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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

June 18, 2014: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summer in the City

[As the solstice approaches, a series on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. Add your responses or other summertime favorites for a crowd-sourced weekend bbq—I mean, post. Okay, both!]
On whether all art is political, and why the question matters more than the answer.
In the summer of 1966, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” became a mega-hit, staying at #1 on the Billboard singles chart for three consecutive August weeks. The song’s famous bridge, which features a series of car horns and ends with a jackhammer, is only the most overt of the many ways in which the song perfectly captures its title subject, especially for young city dwellers (like the Spoonful themselves): the contrast between sweltering days and cool (figuratively if not literally) nights; the way in which the former seem to move so slowly when all you want is to get to the thrills of the latter; the grit and sweat that cake necks and sidewalks, bodies and spirits, making all feel nearly dead yet also somehow more alive at the same time. Given how many of those young record buyers lived in cities like New York and Los Angeles, it’s no surprise that “Summer in the City” became one of the season’s and year’s biggest successes.
Of course, the summer of the song’s release also featured “hot towns” that had nothing to do with the thermometer: 1966 was the third of what would turn out to be five consecutive years of “Long Hot Summer,” periods of urban unrest and riots connected to the decade’s simmering racial, cultural, and social tensions, activisms, and conflicts. Indeed, oe of the first such conflicts had erupted in the Spoonful’s own New York City two years earlier, following the July 1964 shooting of a Harlem youth by a white police officer; by 1966 few major urban areas had been left unaffected. It’s difficult to imagine, from my admitted temporal distance, any 1966 city dweller thinking of summer in the city without connecting it to these seasons and years of strife; given early rock and roll’s combination of racial interrelationships and social radicalism, it’s even more difficult to think about a rock group penning such a song without having the long hot summer in mind. But on the other hand, there is absolutely no evidence in the lyrics for “Summer in the City” (nor in the band’s smiling performance captured at the first link above) that it had such less cheery contexts.
By a certain line of critical reasoning, all art is political precisely because it has such contexts, whether it overtly engages with them or not (and indeed, by a certain line of reasoning the failure to engage is itself a political act, even in the most pop of popular culture). But to my mind, the goal shouldn’t be to figure out whether to implicate a song like “Summer in the City” in its political and historical contexts, or even how to read the song in light of them—the goal, and I would say it represents a central AmericanStudies project, should be to think about both The Lovin’ Spoonful and the Long Hot Summer as part of American culture in the summer of 1966 (along with, for example, the iconic surfing film The Endless Summer). There would be all sorts of ways to think about the combination of these different moments and texts, events and voices, but the vital first step is simply to recognize their co-existence, the way in which any American summer—every American season—is comprised out of all of them.
Next summer jam tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this song? Other summertime favorites you’d share?


  1. This song always evoked a very specifically Lindsay-era New York for me, the rhythms, the optimism, the slight melancholy all evoke both the tumult and promise of the Lindsay years.

  2. My colleague Joe Moser writes:

    Speaking of peripheral politics in seasonal music, I'm a big fan of singer/songwriter/pianist Regina Spektor's 2006 song "Summer in the City" (not to be confused with the The Lovin' Spoonful tune). Her "Summer" is primarily about romantic estrangement and longing, but she also nicely captures the feeling of youthful political alienation in the line "So I went to a protest just to rub up against strangers." For me, like many others, recalling the summers of 2006 and 2007 dredges up mixed feelings about the still-active-but-waning movement against the Iraq War, which was very possibly the kind of protest that Ms. Spektor had in mind. Here is a lovely performance of the song from 2007; she introduces it by making a generous comparison between summer in NYC (her home) and Austin, Texas (the site of the performance and my former home):