There is no way that summer in America in 2021 can live up to these expectations. For one thing, the idea of a clear end to the pandemic is something of an illusion: Vaccination rates have grown sluggish in some places, and Covid-19 cases may not fall as much as we hope. Distancing and masking rules may stay in place, out of caution, inertia or both. And after a traumatic year, it is hard to simply flip a switch toward fun.
There’s also the fact that summer never lives up to expectations, especially when you’re a teenager. My own teenage summers, spent mostly with family in Rhode Island, were characterized by languid boredom, by waiting for rides, by trips to the library or Panera. I had sleepovers with friends but was rarely brave enough to sneak out to the parties of which we were only vaguely aware. I developed crushes on boys I was too shy to talk to in person and instead maintained long instant-message chats with. I studied algebra. I was always waiting for something to happen that never did, something that had been articulated to me in romantic comedies and Sarah Dessen novels — the elusive summer romance, or really anything significant that I might tell friends about in September.
Things are different now, of course. There is the ubiquity of social media; with its pressure to constantly perform an elevated version of your life, it increases both the intensity of anticipation for summer and the general sense that summer will probably happen better for other people, elsewhere. And yet I am amazed, especially in the montage videos, by how familiar parts of them are, in both content and feeling. You see the same old eager yearnings in the same expectant period of spring, only intensified by a year of lockdowns and remote schooling and sickness and fear. In one video, a girl’s caption reads, “I would absolutely die for a summer like this — please please please God I really want this.” It then flashes through another reel of summer photos: kisses, bicycles, people sitting on the hood of a car in wet suits.
The images have the feel of something pulled from someone else’s camera, from some indefinable time in the past. (Or maybe it’s the current vogue for Polaroids and disposable cameras that amplifies that retro feel.) Each montage draws from a well of all-American images, crisscrossing decades of cultural imagination: bonfires that recall 1960s beach-party movies; sunsets so perfectly orange that they remind me of the “Endless Summer” poster that was popular when I was in college; red cups redolent of parties in ’90s films; big iced lattes that feel like a signature of certain TikTok teenagers; and the rain, always the rain, the moment when the clouds break, the moment for the music to build, the moment for the kiss, or at least the imagination of it.
The poignancy of these videos overwhelms me. These teenagers are trying to imagine and perform a future by grabbing at an inaccessible past. The touchstones upon which they rely are hardly universal, but they loom so large in the culture that they stand in for lived experience. They are images that have been laundered through movies and advertising and books into a tacit promise: This is what summer ought to be like. As with proms or graduations or any other teenage milestones, kids consume versions of these summers well in advance of being able to participate in them. Last year, their rituals were largely canceled, a small but meaningful tragedy. Now these montages, full of the stock material of idealized summers, are pleading for and rehearsing the season the culture has sold them.