Calvin Harris and His Endless Quest for the Sound of the Summer

It's not even fair how close he comes to musical satisfaction without *quite* hitting the spot.
July 26, 2017, 10:08am

Calvin Harris has attempted to make the sound of summer many, many times. I would be remiss to cancel out club hits like "This Is What You Came For" and recent car cruising anthems like "Slide," but most Calvin Harris singles tend to fall off the American charts in particular like slow-cooked brisket off the bone. The sound of the summer constantly evades him, like the Leonardo DiCaprio Oscar of pop music. They're not bad songs by any means, but he's yet to reach a single iconic banger with the clout of "Get Lucky" or this year's "Despacito." He is able to stimulate, but never quite hits the spot. As far as musical satisfaction is concerned, Calvin Harris just can't make you come.


In all fairness, his come-up has been impressive. Putting aside his near-miraculous evolution from a Dumfries dweeb recording demos in his bedroom to appearing in a wealth of Getty images standing shirtless next to Taylor Swift, he's crept out of Diplo's shadow to become an artist in his own right. Yet he's always just missing the mark, like a TV broadcast slightly out of sync. He's good, sure, but not quite scaled the heights you'd expect of one of the world's most consistently highest paid DJs.

His latest album, Funk Wav Bounce Vol. 1, is a perfect example of this: doing very little to offend and not quite enough to completely impress. It may be his greatest work, but finds him standing above the party, looking blankly out into the middle distance rather than driving everyone truly wild. Still: bless him for trying. To that end, let us reflect on some of Calvin's attempts to achieve the status of Summer Banger so far, and try to pinpoint how, where and why they veered slightly off course on their journey into the pop stratosphere.

"THE GIRLS" – 2007

The year is 2007. Calvin Harris produces I Created Disco. He releases it at the crux of summer and, ugh, it is not club-ready. It's like it almost forgot to get ready. With its nu disco vibe and zipper and rubber band synthesisers that recall cranberry vodka with too much ice, "The Girls" boils every UK electronic sound of the time into an LCD Soundsystem parody track that mostly succeeds in being the sound of underage drinking. The hooks are there, but unfortunately they're overridden by a self-congratulating shopping list of women Calvin Harris is willing to fuck—because he gets all the girls, as we hear over and over and over again. The ordinary bloke Calvin Harris of "The Girls" and the equally sickly "Acceptable In The 80s" is almost unrecognizable as the plain T-shirt wearing GQ-covering Calvin Harris we see working with Frank Ocean in 2017, but ironically this was probably the closest he's come to defining an era. That is, until he was usurped in the charts by the arrival of Gym Class Heroes "Cupid's Chokehold" and Enrique Iglesias "Do You Know? (The Ping Pong Song)."

"DANCE WIV ME" – 2008

If you lived in the UK in the year 2008 this song will probably trigger some memories of you and your mates wearing various polka-dot garments from H&M and laughing about a joke you saw on Inbetweeners the night before. If you did not, this is probably void of relevance—or slightly off, because I am American. Sorry.

"I'M NOT ALONE" – 2009

"I'm Not Alone"—from Harris' second album Ready For The Weekend—is unapologetically solemn and reflective, building into post-grunge riffs and experimenting with warmer, fuzzier tones. It's that moment early in the rager where you've had one drink and already started to think about your ex, or high school, and you know it's just not gonna be your night but you try really hard to fake your way through it anyway. Progress has been made, at least. It may have been powerful enough to knock "Poker Face" off the top of the UK Singles Chart, but it was not built hard enough to withstand the impact of "Boom Boom Pow" by Black Eyed Peas in the US or Tinchy Stryder's "Number 1" featuring N-Dubz in Britain. I'm not sure if that says more about Calvin Harris' songwriting ability or the judgement of the UK population at large.


Either of these really could've been Harris' ultimate summer song; it's the kind of marriage where melodies and percussions inspire hip twisting and waist grabbing. Unfortunately, hiding behind Rihanna—despite being the smartest decision he's ever made—doesn't make either of these jams his own. Rihanna did to his music style what Ryan Gosling did for Steve Carell in Crazy, Stupid, Love: he kept the sad and made it sexy and demanding, but flashy clothes and collars don't change the fact that Katy Perry, LMFAO and Pitbull dominated party music in the heady, sun-kissed days of 2011. :(

"SUMMER" – 2014

If you hadn't cottoned on by now that Calvin Harris is eager for a summer single in his own name, here is a song titled, simply, "Summer." Here, Calvin loosely reflects on a past romance in a relatable choose-your-own-adventure kind of way. "When I met you in the summer," he goes, and his voice just drops off to be replaced by an uptempo burst of synth horns and light twinkling. But what actually happened? Did they meet and fall in love? Did he eventually find a fall fling? Is this some sappy 500 Days Of Summer monologue masquerading as a summer banger? I thought Calvin got all the girls???

