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The Song of the Summer Is Actually the Song of 1982

Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso” is one of several recent hits bringing back the genre that never got a name.

It’s June, school’s out (or almost), and Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso” is everywhere. Since its release in April, it has become a Top 5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and outside the U.S., it’s already the biggest song in the world, including in the U.K., where it has spent five consecutive weeks at the top of the charts. She has performed the song at Coachella and on Saturday Night Live. It’s approaching half a billion streams on Spotify. She has even got Adele’s cosign. And these are just ripples from Carpenter’s larger takeover of the memeosphere. Her delivery is assured and alluring, the melody falling in desultory “My give-a-f—s are on vacation” wisps over a rhythm driven by syncopated synth bass and steady handclaps, all atop two rich chords that share a buoyant common tone. An irresistible song about irresistibility, it was widely declared the song of the summer before we even got to the end of April.

But “Espresso,” frankly, belongs to the summer of 1982. Pretty much every musical idea in America’s Pop Song of the Moment can be traced back to an entire genre of music that, in its own time, was resoundingly rejected as “not pop enough” by radio and MTV. Ironic indeed that so much pop in the past couple of years, whether it’s Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!,” Dua Lipa’s Barbie soundtrack entry Dance the Night,” or Doja Cat’s SZA team-up “Kiss Me More,” derives from this musical movement that never even had a name of its own.

This is not a case of an underground style finally edging into the mainstream, like punk did in various forms in the 1990s. This particular case is a cold case. A RICO case, even. It’s about the people who decide what pop does and doesn’t sound like—or, more to the point, what pop looks and doesn’t look like. And after all these years, it still makes me mad.