It feels like every year, we spend half of the summer wondering if there's still such a thing as a "song of the summer" or if pop culture is too fragmented for us to have one inescapable track, then we spend the rest of the summer wondering what it is. Instead of that exercise in futility, we’ve narrowed down the songs of the summer as presented by summer TV. These songs were deployed memorably, adding emotion, sensuality, or humor to the scenes they augmented. Heartstopper went wall-to-wall with TikTok-worthy Gen Z anthems (then added a little touch of The Cure for the olds to enjoy), while Painkiller had Big Pharma's worst people dancing to "The Macarena."
Whether "Seven Nation Army" being covered by Justified: City: Primeval's brand new villain or Kim Petras' "Coconuts" sending RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' Jessica Wild breastplate bouncing up and down, these are these songs that got stuck in our heads.
In a season full of highlight episodes, "Forks" has the best ending, and for that we can thank Taylor Swift. Richie's redemption episode follows a familiar trajectory as he's sent by Carm to stage at an intimidating, high-end restaurant in Chicago. After several days of begrudgingly buffing forks, Richie begins to take an interest in the restaurant's intricate ecosystem, learning about acts of service and time well spent.
Once he proves himself worthy with a mid-service dash to Pequod's and an after-hours taste-test competition, Richie's triumph crescendoes and before we know it, he's blasting "Love Story" from his car through the back alleys of Chicago. Taylor Swift is a meaningful choice, as her music has come to represent Richie's relationship with his daughter, something that's no doubt on Richie's mind in this episode in particular, after his ex-wife Tiffany (Gillian Jacobs) calls and tells him she's gotten engaged. A season ago, Richie might have melted down. But he's finding his purpose now, and rather than turn that anger and anxiety inward, he's getting good at a craft and belting out the words to Taylor's 2008 single about young love. It's a needle drop so good, the show brings it back to take us into the closing credits on a high as we get to revel in the culmination of Richie's transformative week.
The latest season of Only Murders in the Building takes place within the production of a Broadway musical, and the show's producers did not skimp on the songs for Oliver Putnam's (Martin Short) "Death Rattle Dazzle." Tony- and Oscar-winning songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land; Dear Evan Hansen) were brought on to write the tunes, partnering on each one with a different Broadway talent. On "Look for the Light," Pasek and Paul collaborated with Sara Bareilles, who penned the music for Waitress: The Musical and has written songs for her Peacock (now Netflix) show Girls5Eva.
With Oliver needing a showstopping song to sell the musical to his demanding producers, he comes up with this ballad, sung from a devoted nanny to her three infant charges. "It is the show," Oliver says to Loretta (Meryl Streep), "and you're the only one who sees it. Can you help them see it too?" Streep performs the song with a gorgeous, delicate tone, and by the time she's joined in stirring harmony by Ashley Park's Kimber, the little hairs on your arms are standing on end. In that moment, Only Murders exists in two worlds: It's both a comedy that is sending up the conventions of musical theater, and it is musical theater, getting the audience to buy into the real emotions within this ridiculous premise. That's a trick only the very best can pull off.
It was never going to be easy for Sylvia (Rose Byrne) to return to the workforce after having kids. Platonic is the kind of comedy that will drag its characters through whatever probable humiliations exist down a particular narrative road. You knew the fix was in when Sylvia woke up brimming with promise to the strains of Carly Simon's '80s anthem "Let the River Run," famously from the 1988 film Working Girl. Nothing ever turns out like an '80s movie like you want it to.
Sylvia finds that returning to work is hard as hell. Everyone is younger than her, office culture has changed, and her one connection that got her the job in the first place is so much higher on the ladder that she can't even speak to him. Her first week ends up being a disaster of awkward interactions and the defacement of expensive artwork. The episode is bookended by another perfectly chosen needle drop, as Sylvia faux-triumphantly marches out of the office, having been fired, to the ironic strains of "You Gotta Be."
Everything that The Idol tried and failed to do with Jocelyn's made-for-TV sleaze-pop was made all the more glaring in the show's first episode by a dance-floor scene scored by one of the biggest hits of the '80s. Madonna made the kind of outrage-baiting, headline-grabbing pop machinations that Jocelyn and her team pulled off so cynically look easy. "Like a Prayer" was just one example of many.
The Idol's failure of a season was punctuated by a few moments when it adopted the transgressive pop culture of women from decades before. A glimpse of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct said more than an episode's worth of try-hard cynicism. In the premiere episode's big club scene, "Like a Prayer" serves as the seductive tether between Jocelyn and Tedros. In that moment, it's not about Jocelyn's posturing or posing. There is something primal at work when that song is playing at a club. It is, if nothing else, a stark reminder of the power Madonna had to get everybody worked up with her image-making and her music.
Miranda's grand Californian misadventure is summed up in perfectly sad detail in the season's second episode. Attempting to find purpose in cleaning up a beach (to save the environment!), Miranda loses her phone and goes into crisis mode. When she can't find it at the bottom of a bin of beach refuse, she begs a couple of kindly (hot!) surfer guys to call the one number she remembers (Carrie's, of course) to connect her with Che and figure out a rescue plan.
While this is all going on, we hear pretty much the entirety of "Hotel California," The Eagles monster 1977 hit, a dark tale of haunted horror about the seductive and destructive power of the Golden State. Is Miranda doomed to haunt the beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway forever, just as the character in the song is doomed to haunt the titular hotel? Now that Miranda has checked into her new SoCal life with Che, can she ever leave? Will she miss dinner with Tony Danza? The Eagles set the perfect mood of idyllic misery that sums up Miranda's predicament. The warm waves of the Pacific Ocean never seemed so constraining.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.