Radio fever

It’s August in Detroit, and things are about where they usually are. The Lions are finishing up training camp, the Tigers are fighting for .500, and the three-digit heat index is a certified bear. Musically, windows are down, systems are up, and everyone’s jamming to ... Doug FM? WTF? Around the corner from Labor Day, and no completely inescapable, dumps-like-a-truck Summer Jam?

This shit’s B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

A grown-up take on the playground throwdown, Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” definitely wins the prize for catchphrase of the summer. But its Neptunes-supplied fife and drum corps beat is way too polarizing. It might sit high on Billboard’s Hot 100, but “Hollaback” won’t bust through to the wedding reception set.

And that’s just one place a true Summer Jam must go. Receptions, christenings, nursing home dayrooms — sure, the track starts its reign in the club, but it rises to power with the people. That’s why classic summer songs are always pop-oriented. On the surface they’re sexified: “Crazy in Love” and “Hot in Herre”; even Will Smith’s bright plastic “Miami” brought some sweaty exuberance to 1998. But underneath the hot and bother they’re custom-built for mass appeal. In 2003, the hard-blowing horn sample from “Crazy in Love” was like being ass-whipped by a giant exclamation point. It didn’t matter if you were Shawn Carter or Jimmy Carter — Beyoncé reduced you to a frothy mess.

But that’s so two years ago. In 2005 radio is a non-factor in breaking singles. Locally, 93.1 is history, replaced by a numbing khaki robot named Doug. And despite strong ratings for Clear Channel’s Channel 95.5 and FM 98 WJLB, neither station is spinning anything with truly visceral, lasting appeal. And in that, Mimi might save the day.

Admit it: Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” is the jam of summer 2005. The second single from Emancipation of Mimi climbed steadily at Billboard, just like Mariah’s singles used to do, and as of Aug. 18th it was number one on the Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts. You obviously agree that it’s a great song, but if radio’s a non-factor then the charts are irrelevant. We all know it’s the intangibles that make a summer single anyway, those untraceable currents that grab the heart and feet, and despite not being an anthem, “We Belong Together” is that rousing. It’s straightforward, heartfelt and classy. Mariah pleads with her departed lover — “When you left I lost a part of me/It’s still so hard to believe” — and the song’s gentle R&B roll is perfectly understated, built from a few piano chords and a slowed-down So So Def rhythm. (It was co-written and produced by Jermaine Dupri.) It has a homebody quality, almost like an autumn song would — you can imagine a split-up couple singing it quietly, separately, as the world goes on around them. She’s on a porch with tea; he’s stuck in traffic when he finds Mariah on the radio. It even cleverly references that feel, with Mariah finding the Bobby Womack and Babyface songs on her radio just too tough to hear. There’s no tired “I tried to 2-way you” retorts, no trash-technology love affair “I was at the grocery store and this guy had the same ring tone as you, and I cried.” No, there’s a classic sensibility to the lyrics and sound of “We Belong Together” that makes for perfect — and perfectly universal — pop/R&B songwriting. In other words, it’s the jam. And there’s probably a happy ending, too: Mariah’s triumphant octave shift finale makes the song’s title an emphatic. Besides, in the video she decides against marrying old-ass Eric Roberts, and that’s a huge plus. No one would’ve danced at that reception.

Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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