After Memorial Day, we start taking not-so-serious pop songs a lot more seriously. That's when any old hit single suddenly becomes a contender for The Song of the Summer — that magical swatch of rhythm and melody that will define our hot months, for now and for posterity.
Usher, Rihanna, Pitbull and Justin Bieber all have potentially summer-defining tunes loitering on the charts, but 2012's most promising pieces of summer bubble gum come from new faces — an international smattering of boy bands and party girls from Canada, Britain and Sweden.
What makes The Song of the Summer? We've usually already heard it by April. It often leans toward the rhythms of hip-hop and R&B. It has a chorus that minivan-loads of tweenage girls can — and will — sing along to. Loudly. It can articulate sticky human emotions with a few gloriously melodic syllables, making you feel something deep without asking you to think too hard. Years later, it's difficult to remember it existing outside of the summer when it arrived, and ironically, it becomes eternal because of that.
Which song will most remind us of the summer that's about to happen? Here are five leading hopefuls.
The Front-Runner: Carly Rae Jepsen, Call Me Maybe. Perhaps you're one of the 9 million YouTubers who have watched the Harvard baseball team dance to this one. A few months before that video went viral, Carly Rae Jepsen was touring across her native Canada, opening for '90s survivalist boy band Hanson. Now, Call Me Maybe has risen to the summit of the iTunes singles chart — thanks in part to Scooter Braun, the guy who discovered Justin Bieber.
Alongside swooping strings and a disco beat that thumps like an anxious heart, Jepsen serves the song's chorus while staring at her shoes: "Hey, I just met you/ And this is crazy/ But here's my number/ So call me, maybe?" In today's hyper-sexualized popscape, the song's appeal feels obvious. Here's a 26-year-old singing about the butterflies that usually quit flapping after adolescence.
The Party Girl: Rita Ora, How We Do (Party). This 21-year-old British singer topped the British charts in May with a vinegar-doused track called R.I.P., but her entry to the summer jam sweepstakes is all sugar and caffeine. And a little liquor, too.
"When the sun sets baby, on the avenue/ I get that drunk sex feeling, yeah, when I'm with you," Ora sings on How We Do (Party), her first U.S. single. After the boozy refrain, she cribs a profane hook from a Notorious B.I.G. song whose title we can't print here.
Funny how it all sounds so innocent. As an acoustic guitar strums inoffensively in the background, Ora sings about warding off her hangover by falling in love with the guy passed out on the floor. It's sweetly disorienting — like a Ke$ha lyric trapped in a Miley Cyrus melody.
The Inescapable Boy Bands: The Wanted, Glad You Came, and One Direction, What Makes You Beautiful. Last summer, two British-Irish boy bands each released pop singles that made them seem as different as two British-Irish boy bands could be. A year later, across the Atlantic, those tunes have a lot in common. They're impossible to avoid.
The Wanted, five singers assembled in 2009 after a mass audition, carry themselves more like a young-man band than a boy band, thanks to Glad You Came. The song's club-friendly beat helped it peak at No. 3 on Billboard, and its smart, understated melodies made these guys seem as if they aspire to be more than just adorable.
One Direction, on the other hand, epitomizes adorable. Since finishing third on the British X-Factor, the shaggy quintet has become ubiquitous, too. It turned down an invitation to perform at the White House Easter Egg Roll and accepted an invitation to sing on Saturday Night Live, where the group's performance of What Makes You Beautiful had all the charisma of a herd of deer in headlights. But the song itself remains an unimpeachable puppy love carpet bombing.
The Long Shot: Icona Pop, I Love It: This vivacious Stockholm duo is living out of suitcases in London, where the gigs have been steady and the crowds have been eager to shout along to I Love It, the most exhilarating 21/2 minutes of pop music released this year.
"I put your (things) into a bag and kicked it down the stairs," the pair sing-shouts. "I crashed my car into the bridge! I don't care! I love it!"
Drum machines thundering, synthesizers pealing, the song brilliantly distills the nihilistic ecstasy of a post-breakup freakout.