The song of the summer is happening whether you like it or not

Somewhere in the disorienting swirl of the past decade - an era of American life that has felt not unlike the fated flushing of some cosmic toilet - the “song of the summer” stopped being something worth talking about. As a concept, it had been made obsolete by our siloed smartphone culture diets, by our conflicted national mood, by our mounting despair over climate change, by our irreconcilable polarization over Drake. Pretty soon, nobody was having any fun making inherently unwinnable arguments about which pop song might best characterize the collective human temperament on an overheating blue-green dot.

There were still plenty of bright, new hit singles decorating the air, of course. We still heard them at block parties and ballparks, boardwalks and barbecues. Summer of 2020 aside, the music never stopped. But now, on the other side of the pandemic, too many of us are choosing to experience public life through our phones, where it’s easy to wonder whether the algorithm is offering everyone different sno-cone flavors. That makes the summer’s rising temperatures feel like the most concrete aspect of our consensus reality, even as the boundaries of summer itself bleed into the adjoining seasons. Is there a song big enough to encompass all that?

Against all odds this summer, at least two are going for it: Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso” and Tommy Richman’s “Million Dollar Baby.” Both are levitating near the top of the Billboard Hot 100, surrounded by other respectable SOTS candidates with disparate backstories. Over here we have Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us,” a highly danceable evisceration of Drake from the archrivals’ historic springtime beef. Over there, outsider country smashes from Post Malone (“I Had Some Help”) and Shaboozey (“A Bar Song (Tipsy)”), both of whom leapfrogged Beyoncé after guesting on her hyper-ballyhooed “Cowboy Carter” album back in March. The story around Carpenter and Richman is much tidier: Ta-dah. They’re suddenly up here, too. And since nobody really saw them coming, nobody really knows how far they’ll go.

“Espresso” might go forever. Carpenter is a 25-year-old, medium-voiced Disney Channel alumnus who sounds like she’s trying to conjure infinity by roller skating figure eights in the hot-pink shadow of last summer’s “Barbie” soundtrack. (To her great credit, she somehow doesn’t wipe out while singing the phrase “dream-come-trued” as a compound verb in the past tense.) Her backing track is congenial disco fluff - presumably, the same pillow fill they use to make the clouds in heaven - but Carpenter opts to play the cool jerk throughout, flaunting her coffeelike ability to keep some hopeless boy tossing and turning at night. “Is it that sweet?” she asks about her smitten insomniac, then rolls her eyes. “I guess so.” This is a song that invokes a scalding beverage via fructose and fizz, but really, it’s a paean to the joys of being a little mean.

With its tensile strength being tested around-the-clock on TikTok, Richman’s “Million Dollar Baby” feels casually indomitable in different ways. This is a song about desire - a sketch of a thirst spasm, a snippet of a pickup routine, a chorus-verse-chorus of a half-tune where the nubby bass line creeps up on us from some forgotten ‘80s electro jam, smothered in the funk of forty thousand years. As for Richman, he comes from Woodbridge, Va., and in addition to having previously collaborated with Maryland singer Brent Faiyaz, his father was the original drummer in the thrashy D.C. hardcore band Malefice. It’s all in there. When the 24-year-old sings in his shrieky falsetto about how he “could clean up good for you,” the desperation in his yelp will make you hope he keeps it funky in perpetuity.

Here’s the fun part. As superb and distinct as these two pop hits feel right now, are they ultimately in some kind of codependent, coinkydink dialogue with one another? Think about it. “Espresso” is a song about how good it feels to feel wanted. “Million Dollar Baby” is a song about how good it feels to want. That “one boy [who] won’t stop calling” in “Espresso” sounds a lot like the guy grousing about how “you still don’t notice me” in “Million Dollar Baby.” Or flip it the other way. The “diva” in “Million Dollar Baby” could easily be the very same person in “Espresso” who’s “working late cause I’m a singer.” What if these two songs don’t need to be the biggest, hottest songs on this big, hot planet? What if they just need each other?