It’s the End of Earworm Season: How COVID Affected This Year’s Summer Songs

Summer is almost over. We know, we know, it hardly felt like it started. But, before the pandemic, songs of summer were a marker of sorts, a stamp on the calendar that reminded people it was finally time to kick back and relax. Summer songs were a herald of the coming season of sun, fun, and plenty of time spent outdoors on a picnic blanket or at an outdoor music festival.

But, it’s been more than a year now since this whole thing started, and we’ve all been cooped up in our houses for the whole seemingly interminable journey. So we didn’t get our usual amount of summer fun, beach parties, or barbecues. But we still had Spotify, Pandora, and other music services. And we still had those summer songs of yesteryear, but this time, they heralded a lot of sitting around and waiting for the world to be safe again.

So how did this affect the summer songs of today, the ones that had the grave misfortune of being released in a year with very little summer?

Well, to start, it affected how we listened to those songs, where we listened, and more crucially, why we listened. To speak more intelligently about that, we get to go spelunking in the caves of Neuroscience and Psychology! Don’t worry. We won’t get into the nitty-gritty, just the abridged versions that relate to music and how we as human beings relate to music on a deeper level.

Have you ever been really sad, and for some reason, it just felt like a good idea to put on your headphones and listen to something even sadder – maybe a melancholic piano melody or a song about loneliness? Or maybe, to curb the bad feelings, you put on something peppy, inspirational, or otherwise more optimistic about things than you were? There’s a scientific reason for that desire, and it uses a neat pair of words: “Emotional Regulation.”

Just as the body pumps blood through it and lungs circulate air, our emotions need to cycle, process themselves, and fluctuate. You know the age-old wisdom: “Don’t bottle up your emotions”? This is one of the reasons why. When emotions are left unattended, left to collect dust on the proverbial shelf in the back of our heads, they don’t just sit there; they fester. They get bigger and more difficult to wrangle with when we eventually go back there to mentally “clean house.” Emotional regulation is the act of acknowledging, processing, and sometimes ruminating on these feelings to process many different ways. We do this to accept them, understand them better, work through them to figure out how to make them stop, or allow ourselves to feel them for a while.

The desire to listen to something sad when you’re sad is one of the most common ways of doing this. It creates an environment that feels like you do. It’s a form of externalization – a way to take it out of yourself and play around with it, explore the space, get comfortable and familiar with it, which ultimately leads to a healthy acceptance. It might feel like you “just want to be sad for a while,” and that is what you want. But externalization is what’s actually happening when you do that. The opposite is true too. Listening to happy songs when you’re sad is a more direct form of regulation – a spoonful of sugar, as it were – a way to remind oneself that this sadness is not all that exists in the world.

How does this affect the songs of the “summer that wasn’t”? The songs became the summer.

Now that may seem like it was mere poetry, but it isn’t groundless. On average, when the pandemic was just getting started, and the hollow summer rolled around, those throwback songs and melodies of vibrant sun and sky were so evocative of past summer memories that they acted almost as a substitute. For those who longed for that feeling, those songs likely meant even more to them than when they first heard them on the radio.

However, and you might’ve caught on to this if you were thinking ahead, the opposite was also true. The lonely, depressing songs of isolation also found a more, say, passionate audience. Those that needed to figure out what to do with themselves and their fears of the pandemic found their emotional playground, and those who needed their summer back got their escape.

Music, in general, was listened to more regularly. Not just because of the lack of things to do, but because the time was right for some heavy-duty emotional regulation.

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