INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 05: Rapper Ice Spice performs onstage during day 3 of Rolling Loud Los Angeles at Hollywood Park Grounds on March 05, 2023 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
On Pop

Micro niche

The best piece of pop

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“That’s quite a cover,” said my friend, at which point I had a second look at the art for the song I’d just sent her on Spotify and agreed that, yes, it was quite a cover: a cartoon image of the rapper Ice Spice, viewed from behind, legs spread and bent forward so she was looking back at you from under her own crotch. 

The sauciness of the cover, though, wasn’t exactly a surprise, because the song — “Bikini Bottom” — is also extremely saucy. Over a slinky, bhangra-sounding riff, Ice brags laconically about her hourglass shape: “And the body gon’ eat, bon appétit/ Ass on fat with the waist on sleek.” 

I know the lyrics pretty well by now because I’ve listened to “Bikini Bottom” a lot. This is easy to do, because it’s only 1:46 long. It’s not even her shortest song: “Munch”, Ice’s breakout track from last year (a broadside against an unnamed man who’s committed the crime of liking cunnilingus too much), is a petite 1:44. 

In fact, in her whole discography, there’s only one track that breaks three minutes. Most are on the low end of two minutes or shorter. Her ass might be fat, but her songs are skinny scraps of things. And it’s not just her. Last year, Lil Yachty charted with a track that was just 83 seconds long. That’s a sketch, really, rather than a song. 

I’ve listened to psychedelia where 83 seconds wouldn’t even see you clear of the intro, never mind through to the end of the track. It’s not that short songs were unheard of before this century: most of the songs on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds are sub-three minutes. But even that would count as an intolerable test of the listener’s patience in some genres today.

The trend is clear. In 2000, according to Billboard magazine, the average song length on the hot 100 was 4:10. By 2018, it was 3:30. Come 2021, it had dropped to 3:07. If things carry on this way, before the end of this century, the charts will consist of no more than one-second pinpoints of perfectly refined sound. 

I wondered whether the new brevity in pop music was a turn back to older song structures — ones that predate vinyl and the radio. But the folk songs collected by field recorders like Alan Lomax tended to clock in close to the three-minute mark, so this feels like something novel. And if it’s novel, then the obvious thing to blame is the internet. 

For a lot of observers, the prime suspect is TikTok. On the video social network, brevity rules: one survey found that TikTok users find posts longer than a minute stressful. TikTok drives hits, and the shorter the song, the better suited it is to TikTok. But TikTok didn’t launch globally until 2018, so it isn’t just that. 

This is a trend that goes back to the start of this century. Which means it’s roughly as old as the download. Format has always helped to shape content: one of the reasons the average length of a single in 2000 was 4:10 is that pop music was still very much in hock to the 7-inch single, and a 7-inch can carry a maximum of about 5 minutes on each side. 

Downloads, in theory, allow artists to go on as long as they like with no physical constraints. But in practice, most consumers of music today stream. And most streaming services pay per play, with Spotify counting a song as streamed when listeners make it past the first 30 seconds. 

That means there’s very little incentive for artists to make the kind of six-minute opus that once nestled away as album tracks. If you’ve got a great idea for a melody, why waste it on a middle eight when you could turn it into a whole other song? Financial success rests on hooking a listener in those vital early moments, so it’s better to come out hard than attempt a slow burn. 

But the incredible shrinking pop song is the outcome of an aesthetic shift as well a technological one. It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that Ice Spice and Lil Yachty are rappers; and it’s not a coincidence that pop songs have become shorter as rap has become more and more dominant as a genre. 

From the start, rap has been tied to sampling, and sampling is all about isolating the momentary essence of a song, and turning that moment into the whole text. The supple bass from Chic’s “Good Times” that became the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”; the glossy snippet of Steely Dan’s “Peg”, reinvented into “Eye Know” by De la Soul; the squalling guitar from “The End” by the Beatles that the Beastie Boys remade as “The Sounds of Science”.

The genius of hip-hop was to find the bit of the song you wanted more of

The genius of hip-hop was to find the bit of the song you wanted more of — the few seconds that needled your brain into needing to listen again, and again. Then, it gave you more. The rise of the microsong is the ultimate extension of that logic: pop music distilled to its most addictive form. 

So when I hear “Bikini Bottom” and immediately start itching to hear Ice drawlingly rhyme “gon’ eat” with “bon appétit” again, I just hit the back button and start over. Nothing but the best piece, over and over and over. That’s what pop music is. 

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