Along with the tracklist for Olivia Rodrigo’s hotly anticipated sophomore album GUTS came its total time – 39 minutes – which has rather inexplicably led to hundreds of complaints online that the album is somehow short–changing her fans due to its apparently brief length. “So short!” one fan complained. “They really be calling anything a ‘Album’ nowadays huh,” groused another. “So basically an EP,” wrote another. “I think I’m speaking for everyone who feels like we miss when albums used to be longer than an hour,” one more articulate reader wrote.
It’s hard to know where to begin in refuting any such criticism, but we’ll dive right in.
First: 39 minutes is not a short album. In fact, that was around the average length in the days when vinyl ruled the music world and an artist could only fit a maximum of around 18 minutes on each side of a vinyl album without a loss in sound quality. There were exceptions, of course – Todd Rundgren and Elvis Costello are just two artists who indulged in “groove–cramming,” as the latter termed it on his 20–song 1980 album Get Happy! – but some of the greatest albums in history clock in at less than 40 minutes, including the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul (29 minutes!), David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and countless others.
Second: Size doesn’t matter – it’s what you do with it. Pardon the off–color analogy, but it holds as true for music as many other things. Some of the greatest albums in history are less than 40 minutes long – or even less than 30 minutes (see the classic Aretha Franklin and Creedence Clearwater Revival albums) and you’re not likely to hear many complaints. How many people even noticed that Lady Soul – which many feel to be Aretha’s greatest album – is less than a half–hour long? Probably very few – they were too busy dancing or crying or making babies to it.
Third: In the TikTok era, a quick hit goes a long way. Album – and song – lengths have grown and shortened with advances in technology, and the current era is perhaps the most dramatic example. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, as vinyl sound fidelity improved and double albums became more common, songs and albums grew longer: Bob Dylan’s groundbreaking six–minute–long 1965 single Like a Rolling Stone was jammed onto one side of a 7″ single; Stevie Wonder found himself with too much music even for two full vinyl discs on his 1976 Songs in the Key of Life, so he threw in an extra 7″ EP with even more music.
This trend grew even more in the CD era, as artists rushed to fill every minute of the CD’s 80–minute capacity (or, worse, every minute of multiple CDs) and you ended up with nearly an hour and a half of music from one–hit wonders – and that trend has continued into the streaming age, as artists realized they could pad their streaming numbers by adding more and more songs.
But the popularity of music on TikTok has revolutionized songwriting as well as social media. Sure, countless artists are making songs blatantly, annoyingly designed for that platform, but it’s also trained some artists to play to the short attention spans of this era and make their point quickly, leaving the audience wanting more: Artists like PinkPantheress and Tierra Whack write complete songs, with verses, choruses and even bridges, that can clock in at 90 seconds or less. PinkPantheress’ 2021 EP To Hell With It has 10 songs at 18–and–a–half minutes, and it’s a fully satisfying listen. The “deluxe” edition of Ice Spice’s Like..? EP has 11 songs in 24 minutes (three songs and eight minutes more than the original version).
And even a relatively traditional recording artist like Sam Smith managed to fill their stellar latest album, Gloria, with 11 full songs covering a wide variety of styles within the 33–minute mark.
How many albums have a couple of hot songs and an hour of filler? Far too many to even begin listing. And it’s not like anyone except vinyl collectors will be buying Rodrigo’s new album, which can be heard in its full 39–minute glory for the cost of a streaming subscription after it drops next month.
One of my many edicts as an editor is “Don’t waste your readers’ time!” That applies to music as well. And on that note (mic drop).