Each month, we pitch a new question to our staff and readers. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, email it to us. This month we asked: What is your hot jam of forever?
I was seven years old back in the summer of ’75, an impressionable lump of boy with no preconceptions of cool and no older siblings to guide me. When my father wasn’t teaching math to middle school kids, he served in the National Guard, and that summer his unit was deployed to Las Vegas for a three-week training exercise/poker tournament/booze and stripper binge. My mother, reveling in her own temporary freedom, celebrated by purchasing Helen Reddy’s album I Am Woman and playing the title track over and over, as loud as the volume would go. My dad returned to find his wife empowered and his son brainwashed, singing “I am strong (strong!) / I am invincible (invincible!!) / I am woman!” at the top of my lungs. “Jesus, Margo,” I recall him bitterly complaining, “You turned him into a Mary.”
I’ve been listening to “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms non-stop for approximately 30 months, and I’ve never been so happy. It’s a summer jam in that it has made my entire life one long, beautiful summer. Everything feels so sunny and good and possible when I hear it, and I think of all the times I’ve sung along to it with all the people I love. I hum it under my breath when I’m making scones at work, and yell it to myself when I’m coasting downhill in the hot summer sunshine. It’s a perfect song that encapsulates everything I love to talk about: the 1990s, failed romance, being a fuckup, the romanticization of illegal activity—I could go on. And it’s just so catchy! I want to sing it to all of my crushes and lost loves. This one’s for you, jerks.
The summer of 1994, I was a rising high school senior, and my dad and I flew to Washington, D.C., for a weeklong college road trip around the Northeast. Which is how we found ourselves sitting in a car in a gridlocked tunnel at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay for several hours. Of course, my Walkman batteries were dead. My dad, spotting an opportunity to bond, suggested we listen to one of my mixtapes on the car stereo. I, spotting an opportunity to alienate, obliged. For the next two hours, we listened to Nirvana, Tori Amos, Moby, Pearl Jam, Ani DiFranco, Liz Phair, Soul Coughing…and, above all, Nine Inch Nails. The Downward Spiral had come out that spring, and nearly every song appeared somewhere on one of my mixtapes, including “Closer.” Of all the pain and awkwardness I managed to inflict upon myself during my adolescence, not much compares to the exquisite, excruciating discomfort of being trapped in a car with my father, dying for a smoke and a pee, and listening to Trent Reznor howl, “I want to fuck you like an animal.”
In many ways this has been the Summer of Meh. That doesn’t even deserve capitalization. Not only because it’s contrary to the listless spirit of Meh, but because I’ve had so many meh summers now that I’ve lost count. I think my first summer of meh was spent playing Double Dragon 2 and eating at McDonald’s every single day when I was 11. Then there was the summer I spent at 16, talking on the phone to Tara, my friend from Missouri. We literally watched The Grind on MTV, a full time zone apart, and talked shit about the dancers. One of the defining tenets of summer seems to be its disposability, and as such it’s hard to think back to the Jam of Summer (also always capitalized, rarely deserving) that should be replayed in perpetuity. All I can call up now, as my AC rattles through what is hopefully the final month of this strange, incredibly hot summer, is the band that led me into summer with such high hopes: Sleigh Bells. I lost my mind over this band when their debut album dropped in May, and their song “Kids” may be a perfect summer jam. Elements of sissy bounce permeate heavy guitars used like machinery. Alexis Krauss has a saccharine voice that coos about hanging out on a beach drinking Kool-Aid. Children laugh and muse about needing a vacation. You kids are killing me.
On a drive around Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp (always summer there to a Virginian, even though it was February), I accidentally pushed the CD button on my rental’s stereo and discovered a homemade CD left by a previous occupant. Hand-titled “Gloweena,” it bore a mishmash of unfamiliar rave music with some rather jarring transitions between tracks. One track, though, held me enraptured with its minimalist electronica punctuated with exotic, incomprehensible verse sung by childlike voices—and then it suddenly broke off, obviously unfinished. I kept the CD on the outside chance that someday I’d identify that track and get a complete copy of it for myself. That took some doing, since Google doesn’t turn snippets of music into song titles—yet.
