I took a little trip to Montreal last weekend. Montreal is about a five-hour drive from Toronto (where I live, God help me). It’s about the same by train, but we took the car because Canada doesn’t know how to run trains (the tickets were about $9 million each). That’s how I knew we’d be listening to the radio. I know I don’t need to listen to the live crumbly, sometimes in-and-out local radio in my car – there are a million different digital alternatives that work better now – but it’s a small pleasure for me. I don’t have to curate anything, nothing is curated for me (well, not for me personally), and there’s a news broadcast every hour, so I don’t feel like a complete idiot the whole way through. However, listening to the radio means my hand is on the search button about 95 percent of the time. And 95 percent of the time, it’s because Summer of ’69 is on.
If you’ve never heard “Summer of ’69” by Bryan Adams, chances are you’re not Canadian and also your quality of life is better than mine. The song, which is about being tossed between a rock star and some sort of trailer park situation (the title is a reference to fucking, which Adams thought was fucking hilarious) came out in 1985, which means I’ve heard this pop-rock paean to mediocrity some kind of North American style sonic water torture for about 37 years. “Summer of ’69” wasn’t even Adams’ biggest hit at the time of release (it peaked at No. 11 on the charts). It appeared on Adams’ fourth album, Recklesswhere the bigger track was the almost-so-banal-but-not-quite “Run to You” (even that only peaked at No. 4) and the much better “Heaven” (which also hit No. 11 despite being actually good , although even then I prefer the Elisabeth Moss lo-fi cover Her scent). And yet “Summer of ’69” is the song I can’t ignore. But why?
Well, there are rules in this country. And the rule is that you play ‘Summer of ’69’ whether you like it or not. In principle. The actual official rule, as stated by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), is that 35 percent of music broadcast on mainstream radio must be Canadian. (For the national broadcaster, the CBC, it’s 50 percent; these rules aren’t the same for college radio, which is why their music is 10,000 times better, even though the hosts always sound like they’re broadcasting from their mother’s basement.) This rule does that doesn’t just exist to annoy me. It exists to showcase Canadian music, but more than that to contribute to the development of new Canadian music (through financial contributions from industry revenues of $1.15 billion to various local talent funds). So what makes a song Canadian enough except it’s by Bryan Adams (actually, that’s not always good enough, we’ll get to that in a minute)? The MAPL system — an embarrassingly cute acronym for music, artist, production, lyrics — requires a Canadian song to meet at least two of the following four criteria: it was composed entirely by a Canadian, the lyrics were written by a Canadian, the music/lyrics are mainly performed by a Canadian and/or the song was recorded/broadcast/performed in Canada.
In 1992, six years after “Summer of ’69” first appeared, Adams got pissed off about CanCon (Canadian Content) rules at a local press conference when his sixth album, Wake up the neighbors, who produced the biggest hit of his career (the now-dated Robin Hood song “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, which is so old I first danced to it) was not considered Canadian because it was shot in the UK and co-written by Mutt Lange, who is South African. “You’d never hear Elton John being declared un-British,” Adams said, adding that “it wasn’t until my records were big in America that I started getting serious airplay in Canada.” He suggested that the Canadian government get out of the music business and that CanCon at least be regressive. “I always thought it did nothing but spawn mediocrity,” Adams said without irony. And yet, again, ironically, CanCon rules are the reason my dude is getting so much airplay now.
That hand I always have on the search button? That is exactly what radio stations are opposed to. And it’s much easier to get people on your channel if they can sing along than it is to commit them to something new. (Remember how much Justin Bieber had to push “Call Me Maybe” before anyone cared?) And people love to sing along to “Summer of ’69.” Even on Spotify, this song blows away every other Adams song with over 850,000,000 streams (the second highest song, Robin Hood’s song, is half that). That it’s a DAILY struggle not to succumb to the ‘Summer of ’69’ hook in this country is one of the reasons it drives me crazy. It’s like Adams knew EXACTLY what notes to hit, what breaks to take, even the false nostalgia. . . but I will NOT be a sign. That this song is even considered “rock” is irritating, just as accepting that designation makes me an accomplice.
“Summer of ’69” is what Hit Parade host Chris Molanphy calls a “legacy hit.” It’s a song that didn’t chart high when it came out, but is now indelibly associated with Adams. “I call radio the truth serum of hitmaking,” Molanphy says on his podcast. “We can hate the way it overplays certain records year after year. But with all that call-out research and rating data at their disposal, radio programmers know what’s keeping us from flipping the station. And yes, it’s a lesser 1985 Bryan Adams tune. A few years ago, Nielsen Music Canada released some top 10 lists as part of its year-end roundup. Adams, as I suspected, landed the top spot with the most airplay spins of any Canadian artist at nearly 3 million. (The Tragically Hip and Nickelback also made the list, but were much lower.) However, I was SURPRISED to learn that “Summer of ’69” didn’t have the best Canadian spins in 2019 – that was Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” at 262,000 (only 1,000 more than Adams’s, but still) In subsequent years, The Weeknd blew away every other Canadian (2020: “Blinding Lights”, 71,000 spins; 2021: “Save Your Tears”, 128,000 spins) and conceded , I’ve heard those songs loads of times, but I’ve been less inclined to remember because I don’t have a visceral response to it, maybe because I haven’t had time to cherish it.
But it’s only a matter of time before the Weeknd becomes Adams. What Yee-Guan Wong wrote in a 2005 piece called “Radio Kills Indie Stars” still applies because of the CRTC’s continued unwillingness to change the rules: “The legislation does not specify how many artists are required to reach the minimum 35 percent, resulting in a watered-down Can-Con that sounds more like Chad KroegerCon or Sarah McLachlanCon, or the worst Con of them all, Celine DionCon.At the time, the Canadian Independent Recording Artists’ Association (CIRAA), which represented indie musicians without major represents record deals, institute a points system to discourage radio stations from playing “Summer of ’69” (for example) so much that we all want to throw our stereos out the window. “If you play Sarah McLachlan or Barenaked Ladies or Shania Twain, do you get the same credit for playing Ron Sexsmith, so why the hell are you going to play Ron Sexsmith?” CIRAA’s Greg Terrence told Wong. “There’s no reason to be a lesser known band to play.”
I don’t even really like Ron Sexsmith, but I’ll take it. I’ll literally take anything as long as it’s not “Summer of ’69”. Unfortunately, the CRTC did not accept the points system. So here we are, every day from now until eternity, disproving Adams’ claim that “nothing can last forever.”