The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

11 October 2002

Getting to the point

We all have had the experience of tunes running through our heads, and often as not they won't go away without serious distraction. This morning, despite being tuned to NPR's Morning Edition, I kept bopping to the proto-metal grunt of Mountain's 1970 single "Mississippi Queen". It was over in two and a half minutes, and suddenly there was my distraction: Whatever happened to the two-minute pop tune?

Works in the classical tradition, I assume, run just about as long as the composer had something to say, subject to minor timing variations by performers. (And sometimes not so minor: I have two recordings of Ravel's Boléro, one running twelve minutes and change, the other pushing past the 17-minute mark.) Some pieces have repeats which may or not be observed — the second movement of Beethoven's 9th comes to mind — but by and large, classical works are presumed to have artistic reasons for their length. Popular singles, on the other hand, have grown from a shade over two minutes when I was younger to twice that today, and surely it's not because contemporary songwriters have more to say. (Yeah, I know, "Who wears short shorts? We wear short shorts" isn't exactly Gershwin.) In 1964, legend has it that Phil Spector, worried about getting airplay for the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'", which ran 3:50, deliberately ordered a misprint on the labels of DJ copies of the single, claiming a more reasonable 3:05. It's impossible to imagine something like that happening today. And a brisk little 1965 number like Marianne Faithfull's "Summer Nights", which runs about 1:44 (the label says 1:50), would never fit into today's "extended music sets" on the radio.

Were I really disturbed by this, I would blame Paul McCartney, who conceived "Hey Jude" as a three-minute song with a four-minute fade. Then again, I don't know anyone over the age of ten who doesn't sing along with at least some part of that fade, so Sir Paul apparently knew what he was doing.

Posted at 7:30 AM to Tongue and Groove