Months later, a chance encounter with a YouTube opus by one Matthew Harding (thanks Matt, wherever the hell you are) gave me an opener. An intense Google session yielded the title and the artist, but not the track I was looking for. Turns out this piece had been recorded dozens of different ways over the years. So yet more Googling—until finally, just days ago, I discovered and acquired (legally, mind you) the artists’ Natural Trance Mix.
In the summer of 2001, I was given a CD-R of the soon-to-be-released New Order album Get Ready. (For that brief moment, it was something of a coup—Lars Ulrich was nailing shut the coffin of Napster, top-of-the-line iMacs came equipped with 56K modems—actually locating and acquiring full albums was suddenly a challenge.) I pressed down the inkjet label, which was coming loose from the disc, and slid the CD into my computer to listen to it. It was only nearly as bad as I had expected; it had been eight years since their last album and 12 since their last good album. Odds didn’t favor this new one. But one song, “Primitive Notion,” grabbed me—and still does—and I can still feel the warmth of those waning summer months and the heat as the label came unglued from the disc and jammed my CD drive to a halt.
In the summer of 1996, I arrived in America. I didn’t speak English, didn’t have friends, and lived in a household that, to this day, does not listen to music save for soulful Chinese ballads. Yet none of these hurdles proved a match for the music phenomenon that marked my first introduction to American culture, despite the song being recorded by a couple of Spanish guys. This summer jam bridged every gap. It didn’t matter that no one at school wanted to talk to me; this was a song based on dancing. Who cares that I still couldn’t pronounce my father’s English name? This song wasn’t in English anyway. And so what if my family doesn’t listen to music? I heard it everywhere. At school. Around my neighborhood. In the supermarket. Hiding in the clothing racks at Wal-Mart. That song, the ultimate hot summer jam of forever, was…the Macarena.
This one isn’t really a summer jam in the classical sense, in that it doesn’t often get blasted out of moving vehicles. But in terms of songs that are about summer, I can’t think of anything that beats Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling.” Here Richman reflects back on the summers of his youth, encapsulating the wistful, embittered feelings that come with getting old. Something about those precarious off-rhymes, that unassuming Boston drawl: Richman’s cheerful persona couldn’t be more perfect for delivering such a heartbreaking song.
When the cool of the pond makes you drop down on it
When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it…
And you boys long for some little girl that you dated
Do you long for her or for the way you were?
That summer feeling is gonna haunt you the rest of your life.
B. Michael Payne
“Heartbeats” by the Knife: Clearly, this song—despite being authored by a pair of Swedes—was made for the most sultry, ache-inducing nights presently available to those between the Tropics Cancer and Capricorn; that is, its natural hunting grounds comprise the uniformly hottest, most humid territories on earth. Everything from the grinding, chunky synthesizers to the lurid lyrics—”One night to push and scream / And then relief”—the entire song screams with every sonic station for sex, release, and loss.
It took me a decade to discover “93 ‘til Infinity” by Souls of Mischief, but it became my summer anthem as I cruised the rural streets and highways of the Pacific Northwest after finishing my first year of college. The song inspired a summer of evenings spent drinking 40-oz. malt liquor and relaxing with friends—a theme that I have since associated with summer more than any other season. Subsequent summers always brought upon a return to these antics, as I aimlessly made my way through the season enjoying that bizarre sense of limbo that we all know well—not quite ready to return to campus but itching to see faraway friends, all the while grinding away at some sort of meaningless employment. When the proverbial whistle blew to signal an end to each dog day of summer, I found myself with the windows down, stereo up and foot on the gas, in search of a beach, a backyard or a bonfire where I could enjoy the company of close friends and a cold bottle. Although I’ll never return to those summers, listening to this song will always bring me back—from now until infinity.
