In baseball, it’s called the Mendoza Line. A batting average of .200 is the last checkpoint on the slide into limbo. On the wrong side of that number, you have something to prove, or you’re headed to the bench.
And so it is, strangely enough, with music.
Something about the 2:00 mark makes us blanch. Any song clocking in under 120 seconds is probably not going to merit $.99 on iTunes, nor will you hear it on the radio. Two minutes and 10 seconds? Sure, whatever. Just don’t slip beneath the Mendoza Line.
Much has been made of our shrinking attention spans, so it’s rare that we find something that’s actually too short. We channel surf and bounce from Facebook to Twitter and can never concentrate on anything and yada yada yada, as the adults in our lives continually remind us. Nothing can get over quick enough. But it seems that there is something fundamentally insufficient about a song that leaves us before breaking that two-minute finish line. It’s like a cliffhanger with no resolution, a mystery novel in which we never find out whodunit. The song ends before it’s over.
And yet this whole time, you’ve been thinking: But I love my favorite midget songs! Actually, so do I. The first time I heard the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” quickly became the second through 10th times I heard the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl,” followed by the first time my dad threw open my door and told me to turn down that goddamn racket you kids call music. I am thoroughly convinced that Deerhunter’s “Cover Me (Slowly)” is the pinnacle of rock music, despite being one minute and 22 seconds long. And of course “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” excluding four seconds of silence at the beginning, runs 1:58.
The brevity of these songs is their secret weapon. There is, of course, that old showbiz adage to “always leave them wanting more,” and there is little I want more of than Wilco’s 1:38 “Another Man’s Done Gone.” That is what frustrates and captivates the listener of an awesome but truncated tune: the short burst of brilliance that would collapse under its own weight if stretched any thinner. The White Stripes song that served as my introduction to this paradox is a perfect example: the song has six chords and two verses, each repeated twice. There are two instruments — electric guitar and drums — and one vocal. And if you can find a song with a higher ratio of ass kicked to runtime, please, let me know. When the song ends, catching me by surprise every time, I inevitably play it again. But to make it any longer would be criminal, like watering down a bottle of 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon (a good year, I’m told).
There is, though, a fundamental difference between short songs and longer songs. The craft in a longer song is not only in making the parts but in fitting them together; a good songwriter knows how to get from point A to point B, using each to make the other sound better. But in a song shorter than two minutes, there is rarely time for a point B, and never time for point C (“Sgt. Pepper’s” is the notable exception here; if you were surprised to learn that it lasts less than two minutes, that’s because the Beatles were such masters that they got a full song’s worth of complexity into 1:58. Blimey). Short songs, in a sense, are a one-trick pony. They represent one snapshot of brilliance in its most distilled form. As a musician, I would bet you that most short songs are written quickly, a rogue puzzle piece with which no others will fit. This is what makes the best of them so searingly powerful: they are undiluted inspiration.
It is also what makes them, ultimately, unsatisfactory. They obey the dictate to leave us wanting more at the cost of leaving us content. The best songs grow out of the same moments of genius that result in our favorite short songs; they just manage to bloom while others remain embryonic. A short song is a preview for a longer song that never comes.
Yet such songs’ existance is a testament to the fact that someone, somewhere, thought they were scraps too beautiful to abandon. Nobody puts out a song like that hoping for a hit. By nature, they’re useless as album filler. If a song makes it into the world at under two minutes, it just might have some kernel of genius that made it too good to throw away. Give it a listen. It won’t take long.