Pop songs: does size matter?

The Hoosiers want to record the longest pop single. Fiona Sturges applauds such disregard for the three-minute rule
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The Independent Culture

Three minutes. That is, according to lore, all the time a songwriter has in which to create a masterpiece that will, through a strange alchemy of words and melody, creep into the listener's consciousness, unpack its bags and set up home.

The three-minute rule originated in the length that was imposed on composers and musicians by the 10-inch 78rpm single format that arrived in the early 20th century (later to be replaced by the seven-inch 45rpm). In the same way, the length of an album was dictated by how much music could be squeezed on to a 12-inch vinyl disc – around 45 minutes. In the era of the MP3, of course, there is no limit to a song's length. But in the realms of radio-friendly pop, the three-minute archetype abides.

This might come as news to the relentlessly cheery pop rockers The Hoosiers, who have announced plans to break the world record for the longest pop song released in the UK by inviting fans to submit verses for their next single. It will be a charity record, so such good intentions are to be applauded. Should The Hoosiers fail to reach their goal, however, they might find they have set another record, that of boring the greatest number of listeners to death in a single sitting.

But let's play fair for a minute. Why shouldn't a pop song exceed a standard length that exists only because of an outdated format?

Convention has it that pop songs are all about brevity. Ever since Elvis Presley stepped up to the microphone at Sun Studios, the consensus has been that less is more. Pop is meant to be lightweight and disposable, an art form that values instant gratification over depth or longevity. And doesn't a good performer always leave his or her audience wanting more? Three minutes, or thereabouts, is surely enough time in which to thrill your listener and make them reach for the rewind button.

John Peel, who knew a thing or two about such things, cited "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones as the perfect three-minute pop song. While all the column inches in this newspaper couldn't contain the debate over which other songs might represent three-minute perfection, there are some cherished examples. Take "ABC" by The Jackson Five (three minutes exactly) and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye (three minutes 17 seconds), or "Ever Fallen in Love With Someone (You Shouldn't've Fallen in Love With)" by Buzzcocks (two minutes 42 seconds) and "My Generation" by The Who (three minutes 19 seconds). Punk may have prided itself on tearing up the rulebook but it got the short, sharp pop song down to a fine art. Check out The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" (two minutes 13 seconds), the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" (three minutes 17 seconds) and Richard Hell's glorious paean to youthful inertia, "Blank Generation" (two minutes 43 seconds).

Two years ago, a mobile phone company researched the listening habits of 18- to 24-year-olds. A third of those surveyed skipped the first 30 seconds of a song, a result that suggested composers and songwriters should ditch their meticulous, mood-building intros and press straight on to the chorus and the middle eight. Indeed, some American radio stations are known to employ a seven-second rule, which dictates that when a vocal-less intro on a pop single exceeds seven seconds, the record will not be played.

Today's mainstream pop acts usually tow the three-minute line. Indie and rock bands, however, show little regard for the rule – particularly those with an eye on filling stadiums. To take two classic examples, Elbow's "One Day Like This" comes in at six and a half minutes, as does "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead.

Clearly, a masterpiece cannot be measured in minutes. The three-minute pop song can be a wonderful thing but so, in the right hands, can a six- or 10-minute opus.