Revving up for fun and flirting

At the time of writing, the battle for the title of Hit Song of the Summer remains a closely fought contest between Kylie Minogue’s Padam Padam and Who Told You by J Hus, featuring Drake. In one corner our Antipodean Queen, scoring her 35th Top Ten, uniting everyone from grandmothers to TikTokkers in an act of electro hypnotism, and in another the London rapper and Afroswing pioneer, hauling in the Canadian big guns for three and a half minutes of rhythmic wizardry. Both songs look to join a canon that includes Nelly’s 2002 masterpiece Hot in Herre, Dexy’s 1982 floor-filler Come On Eileen, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ 1964 humdinger Dancing in the Street.

What exactly makes a summer pop hit? Just as Christmas songs often draw on sleigh bells, choirs and strings, there’s a certain science to balmy-weather soundtracks. Songwriter Scott Harris, best known for his work with Shawn Mendes, once described it as a song “high energy enough to dance to and chill enough to hang out to.” Such hits also often feature rising melodic lines, a sense of easy repetition, perhaps a whiff of mild hysteria (witness the oeuvre of Black Lace) – as if they carry within them all of the flavour, heatstroke and dubious choices of a beach holiday.

A consummate example of the Summer Song might be Spiller’s Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love), featuring vocals by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, which seemed to spill across every dance floor and out of every open window in August 2000.

Groovejet was the name of a nightclub in Miami. We didn’t need to know that; it was enough that the word sounded strange and cool. We didn’t know Sophie Ellis-Bextor then either, so her disembodied, slightly louche vocals added to the song’s mystique.

It’s the precise feeling of catching sight of someone fanciable across the dance floor

It was repetitive, sampled an old disco track and introduced it to house music. It was sensual, and sophisticated, but also deeply, deeply fun. It gave the listener the precise feeling of catching sight of someone fanciable across the dance floor, and a night of flirtation and possibility lying stretched out all before you.

The tempo of such hits has shifted over the years. Traditionally, the average pop song tends to sit somewhere in the 100-130 bpm range, and the huge summer belters of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s generally fell into this speed bracket.

In the 2010s, the influence of Southern hip hop on pop songwriting slowed the pace somewhat, with a lot of songs lounging at 90 bpm and below. But over the past three years we’ve seen pop rev up again – witness Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar, Dua Lipa’s Physical, or pretty much the entirety of Beyoncé’s Renaissance album.

Not so long ago, pop force Charli XCX explained why she believed the hip hop cadence was starting to wane: “Maybe it’s fun for it to be about it being so sugary and pop and happy,” she posited, her choice of adjectives carrying an undeniable sense of fizzy refreshment on a scorching day.

J Hus’s Who Told You is in the running for 2023’s top hit because it’s a zesty 151 bpm number, essentially about the fact that dancing is a joy for everyone, even po-faced criminal types, and resting on the refrain “Who told you bad man don’t dance? / Who told you gangster don’t dance?”

Summer dancing songs are nothing new – witness the success of songs such as Conga Line and the Lambada. But Who Told You mines a song seam that suggests life only really begins when you’re on your feet – a sort of update on the sentiment of the Contours’ sunny hit Do You Love Me. Dancing, in these songs, is about the heightened fun and physicality of summer, but it’s also about lust and seduction, sweat and proximity (see the aforementioned Hot in Herre).

Padam Padam (bpm: 128) is not without desire either. It shares a title with a waltz released in 1951 by Edith Piaf, which was also described as “maddeningly catchy” and explored a similar subject of obsession.

Kylie and her songwriters have described the phrase as an onomatopoeic representation of a heartbeat, although in its brief 2023 life “padam” has acquired a gloriously broad range of meaning – used as a greeting and a farewell and a compliment, and flourishing particularly in gay slang, the shiniest new addition to the Polari dictionary.

Padam is a particularly alluring expression because it holds a slight touch of nonsense (echoing the best giddy trends of the season) and also a sophisticated and exotic suggestion of foreign-ness, as if you’ve returned from your family hol with a hair wrap and some of those fizzy sweets you can only get on the Continent. Kylie cannily repeats it even in the title, ensuring the word is stuck in our heads before the music even strikes up.

It will be some months before we learn who has triumphed in this annual head-to-head. The battle will be fought across festival fields and package-holiday dance floors, poolside parties and backyard barbecues. And by the turn of autumn, our sweet pop romances will seem to stand a little silly and underdressed in the cooler air; we will have come to regard them with a fond and distant warmth. “Summer dreams, ripped at the seams,” as Sandy and Danny once held it. “But oh, those summer nights!”

Laura Barton is a writer and broadcaster. Her book, “Sad Songs” is out now

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Arts & Culture, July 2023, Music

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