song that reigns supreme over the season. And when "Despacito" got its hooks in her, she recognized it as an early contender. "I pay a lot of attention to the [Song of the Summer]. I'm keeping an eye out for what Camilla Cabrero, Hailee Steinfeld, and Selena Gomez will drop. But right now, 'Despacito' is my top choice," she says.
If you're somewhat perplexed by the idea of Song of the Summer, you're not alone—several songs get released over the season, after all. Some cynics are quick to dismiss the entire concept as a "brilliant marketing brainstorm" from record industry fat cats hoping to ramp up streams and potentially get consumers to part with their cash. Regardless, there's no denying SOTS and the conversation surrounding it is a very real thing that has wormed its way into the pop consciousness. Like NBA fans who like to debate whether Jordan or LeBron is the GOAT, people love debating which song had the most impact in the year's hottest months. Like those NBA champions, a lot of work goes into creating it.
While Billboard has documented the most popular songs of summer since 1958, the chatter about the SOTS really took off recently, around 2011, says Jason Lipshutz, an editor at the magazine. Ultimately it's Billboard's Summer Songs Chart that declares the SOTS "winner" by documenting the most popular songs based on Nielson's compilation of radio play, sales data and streaming activity between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Whichever song has the highest rating at the end of the season becomes the "official" SOTS.
By this metric, last year's SOTS was "One Dance" by Drake. Other notable winners include 2014's "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea and 2012's "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen. These songs were monster hits by any measure ("One Dance" is the most streamed song ever on Spotify, and had the best performance of any single in all of 2016), but the SOTS distinction matters.
"It's kind of a phenomenon in that we don't need a distinct song for spring or fall or winter, but for summer, we want one song or a collection of songs that define the months where people have their windows down and are listening to the radio and playing a lot of music," says Lipshutz. "There are always one or two songs that establish themselves as inescapable."
Like Dovale, Lipshutz thinks "Despacito" is a clear leader the pack this year, along with DJ Khaled's "I'm the One," which also features Bieber alongside a murderers' row of hip-hop superstars—Chance the Rapper, Lil Wayne, and Quavo of Migos. "Both of those songs seem like they're going to define the season," he says.
Still, the "competition" hasn't really even begun, and pop music aficionados will debate SOTS IRL and via social media each of the calendar days between the holidays that bookend the season. Even after Billboard crowns its champion, some will disagree. No matter which songs lose the big winner is the record industry itself.
All the attention surrounding SOTS naturally sets up an economic opportunity for record labels. "It's in the best interest of record labels to have contenders for Billboard's SOTS because making it on the list is a free advertisement," says John Covach, director of the Institute of Popular Music at the University of Rochester. "Putting it in the running puts it in front of the eyes of people going to Billboard's website and looking at the contenders," he says.
"We're pushing Miley Cyrus's 'Malibu,'" says Peter Edge, the chairman and CEO of RCA records. "If you're looking at the landscape, it looks like a contender. We're trying to own it," he says of the season.
Record labels often release contenders for SOTS early in the year. This gives the songs time to build momentum as they become part of public discourse. "You'll typically see a lot of summer songs released in February and March with the aim of having them dominate by May or June," says Lipshutz.
In addition to strategic release dates, Edge says record labels work hard to publicize their contenders for SOTS by getting them on the radio and positioning them on playlists and streaming services such as Spotify and iTunes. "Plain and simple, it's a big opportunity to have a giant old hit," says Edge. "There's a social conversation around the feel of the summer. That helps fuel it."
While Edge won't reveal how much money RCA can make from producing a contender for SOTS, he admits it can be lucrative. "Whatever becomes dominant during the summer becomes entrenched so you can really set yourself up to have the biggest song of the year," he says, adding that becoming a major summer hit increases the longevity of the song's popularity. "People will be digging back up their favorite summer song from the year before so they can revisit memories of that trip to Ibiza, or that really fun barbecue."
Because of the economic opportunities SOTS offers, some artists try to emulate a framework they think fits the stereotypical mold of what constitutes the season's hottest song. "Producers might make decisions that could lend themselves to summer feelings," says Justin Tranter, a 36-year-old songwriter from Los Angeles who has written massive hits like Justin Bieber's "Sorry" and Selena Gomez's "Hands to Myself." "Examples of this include making the song feel sonically bright or using major chords that don't create much tension, or writing lyrics that have a joyfulness we associate with summertime," he says.
Examples of prototypical summer-sounding songs, according to Tranter, include Ariana Grande and Zedd's "Break Free" and Billboard's 2010 SOTS "California Gurls" by Katy Perry. But Tranter never tries to write a song that sounds like summer: "Trying to decide the rules or the constrictions or goals on a song for me kills the creativity and you can hear the work in the song," he says. "I can hear the efforts instead of the art."
"Human beings have an appetite for things that really, really connect to us," he continues. "So if a devastating masterpiece like Gotye's 'Somebody That I Used To Know' [which finished third on Billboard's 2012 SOTS chart] is created and people find it in the summer, it won't matter," he says.
Lipshutz agrees. "'See You Again' was massive two years ago, and that's an incredibly tear jerking song," he says.
This works in another way, too, one born of a potential SOTS's momentum—even if people don't feel connected to the song, they can feel connected to others by it. Oren Lefkowitz, a 24-year-old musician from Montreal, doesn't necessarily love "I'm the One," but finds himself putting it on anyway, especially in certain situations like pre-drinks with good friends before a big night out. "There's something exciting about listening to a song the whole world is listening to," he says. "There's a connectedness to it."
That connectedness is the real X factor here, one that can't be planned or marketed or gamed. If a song has it, it has it. If it doesn't, it has no chance, spoiled in the summer sun like so much potato salad.
"There's strategy in that labels will try to produce fun and upbeat music in time for the SOTS competition," says Lipshutz. "But in the end it's all about public opinion and what catches on."
Follow Spencer Macnaughton on Twitter.