My hot summer jam to exist forever is “At Last” by Etta James. This song is an indefatigable defender of loving. An invincible sentimental monster. It will be played under wedding tents until Jupiter explodes. The strings paint a backdrop of a thousand Hollywood southern sunsets mashed together, and Etta James—nobody beats Etta James. She triumphs in any song. “I’d Rather Go Blind,” that’s a killer song. “Pushover.” “Something’s Got a Hold On Me.” But “At Last” will live as long as any America that’s worth living in.
The Walkman was a wonderful tool for turning long family car journeys into an isolated bubble of adolescent introspection. One of my constant companions on a late ’80s driving holiday to the south of France was a precious cassette of the Cure’s Japanese Whispers. I remember little, save for winding mountain roads, zero air conditioning, and the lingering remnants of an unshakeable but unfulfilled crush from earlier in the year. The memory added a roaring emotional resonance to almost everything, but most of all the music that I piped into my ears courtesy of my brand new Aiwa (with auto reverse and remote control, no less). Of all the tracks on this compilation album, “The Upstairs Room” stands out, not least for its bright, utterly of-the-moment production, spacious and wide open. The track almost smelt of summer nights, thanks to the constant hiss of an electronic high hat, a bouncing yet maudlin bass line, and a lyrical sadness that seemed to speak profoundly about the romance of the missed connection. Admittedly, it was hardly subtle—”The upstairs room is cool and bright / We can go up there in summer / And dance all night”—but I still can’t listen to track without getting an intoxicating wave of nostalgia for time, place, and memory.
Amidst the tales of her broken hearts, her cheating men, and her longing and suffering, Patsy Cline recorded a little ditty that is light, charming, even hopeful. OK, so she’s still lonely, and there’s talk of crying, but darn if it won’t put a little sashay in your step. “Walkin’ After Midnight” is a summer jam for the start of summer, when things start looking up, when every fortune cookie is an eerie reflection of real life. Because if even Patsy Cline is thinking she might run into you, anything is possible.
Growing up, we spent the hot Oklahoma summers at home, eating ice cream every day and checking out stacks of books from the local library. Our twice-weekly taekwondo classes gave structure to the weeks of June, July, and August. Still wearing our belts and uniforms, my little sister and I would fight over who got to sit in the front seat and control the radio while my mother drove us home through the quiet, dark suburbs, and it was a quest against time and the “scan” button to find the perfect song before we arrived home. I don’t even remember the songs, to be honest—Britney Spears? Kid Rock? ‘NSYNC?—but the feeling remains: windows rolled down, wind drying the sweat on my face, and the knowledge that even though school was starting soon, for now it was all ice cream and lazy afternoons. Summer is the best season.
My Hot Jam, from the summer of 1998, is “Still Not a Player” by Big Pun and Joe. Hearing that song brings me back to Splish Splash water park in Long Island, when a friend put red dye in my hair, shocking bystanders when the color ran as I went down the 90-foot slide. On the ride back, “Sim Simma” by Beenie Man was blasted (another Hot Jam) and I still wonder to this day if anyone gave him back the keys to his Bimmer (or his truck) so he could make love to his woman in a rush.
The mid-1980s. British industry is in crisis, the coal miners are being brought to their knees by Margaret Thatcher, and there is strawberry preserve in our freezer. I know this because there’s always strawberry preserve in our freezer, every summer and into the autumn if we’re lucky. We pick our own strawberries from the Kent farms nearby—people did in those days—and on one occasion I eat so many that I’m sick in the car on the way home. Totally worth it. Mum makes preserve, I’ve no idea how or with what recipe, but it’s gelatinous and incredibly sweet, sweeter than the stuff you get in the shops. We thaw out one plastic pot at a time, and brighten up the darkening winter days with sweet sandwiches. That’s all you need, when you’re a kid: a good, hot jam of the season.