Tracing memories through top hits and summer soundtracks: A personal essay

hit songs
Nishali Naik/Staff

ummer has always been the time for music. Windows down, friends abound and most importantly, radio blasting: These were the integral pieces of a great time during the months off of school. Nothing fills a heart with more nostalgia than hearing a song that defined a summer. The songs of the summer are the sign of the times — the sign of my times. They capture the transformative moments in my life that each warm season brought around. With each coming year, there’s the suspense of finding out what song will continue the trend.

Back in middle school, there was no song more iconic than Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” Still bright-eyed and innocent, the infectious nature of the song sparked a fire in my heart. And coincidentally, I had just gotten my first phone, and the prospect of actually getting to call my friends — and maybe even my crush — was the wildest opportunity I could imagine to date. At the time, these were monumental milestones, but over the years, as my youthful glee and excitement faded, they just felt trivial. Yet whenever I feel wishful, I can’t help but be reminded of this time in my life when anything was possible.

But when I entered high school, the modern anthem of my generation had changed: There was no escaping Pharrell’s “Happy.” The incredibly catchy and up-tempo jam was anywhere and everywhere, anytime you wanted it or didn’t. As if acknowledging the insidious yet irresistible presence of the song, someone made a 24-hour-long video to show the endless positivity that Pharrell captured in his annoyingly repetitive lyrics. A person could literally spend an entire day listening and dancing to this single song. And just like the dancers in the video, upon stepping into high school, I felt surprisingly blissful. Over the summer, I had learned how to dance, grown closer with my friends and had more freedom to go out and enjoy myself. Despite the increasing burden of school responsibilities, I was just happy to be along for the ride.

Left with a guitar and a sense of yearning, I didn’t just listen to the most current “summer jams” — I played them myself.

The summer before my first day at Cal was accompanied by the sounds of Luis Fonsi’s now infamous “Despacito.” After graduating high school, I was filled with reckless abandon and arrogance. I felt invincible and intelligent and deserving of everything I wanted. The arrogant strut that I mastered fell so perfectly in time with the Spanish-language summer anthem that it felt like a soundtrack written specifically for me. I had a car, a girl and a long break ahead of me that was free and exciting. There would be all the time for anything I wanted to do, and I wanted those months to go by as slowly as possible.

While Carly Rae Jepsen’s bop personifies the excitement of my younger years and Luis Fonsi personified the unrealistic confidence I had post-graduation, the summer of ‘18 threw me into a new direction. This year it was less about the song that was played and more about the people I played it with. Thanks to the generosity of my friends and family, I had my first real six-string, and playing that guitar brought a new sense of accomplishment and joy to my life, especially during trying and changing times. I would learn song after song, spending countless hours bombarding my floormates with trial and error. It was euphoric.

But returning back home for the break, it was obvious that the new age of responsibility had struck my peers. Busy with jobs, study abroad and even a child, my best friends all seemed to have picked up lives that couldn’t have room for the lackadaisical nonsense I wanted to enjoy with them. Left with a guitar and a sense of yearning, I didn’t just listen to the most current “summer jams” — I played them myself. From classic rock to covers of pop songs, the days spent strumming on my guitar felt both similar and different from the summers before. There may not have been one song for this summer, but I still look back with contentment at the warm days spent making my own music.

Every year, an artist strikes gold and drops an anthem as hot as the summer sun. Maybe that gold is only a little nugget enjoyed in the company of a few friends, or maybe it’s a cultural blockbuster that hits the nation. No matter what it is, I could ask for no better reminder of what that year meant to me.

Contact Emmanuel Ronquillo at [email protected].