Musical deflation

Pop songs are getting shorter. Is that such a bad thing?

A jukebox.
A retro jukebox next to a set of stairs
(Image credit: DGLimages / Getty Images)

As a teenager in small-town England in the early 1990s, I spent far too many hours hanging out in the backroom of my local pub. That musty space contained two things that were a magnetic draw for adolescent males in the pre-digital age: a pool table and a jukebox. While my friends would pump 20 pence pieces into the table, I'd feed my coins into the wall-mounted CD player. There was an art to selecting the perfect songs. They had to rock. And, because I wanted to dominate the sound system for as long as possible and get maximum value from my paper-route money, they had to be long. Wayne's World ensured that Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a regular pick. But at 5 minutes and 55 seconds it felt, well, insufficiently epic. Metallica's "One" — the album version, natch — came in at a more respectable 7 minutes and 27 seconds. But it was Guns N' Roses' "Coma" that delivered the greatest bang for the buck, at 10 minutes and 14 seconds. Preposterously bloated? Arguably. Cost-effective? Absolutely. 

The belief that a long song was a good song was, judging from the exasperated look of other pub patrons, not widely held 30 years ago. It's even rarer today. The average single on the Billboard Hot 100 is now about three minutes, down from more than four in 1990. People on streaming sites "want to switch to the next thing," said songwriter Erika Nuri Taylor, "the next song, the next video, the next TikTok." Forced to compete in a world of distractions — and because artists don't earn royalties on Spotify if a listener clicks away in the first 30 seconds — songwriters now aim to kick off with an arresting hook and then leap straight into the chorus. There's no time for a slow build, a bridge, or, sorry Slash, a second or third guitar solo. I'd like to bemoan the shrinking attention spans of Gen Z, but the awkward truth is that their pop brevity might be exactly what we need after decades of musical inflation. The average length of a hit song in the 1950s? Two minutes and 46 seconds.

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

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