The sounds of summer 2011

What defines the song of summer? For many, it is the music that was playing in the restaurant or on the beach as they were falling in love. For others, it's the soundtrack of friendship.

Because music anchors us in time and space, the sounds that define a summer are often tied to a particular place. In this case, perhaps this beachgoer, watching the sunset Wednesday, will remember listening to music while sitting at Jumeirah Beach Park in Dubai.
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"It's midday and you're listening to Radio 1." Sheena Kay, the Sheena in Radio 1's Sheena Show, is gripping her headphones tightly and checking her Twitter feed. "Today I'm asking you what makes a summer song. What song do you think will define this summer?"

While she speaks, the producer and the station's teenage intern throw songs around: Super Bass. How To Love. Save the World.

"I mean," continues Sheena on air, "you never have a winter song or an autumn song. Just a summer song. So what do you predict will be the song of this summer?"

Her listeners come back, on the phone and online, with a list of the big songs heard pounding out of cars and clubs all across the Emirates: Party Rock Anthem, Mr Saxobeat, Give Me Everything. The names are accompanied by a glint in Sheena's eyes as she adds them to her mental list of the summer's best songs.

What is it that makes the sound of a summer? Every summer has an anthem, a song that seems to encapsulate that carefree period between studies, or that long-anticipated break, or lazy days on a beach away from the office.

Yet with few exceptions - when Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince exploded across the radio in 1991, there were no other contenders for a summer song - the songs that define the summer aren't immediately obvious nor easily defined.

After the show, Sheena ponders her own question from years of radio experience. "What makes a summer song? Two things. The memories that go along with the song. It has to do with the experiences you had when the song was playing.

"A summer song makes you feel like you're on vacation, even when you're not. You hear it and you feel you should be on a beach dancing."

The heat of the Emirates can make dancing on a beach in summer an arduous - even dangerous - activity during the day, but there are other elements that make a summer song harder to define here than in some other places. One is language: the UAE operates in two different languages, Arabic and English, each with a rich musical tradition and many summer releases. If the song streaming out of a car window is in a language you don't understand, you may not connect with it as easily.

The other issue is culture. Famously, the country is a melting pot of cultures from all around the world. Arabic music may unite people from across the Arab world, but what about those from Indian or Filipino cultures?


The woman next to me has lost her handbag. I know this because she is speaking quickly in a Slavic accent down the phone to a friend, telling her she is on the third floor of Dubai Mall and can't find her handbag. I cannot hear the other side of the conversation but I get the impression her friend doesn't know where the bag is. The woman, Nina Belenki, a 23-year-old Russian tourist, puts on her headphones and presses her iPhone.

She is listening to Bounce by Calvin Harris, a jaunty dance song. Is it a summer song, I ask her. "Yes, it makes you want to dance, to move your arms. It makes me happy to listen to it. I feel I am with my friends even if I am by myself."

I ask her if she doesn't prefer Russian music (Calvin Harris is a British singer) and her answer tells you much about the current state of pop culture - and why there just might be hope for one defining song for this Emirati summer.

"It's all the same now. It's not American music or English music, it's international music. Even an American song, Mr Saxobeat, is like our music in Russia, so it is all the same." Indeed, Mr Saxobeat - a loud party anthem by the Romanian singer Alexandra Stan - is Belenki's song for this summer, because it reminds her of the UAE.

"I didn't hear this song before Dubai but now I hear it everywhere - at the club, on the radio. So I will always remember Dubai and remember Mr Saxobeat together."


Sounds that define a summer are often tied to a particular place. Music usually anchors us in time and space, to a particular moment, and sometimes the most obscure songs can have the most meaning, reminding us of lost loves or forgotten people, of places we've never been and others we have never returned to.

But a summer anthem is slightly different: it needs to be popular.

What is interesting in asking people about their summer hits of past years is that very few of the choices are unknown songs, they are usually songs that were huge sellers that summer.

There's a reason for that: songs of the summer become laden with meaning by repetition, hearing the same song again and again in different scenarios across a relatively short period of time.

Secondly, songs become laden with meaning by accident. Summer songs are usually meaningful because they become attached to an event, a place, a vibe, and that means they are not chosen by you, not at first: it's the song you heard holding her hand and being sure this was the love of your life; it's the song someone in the car decided to crank up, just as the skyscrapers peaked on the horizon on the long road to Dubai, and the water beside you was blue and all was right with the world; or it's that song that someone in one of the villas beside the beach was playing too loud at 4am, when you left the party to walk and remember someone special and wonder where in the world they were.

Sounds of the summer have a collective element. They become part of our collective consciousness, even though the memories attached to them are individual.

This collective element applies to how they are made. Summer songs have to be loud or at least sound good played loud - on the beach, in the car, blasting off a terrace.

And they have to be easy to understand, rarely deep in meaning, Think of Rhianna's Umbrella or Hanson's MMMBop - summery tunes that barely mean anything lyrically, but everything aurally. Or what about Nelly's Hot in Here - that song defined a long hot summer of 2002, though it basically consisted of one sentence and one sentiment: "It's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes."

That's the case with Arabic-language music as well.

Fares Karam's dabke-inspired song Tanoura was a smash hit of 2007. There can't have been many nightclubs across the Arab world - and none in the Levant - where that song did not play, filling dance floors and defining a summer.

But Tanoura was all about the music and little about the words. It was about a skirt, a paean to a woman walking along a corniche wearing a short skirt.

Karam is a Lebanese singer and he was perhaps thinking of the corniche in Beirut. On the long stretch of Abu Dhabi's Corniche last week, short skirts were less in evidence. The heat of the Emirates means car windows are rolled up and so the songs playing can only be dimly heard. Ditto with the joggers and families enjoying the beach: they are either lost in their own music players or lost in each other.

At Special Cafe in Khalidiya, opposite the Corniche, two Egyptian engineers are enjoying a shisha in the evening heat.

"I think Arabic music is always made for friends to enjoy, not to be played in a big club," says Abdallah Negm. "With Arabic music, you enjoy it just with your friends, drink coffee and tell jokes."

His friend Gamal El Badri thinks back to a summer in Alexandria and remembers the exact song that defined the time: Elissa's Ayami Beek, an electro-pop song with a very Arabic instrumental sound.

What makes a great summer song, he says, is very easy: the people. "If you are with your friends and you are with people you like, then any song will be great and you will feel happy. Of course, I like Egyptian music but even if you are with your best friends and they play an Italian song, it will be perfect and you will always remember it."

Good advice for summer in a country with a hundred languages.