Naming the definitive song of any summer is an imprecise and imperfect formulation. It's not necessarily the best-selling single between late June and September, or the one with the most online views. It's not even the same thing for different listeners. But there is usually an uneasy consensus among fans, radio programmers, promoters, and critics on a song that comes to stand in as a symbol of the state of pop music. A summer song has to have the right mood—breezy, energetic but not aggressive, somewhere in between a ballad and a banger, and perhaps with a hint of melancholy or nostalgia. (I think of Rhianna's "Umbrella" as the epitome of the form.) It also has to achieve mass saturation beyond just radio—it's the kind of song you can't hear enough of at first, and finally don't ever want to hear again.
In early May, it looked like Daft Punk had won the contest for official summer jam of 2013. "Get Lucky," the disco-inspired first single from the French duo's new album, Random Access Memories, was everywhere—on TV, on the radio, on the Web, even on the Billboard Hot 100, where Daft Punk had previously had almost no presence. (Their singles "Around the World" and "One More Time" both peaked at number 61 in 1997 and 2000, respectively.)
Then, in mid-May, Robin Thicke performed his new single, the sly, funky, and mildly controversial come-on "Blurred Lines," on NBC's The Voice. "Blurred Lines," which had been released in March and stalled in the middle of the U.S. charts, immediately shot to the top of the Hot 100 and complicated the summer pop sweepstakes. The two songs—each of which, coincidentally or not, features Pharrell Williams—now sit at number one and two on the Billboard singles chart. One is going to be remembered as the defining song of the summer of 2013, the song that represents the musical landscape of our time in the pop canon. But which one will it be?
My money is on "Get Lucky." Its throwback charm crosses generations, appealing to people who actually remember disco as well as twentysomethings who missed the darkest days of disco-sucks prejudice. "Blurred Lines" is a big hit; "Get Lucky" seems like the kind of song that everyone will remember a decade from now. It probably helps that Daft Punk, after 20 years of innovative electronic pop, are now thought of as major artists, while Thicke has always been regarded as something of a lightweight.
But "Blurred Lines" might be the better song. "Get Lucky" is a deft piece of classic pop songwriting, but it's also a little pandering; the track's disco sheen is gorgeous but obvious. While earlier Daft Punk songs pointed to the future of pop music, "Get Lucky" could be heard as a witty but still low-brow refinement of Bruno Mars. "Blurred Lines," on the other hand, doesn't hide its influences—Prince, Timbaland, even Pharrell's own "Frontin'"—but it sounds like nothing else on the radio right now. It's exactly the kind of grown-up, modern R&B that Justin Timberlake was after on The 20/20 Experience, except Thicke and Pharrell actually nail it here.
There are still some other contenders running behind Daft Punk and Thicke. Miley Cyrus seems to have wrapped up third place with "We Can't Stop," a brand-new hard-partying anthem that might mark the singer's official break with her Disney alter ego, Hannah Montana. The song's explicit references to sex and drugs (this summer seems to be a particularly adult one) sound a little forced, though, compared to the worn-in decadence of "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines." Besides that, "We Can't Stop" is, at least to my ears, half a beat too slow; the defiant, in-your-face lyrics don't match up to the track itself, a mid-tempo mashup of a piano ballad and woozy EDM. Icona Pop and Charli XCX's "I Don't Care," a critical favorite last year before cracking the top 10 this spring, is a far more effective kiss-off song; it's also more likely to stay in my summer playlist.
Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise," a crossover hit from the country charts, has everything a summer hit needs—an irresistible sing-along chorus, big guitars, computer-polished harmonies, and lyrics about riding around and hanging out in the summertime. It also has banjos, though, which disqualifies it from mainstream summer-jam consideration, even though it's been hanging around the top of the Hot 100 for months.
My own pick for the song of the summer is "#Beautiful," a duet between Mariah Carey and the exquisite young R&B singer Miguel. "#Beautiful" is officially credited to Carey—it's from her upcoming album, The Art of Letting Go—but she doesn't get a solo verse until almost halfway through. Miguel, whose breathtaking 2012 R&B hit "Adorn" was one of the best pop songs of last year, is the real star, alongside the gorgeous, clean guitar lick that runs throughout it. Like "Adorn," "#Beautiful" is a masterpiece of economy; it might take a few listens to take hold, but once it does, it won't let go.