If you grew up listening to top 40 during the 1970s and 80s, take note: the days of six-to-even-10-minute-long hits like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” are over. Lately on CHR, the trend has moved in the other direction: the shorter the song, the better.
Look no further than the song currently at the top of Luminate/Mediabase’s Mainstream Top 40 Airplay chart, and recently atop Billboard’s Hot 100, Sam Smith & Kim Petras’ two-minute-and-37-second “Unholy.” Recent top-five airplay hits from Doja Cat and OneRepublic clocked in at 2:19 and 2:28, respectively, while Meghan Trainor’s “Made You Look,” also on this week’s chart, plays out in 2:14.
As Billboard reports, the average length of popular songs has been steadily shrinking over the past several years, with the share of under-three-minute songs in the top 10 up from 4% in 2016 to 38% in 2022-to-date, according to the analytics company Hit Songs Deconstructed. It’s something CHR stations have surely noticed since at least 2019, when Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which finished in under two minutes, became a phenomenon (X’s chart-topping 2021 hit “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” followed suit, timing out at 2:17.)
Driving the trend? Streaming and social media, specifically TikTok, where song snippets power the platform’s short viral videos. “There’s charm to a short song because the person hits repeat — play it again, play it again,” Mitch Allan, a longtime writer-producer for artists such as Kelly Clarkson and Demi Lovato, tells Billboard, noting the popular industry theory that shorter songs are more likely to lead to multiple listens and therefore a higher chart position. Likewise, says former Capitol Records A&R exec Talya Elitzer, “People are acutely aware of skip rates and how that relates to success on streaming services, [so] a short song is less likely to be skipped.”
How do shorter hits impact, and potentially benefit, radio as well as TikTok? “If a song is shorter because the producer has carefully crafted the arc of the song without a single note of filler, that’s good for CHR,” says Matt Bailey, President of Integr8 Research, which specializes in callout and new music research. “It means songs are exciting and offer instant payoff. However, if a song is short because it’s an awesome beat but lacks a sonic or lyric narrative, that means a track with little staying power once the TikToks are over.”
At the same time, the new generation of shorter songs bears little resemblance to the two-minute-30-second verse-chorus-bridge hits that dominated the soundtrack of the 1960s and 70s. “Many songs today are designed so the ending blends perfectly back into the beginning,” Bailey notes. “Labels are now designing songs for Spotify, not for radio. Those long intros we loved to talk up? Gone. Endings you could fade to hit the top of the hour? Gone. Even if the songs are built for streaming, however, if it makes those songs more energetic, that’s good for CHR.”
As hit song construction has mostly done away with an additional hook or chorus, and the focus on TikTok is on a piece of the song that may not even be the chorus or main hook, it’s an environment where, as Elektra Entertainment Senior Manager of A&R Caterina Nasr tells Billboard, “Artists feel like they can express themselves quicker.” While the trend might address Gen Z-ers’ shorter attention span, Bailey begs to differ. “My 14-year-old loves ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Piano Man,’ and those songs are six minutes long. What today’s young people won’t tolerate is a single second of mediocrity.”