Some critics gave this due credit for "coming on the heels of one of the most severe winters in recent memory" and thus quenching our thirst for anything that even remotely sounds like you could drink to it on a sunlounger, while others saw it as a "shameless bid" at a hit summer single—which it may well have been had the trends not been against him that year. In summer 2014, softies reigned supreme and "Summer" was rapidly dethroned by "Mr Probz" by Waves and then Sam Smith's "Stay With Me." Right sentiment, wrong delivery.


After Motion is released Calvin Harris tells Kiss-FM, "I missed the feeling of having a new song out in the summer." So he made just that: another summer song. But, in his eternal desperation, he fucked it. Again.

The problem with "How Deep Is Your Love" is how obvious it is. I think Calvin got a little too cocky with this deep house cut interpolating the Bee Gees that sounds like it could have come out at any point over the last three decades but is also drenched in pop cultural references from Daft Punk's vocoder to the video featuring Gigi Hadid fondling her hair for four minutes. Meanwhile, literally everything from The Weeknd's perennial ode to gak to Little Mix's "Black Magic" to Charlie fucking Puth prevented this from topping the charts until it became the summer—nay, year—of Justin Bieber's effortlessly apposite "What Do You Mean?."


In 2016, Calvin Harris returns to Rihanna just like Leonardo DiCaprio revisited Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann in another attempt at the golden prize. Unfortunately it came out alongside the hat trick of summer lust that was Drake's "One Dance", Major Lazer's "Cold Water" and Chainsmokers' "Closer." This doesn't even seem fair at this point.

"MY WAY" – 2016

"My Way" is good background music for a cruise around the countryside or some big-budget car commercial. The tone is warm, calm and slightly breezy with a surprising feature of Calvin's actual voice. The thing is, it just sounds a bit like watered-down dancehall. The use of steel pan drums on this track readies it to join a long line of white dude DJs sampling from dancehall and reggae with no attribution or credit. It's a better claim to his vocal performance than originality or innovation, but releasing a tropical house hit on the first day of autumn is a sin. Next.

"FEELS" – 2017

Joining summer 2k17's already stacked roster of songs about feelings—from Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, and Lana Del Rey—we have "Feels." Back with a level of groove hitherto absent from his singles, "Feels" has been harder to evade than chlamydia in your twenties. It is absolutely everywhere. That wonky bass line will echo into the next 12 months like "Blurred Lines" without the controversy. If you're thinking of the funky beat and west coast rubber band sound that made "Jiggy With It" a summer hit and "The Greatest Dancer" the originator of it all, you'd be correct. That's the tricky thing with Calvin Harris, though: he understands what works in summer music and does a good job of reassembling it into something current, but you can never tell where he is in his own song. Especially not here, where one safety-net feature didn't seem like enough so he brought out Pharrell, Katy Perry AND Big Sean just in case. In conclusion: this veers towards "This Is What You Came For" territory—a calculated success, yes, but will Calvin Harris name be the first one that springs to mind when you hear it? Or will it forever go down as the least annoying thing Katy Perry did in 2017? We'll only know by the end of the year.

"SLIDE" – 2017

This song sounds like summer, smells like cookout season and dances like your single auntie on her second Aperol Spritz. It is me. I'm your single auntie at the cookout grooving to 70s beats in my romper, fidget spinner in hand. If I were to nitpick, the only problem is that this was released in February. I've never been given a more dismal and ironic feeling than listening to this song on the winding snowy roads of Vermont. I mean, would you let your windows down or bring the grill out or slick on that bright one piece or two step with your grandma when it's freezing? I was so mad about this release date I wanted to blame climate change on Calvin Harris, but obviously this song was just released too early and climate change is the longstanding result of human activity exacerbating greenhouse effects.

Maybe Calvin Harris' entire career is just a warning about the persistence of summer as a result of climate change being an eminent threat to the planet. Perhaps his endless missed shots at the Sound of Summer title serve as a constant reminder of our own shortcomings. His most thoroughly sunglasses emoji song yet, "Slide" is arguably his biggest statement. It is Leonardo DiCaprio eventually winning that Oscar (for climbing inside a dead bear) and using his speech to warn us about all the ways in which we're taking the planet for granted. It is the sound of the summer Donald Trump withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and plunged us all into the shitter.

It also has Frank Ocean and Migos on it, which helps.

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