A Secret Ingredient in Songs of Summer

A Secret Ingredient in Songs of Summer

Songs of summer are like M&Ms or wildflowers: If you’re out to pick just one, you’re doing it wrong.

Each year, when the days get long and the first cherry blossoms on my block begin to bloom, I scan a vast, annual crop of would-be songs of summer — the first of which usually begin percolating around Presidents’ Day — and fill a playlist with my favorites. For me, it’s not about the popularity of, or consensus on, any individual summer song. It’s about the singular feeling that the best ones can unlock, and the way that I can use my playlist to sustain that feeling in a blissful wave.

What’s the secret to evoking that singular summer feeling? What makes me select a certain track for my annual playlist, while another song that I otherwise like gathers dust in the queue? Until a few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that there could be a genuinely satisfying answer to that question. Like most people, I’d have responded by invoking the desired setting as shorthand for the sound — a backyard barbecue, say, or a rooftop pool party — or else muttered something about tempo and tone, the sorts of sonic signatures scrutinized by pros and lucratively cross-referenced by algorithms like Spotify’s.

But that changed beginning in 2015, when, for three consecutive summers, I recognized that one absurdly simple but extremely potent sound could give me a Pavlovian urge to crank up the volume, head to my nearest patio bar and order something boozy and frozen.

It was the dembow rhythm — a syncopated, three-beat pattern that, when paired with the steady pound of a kick drum, sounds like a caffeinated heart with a sticky chamber: boom-ch-boom-chk. Untethered from its foundations in ’90s dancehall and reggaeton around the second half of this decade, it became the common denominator of hits ranging from “Sorry” (Justin Bieber) and “One Dance” (Drake), to “Shape of You” (Ed Sheeran) and “Despacito” (Luis Fonsi, featuring Daddy Yankee and Bieber).

For a remarkable period between July 2015 and July 2017, the dembow rhythm fueled a total of six Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles, many of which seemed to cast a spell on the public right as summer came to a boil. In those two years over all, the drum pattern led the charts for a cumulative 51 weeks, meaning that, on any given day, the odds that America’s favorite song had a dembow rhythm were essentially a coin toss.

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