Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero”, which has dominated the UK and US singles charts for the past month, is a song of its times. It has a five-second musical introduction before Swift starts singing, reaches the first chorus at 45 seconds, has three verses and concludes quite abruptly after three minutes and 20 seconds.
If this is a drily statistical summary of a work of art, I’m sure it occurred to Swift and her co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff to fashion it that way. In a world where singers seeking the biggest impact and the most Spotify streams need to play the musical hook fast and not lose the listener before the end, the three-minute song rules.
It was not always so. The average UK number one single lasted about four minutes and 20 seconds at the end of the 1990s and it has reduced steadily in length since then. Not only that: the average time to reach a single’s chorus has fallen to about 40 seconds (see “Anti-Hero”), their titles have become shorter (ditto), and many use quite similar four-chord chorus loops.
A lot can be put down to technology, and the shift from ownership of long playing records and CDs to the streaming of singles. The explosion in the amount of music that can be found on platforms such as Spotify, and the fact that a royalty only gets triggered when a user listens to a song for 30 seconds or more, puts a premium on instant appeal.
The UK singles chart marked its 70th anniversary last week, after launching on November 14 1952 with “Here in my heart” by Al Martino at the top, and attention grabbing is now a science. It recalls the philosopher Theodor Adorno’s scornful dismissal of popular music in 1941: “The hit will lead back to the same familiar experience, and nothing fundamentally novel will be introduced.”
But no one disses Swift to me, for the singer fits a lot of musical and lyrical invention into a confined space. Joe Bennett, a professor at Berklee College of Music, compares the three-minute song to a native species ideally adapted to its environment. “Giraffes are no taller than the trees they feed from and pop songs are no shorter than they need to be.”
Besides, brevity is not purely a phenomenon of pop music; the three-minute song is common elsewhere, including in opera. “Nessun dorma”, the famous aria from Puccini’s Turandot, is three minutes long, as is the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Nor are three minutes especially short by the standard of other eras of musical recording. Most songs were briefer in the early 20th century, partly because of the limits of shellac gramophone records. When the tenor Enrico Caruso recorded 10 titles in 1902 that sold 300,000 copies and turned him into a global celebrity, each was about two and a half minutes long.
The usual form for the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs that provoked Adorno’s disdain, such as “Blue Moon” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, was just 32 bars, composed of three verses and a bridge. Even in the early 1960s, many singles were two minutes or less, including The Beatles’ “From Me to You” (one minute 56 seconds) and “Please Please Me” (two minutes).
The growth of radio and 45rpm vinyl singles, which could easily hold three-minute songs, encouraged the shift to longer verse-chorus tunes that could be played loudly in dance halls. But time limits were imposed by radio stations, which preferred three-minute songs on their playlists.
Singles inflated in the eighties and nineties to peak at an average of more than four minutes. Bands were focused on albums and audio CDs could hold up to 74 minutes of music without compression. They enjoyed taking more time, but I doubt whether their fans really craved it. In any case, the period feels like an anomaly in the history of pop recording.
Some things have no doubt been sacrificed along the way. Intense competition to seize attention and hold it for long enough to be paid leads to extraneous elements getting stripped away. Key changes are now rarer and lyrics have become more repetitive in an effort to hook listeners and make songs recognisable on TikTok clips. There is not much room for variety.
But when Swift released a 10-minute, 13-second version of “All Too Well” last year — the sort of thing that superstars can do — I can’t say that I preferred it to the half-length original. Having to distil all of your emotions into a tight form can be frustrating but it often has a creative result. “Anti-Hero” complies perfectly with streaming conventions and is none the worse for that.
“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit,” the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky remarked. He also wrote his “Serenade in A” in 1925 in four movements so that each would fit on one three-minute side of a gramophone disc. From Stravinsky to Swift, artists can express a remarkable amount in a short time when they put their minds to it.