If you wanted to engineer the ultimate warm-weather jam, it would probably sound a lot like Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” It’s an upbeat, family-friendly disco number with a sing-along hook that arrived just in time for beach trips and barbecues — and months ahead of its Trolls soundtrack debut in September. “It’s not a coincidence that the song came out just when summer was starting,” says Gary Trust, associate director of charts/radio at Billboard. The timing paid off: The song debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in mid-May.
But it’s a little too soon for Timberlake to declare himself the winner in the Song of the Summer race, which has gone from a music-nerd pastime to an industry-wide conversation with competing methodologies. (Perhaps the most precise is Billboard’s Songs of the Summer chart, which rewards the song with the highest cumulative performance on the Hot 100 between Memorial Day and Labor Day—that’s counting sales, streaming, and airplay.) For starters, Timberlake faces stiff competition from Drake’s “One Dance,” which regained the No. 1 spot from “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” after one week and has stayed there ever since.
Summer is also far from over. Though media and industry speculation begins as early as March, only five of the past 10 Songs of the Summer hit No. 1 before July 4. That means there’s plenty of time for a clear victor to emerge between Drake and Timberlake — or for a dark horse to overtake them both. Just like OMI’s “Cheerleader” crept up on Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” last year, a sleeper hit like Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” could still claim the title. “That [song] just hit the top 10, it’s gaining in airplay, and it’s got those reggae vibes,” Trust says. “You could have a big lead the whole way, but if somebody catches up to you, it can totally change.”
Why does the music industry pay so much attention to the Song of the Summer anyway? For new artists, the designation can put them on the map. “We saw that with Carly Rae Jepsen and Robin Thicke,” says Shanon Cook, Spotify’s trends expert, who named Frenship’s “Capsize” her underdog pick after the electro-pop duo spiked on the streaming service’s most popular playlists. For established artists like Timberlake, the title is less important. “You’re going for every accolade you can get. It wasn’t like we sat down and [‘Song of the Summer’] was at the top of the list,” explains Tom Corson, president and COO of RCA Records, Timberlake’s label. Still, the song’s seasonal appeal wasn’t lost on RCA as it started pitching the track weeks in advance to platforms like YouTube as well as radio stations, which can score cool points by supporting a summer smash early on.
Correctly predicting the season’s big hit also can mean big bucks for brands hoping to tap into the feel-good vibes uniquely associated with the Song of the Summer through commercials and partnerships. “It’s almost like buying stock that’s guaranteed to go up,” says Greg Glenday, chief revenue officer for music-discovery app Shazam. “You’re tied in with somebody that’s hot, and you look like the tastemaker.” And with eight weeks left till Labor Day, it’s not too late to put your money down.