NPR logo Is That All There Is?

Is That All There Is?

A man named Joshua Allen, using scientific methods, his internal good-taste barometer, and a whole lot of sass, has come up with the perfect song length. That length is 2:42. His article includes a link to a mix tape featuring songs that clock in at exactly 2:42.

The mix features twelve songs by some great bands and musicians, from The Beatles to The Breeders, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to Tom Petty. Yet hardly any of the songs therein constitute those artists' best output. For instance, if "Don't Do Me Like That" is Petty's most perfectly timed song, then what are "American Girl" and "Free Fallin?" Grandiose and excessive? And "Get Up" by R.E.M? That's not even the best song on Green, let alone their most perfect tune ever.

Taking a look through my iTunes library, which allows me to sort songs by time—something I could not do with my vinyl without a massive headache, score one for technology—I found a few other songs at 2:42.

Them-"I Can Only Give You Everything" (I admit, one of their best)
MC5-"High School" (Nope. Not their strongest)
Judas Priest-"Deceiver" (Great Priest song but perfect?)
Blitzen Trapper-"Wild Mountain Nation" (I adore this song. F**k! This guy might be onto something)
Glen Campbell-"Galveston" (A hit, yes, but due to its length?)

Okay, so there are a lot of great songs at 2:42. But scrolling down to songs in the three or four minute range, I am bombarded with some of the best songs by The Clash, The Stones, X, Bee Gees, Pixies, Joy Division, and Dylan. I might concede that the two longest songs on my iTunes— Pink Floyd's "Echoes" and Can's "Halleluhwah" aren't in heavy rotation—but that doesn't mean I'm too lazy to sit through them once a... year.

Allen's strongest argument for 2:42 is The La's song "There She Goes." He says about the song, "[It] is so flawless that it instantly made everything else the band did pointless." I agree. Possibly, Allen's argument might be stronger if he could find a bunch of one-hit-wonder bands whose hit songs were all the same length. Because maybe 2:42 is the perfect song length for bands for whom we only care about one song. But the rest of the bands he mentions weren't one-hit-wonders. The fact that they have great songs at 2:42 cannot be separated from the fact that they are simply great bands; with some songs that leave us wanting more as well as songs with lengths we get lost in, whose musical stories are written in sentences not just in phrases and fragments. In fact, maybe we wouldn't even like a band's 2:42 song if all of their songs were 2:42. In other words, 2:42 might leave you wanting more, but if there isn't any more goodness to be had, then 2:42 is an empty number; it's an arbitrary shell that houses one amazing song.

Joshua Allen is joking—I think—but he brings up an interesting discussion. Is there a reason that short songs feel better? Easier? That they're the songs we put on mixes? The ones we use when we introduce a new band to our friends? Do these songs truly distill the best elements of a band, saving our ears from profligate solos, break downs so long they could be their own song, and too-slow-on-the faders fade-outs?

True, we're often impressed by succinctness, a tale trimmed of fat, getting knocked out before we knew what hit us. And we all like things quick and easy on occasion. But easy is only part of the story.