If you write or talk about music for a living, a few new unwritten rules have cropped up in recent years. For example, the job of compiling best-of-the-year lists has expanded to include an obligatory best-of-the-year-so-far, usually sometime in June. (Speaking of which, here are the albums and songs lists we just put together at NPR Music.)
Around the same time, we're required — not by law, but it feels that way sometimes — to assess the popular-music landscape and start determining which currently ubiquitous tracks might be remembered as "the song of the summer." Sometimes the answers will be obvious, as they were in 2019, when Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road," Billie Eilish's "bad guy" and Lizzo's "Truth Hurts" appeared to be the only tracks in existence between the months of April and October. In other years, we spend many weeks waiting for clarity as the cultural tides churn and shift.
After all, this isn't a tidy science. As with pornography, song-of-the-summer status is one of those "we know it when we see it" deals, and each listener's mileage is bound to vary. If you're a Harry Styles stan, for example, you're wondering why I haven't already noted the effervescent and agreeable "As It Was" or "Late Night Talking." If you base your life on Beyoncé's teachings — which: no argument here — you're clearing your throat and nodding pointedly in the direction of "Break My Soul," whose message of defiance just happens to fit snugly against the current cultural moment. I'm personally partial to Lizzo's "About Damn Time," which (figuratively) teleports listeners directly to the disco-ball-lit roller rink of their choice.
One complicating factor, though, is that the shelf life of a pop song has never been longer. A $200 million movie might play in theaters for six or eight weeks, and entire seasons of TV shows can come and go from the public's imagination within days. But a three-minute pop song with just the right public buy-in can hang around on the pop charts for many months — even years. Though Billie Eilish and Lizzo might disagree, "Old Town Road" was pretty unmistakably the song of the summer for 2019, given that it sat atop the Billboard charts for a record 19 consecutive weeks from April to August. But that song came out in December 2018 and took months to gather steam as it grew from a TikTok sensation to a Billy Ray Cyrus-fueled crossover to a BTS-fueled mainstay. Like Lizzo's "Truth Hurts," which was 18 months old when it began to really take off, "Old Town Road" was a living organism: ever-shifting, eternally malleable, seemingly unkillable.
So it only makes sense that the 2022 pop landscape has been altered by another immortal organism: the Kate Bush banger "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)," which originally peaked at No. 30 all the way back in 1985. When the first part of Stranger Things' fourth season dropped in late May, the song's prominent placement helped propel it back onto the U.S. charts; it quickly became the first U.S. Top 10 hit in Bush's nearly 50-year career, as well as her first No. 1 hit in the U.K. since 1978, not to mention a true feel-good story in a summer that sorely needed one. With new Stranger Things episodes that dropped Friday, the song could well get another boost.
What the "Running Up That Hill" resurgence demonstrates, beyond the timelessness and craft of the song itself, is the extreme power of familiarity. For those of us who were kids in 1985, its return evokes childhood nostalgia. But it's not as if the song had been fully consigned to the distant past: It played a prominent role in the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and Meg Myers' faithful 2019 cover has been a persistent presence in its own right. The original's return doesn't feel like a discovery, so much as a reminder.
The return of "Running Up That Hill" has a lot to say about the way songs help form our shared cultural language, even as we're siloed in a thousand other ways. The barriers to entry are low with songs, which require only access to a device on which to play them; we don't have to subscribe to Netflix, the way we do with Stranger Things, and we don't have to pay to sit in a movie theater, the way we do with, say, Top Gun: Maverick.
Songs live on the wind in ways other forms of entertainment simply can't.
This piece first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.