Zodiac Sign · May 22, 2024

Taylor Swift's recent double album release sparked a familiar debate: is everything in pop culture just getting too darn long? With 31 tracks and a hefty runtime, critics slammed it as excessive. "The New Yorker" called it "too long," while the "New York Times" deemed it "sprawling." This isn't just about Swift – it feels like everything, from albums to movies, drags on forever. Do we even have the attention span for it anymore?

The answer isn't so simple. Movie lengths haven't drastically increased since the dawn of talkies. However, the average blockbuster has grown from a two-hour runtime in 1993 to a hefty 2 hours and 23 minutes in 2023. Albums, on the other hand, have been on an upward trend since the CD revolution in the 90s, finally freeing them from the limitations of vinyl. While they are longer now (averaging 80 minutes in 2022 compared to 73 in 2008), it's not a massive leap.

Critics often fret about the "corruption" of art forms, clinging to a romanticized past where formats dictated perfect lengths. This fear of decline is a recurring theme. But the current anxieties about runtime seem particularly intense, reflecting a broader unease about our rapidly changing world.

Shorter albums and movies were a product of necessity, dictated by the limitations of technology. Now, unchained from those constraints, art sprawls in a vast, open field. And we, the audience, stand alongside it, a little bewildered. What, we wonder, do we do in this vast, open space?

he Age of Limits: Vinyl records, with their two sides clocking in at around 45 minutes, dictated album lengths. Songs followed suit, landing around 3-4 minutes to fit radio's format and avoid ad breaks. Going longer was a bold statement – a challenge to the format's physical constraints. Think The Beatles' genre-bending double album, "The White Album," or Don McLean's chart-topping, 8-minute epic, "American Pie." These artists were the undisputed heavyweights, able to bend the rules thanks to their immense popularity.

The CD Era: Exploration Unbound: CDs loosened the reins. Though not limitless, their increased capacity compared to vinyl allowed for exploration. Artists stretched out, experimented, and embraced playfulness. Length wasn't a statement anymore, but a way to navigate the new musical landscape. Pitchfork notes that by the CD era's end, the average hip-hop album boasted 17 tracks and a playtime of 67 minutes.

The Streaming Shuffle: Quantity Over Quality: With the rise of MP3s, physical constraints disappeared, but new ones emerged. The post-Napster era was a winner-take-all game, and Billboard charts became the key to survival. Once streaming factored into Billboard's rankings in 2007, a new strategy emerged: bombard listeners with songs to boost streams. The logic? Shorter songs meant more streams. Albums bloated, but songs shrank, dropping from an average of 4:14 in 2008 to a mere 3:08 in 2022. Lil Nas X's chart-topping "Old Town Road" in 2019 exemplified this trend, clocking in at just 1:53.

The Age of Algorithms: Attention Grabs Rule: Today, platforms like Spotify and TikTok further shape song structure. Spotify counts a stream only if a listener stays for 30 seconds, incentivizing immediate hooks over lengthy intros. Meanwhile, the allure of virality on TikTok prioritizes catchy, short snippets. The Washington Post sums it up: "Shorter intros, upfront choruses, and ditching boring stretches are the new keys to success."

The world of music has gone from vinyl statements to streaming snacks, a fascinating evolution driven by technology and changing consumption habits. Whether the music is better or worse for it is a debate for another day, but one thing's for sure: the way we experience music is constantly evolving.

Movies, like music, have danced with technology, but to a different tune. Once, film length was dictated by the size of the reel, offering a mere 11 minutes of screen time. This birthed the standard 90-110 minute film, a format that surprisingly persists even in the age of weightless digital film.

Here's the twist: while average movie length remains somewhat static, blockbusters feel like they've stretched into infinity. Imagine enduring the 3-hour marathons of Avengers: Endgame, Oppenheimer, or Killers of the Flower Moon. Who needs popcorn when you need a bladder break plan?

Sam Adams of Slate blames the digital revolution and the rise of the multiplex. Without the physical constraints of film reels, there's no penalty for a longer movie. Fewer screenings might translate to fewer tickets, but that's a minor blip when your film dominates multiple screens and skips the costly dance of printing and shipping bulky film canisters.

Streaming giants like Netflix add fuel to the fire. They lure big-name directors with promises of creative freedom, a freedom that often means sparing their "darlings" – those beloved scenes that might get the ax in a time-crunched studio.

The irony? Even as blockbusters balloon in size, audiences consume them in bite-sized chunks. TikTok accounts showcasing two-minute movie snippets garner millions of views. Paramount even chopped the original Mean Girls movie into 23 digestible TikTok clips for the remake's marketing campaign.

Here's the puzzling part: we worry about art's length because we worry about our attention spans. Movies and albums get longer, yet we consume them in smaller doses. Spotify tailors songs, TikTok edits scenes – art becomes both sprawling and bite-sized.

This creates a strange dichotomy. The biggest names have the power to indulge their artistic whims, while audiences struggle with a fragmented attention span. Technology, we fear, has cheapened both art and the way we consume it.

However, this same fear can be flipped on its head. In a world where entertainment is chopped into TikTok-sized morsels, perhaps lengthy albums and films offer a refuge. They demand our full attention, a luxury in our fragmented world. As Adams argues, movie theaters offer one of the few remaining spaces for dedicated, focused engagement. Maybe enduring a long film is worth the occasional leg cramp, a chance to truly immerse ourselves in a story.

The saying goes, "the medium is the message." As technology evolves, so does the way we experience art. But with this change comes a gnawing anxiety – are we losing the ability to focus? How do we navigate this brave new world of artistic formats?

Some artists, like Ariana Grande with her concise "Eternal Sunshine," are embracing brevity. Trend pieces decry this "short album" phenomenon, but perhaps there's another way to look at it. Cosmo UK's Lydia Venn initially lamented the album's length, suspecting label pressure. Yet, upon reflection, she praises the album's tight focus and authenticity. Here, brevity becomes a statement, a rebellion against the sprawling albums of the past. It's akin to The Beatles' "The White Album," but in reverse.

This echoes the sentiment around Martin Scorsese's epic "Killers of the Flower Moon." As Sam Adams argues, the film's 206-minute runtime isn't a test of audience patience. It reflects the relentless nature of the story, a string of brutal murders – an experience that shouldn't be easily interrupted. Here, length serves a purpose. It's the story unfolding in the time it needs to unfold.

But therein lies the dilemma. In our current landscape, it's often hard to discern when length is artistically necessary, commercially driven, or simply unchecked. With physical limitations fading, the marketplace dictates, and those dictates shift with every new trend.

Can we aspire to an era where art finds its own perfect length, unburdened by external pressures? Would we even recognize such a golden age when it arrives?

The truth is, there's no easy answer. We're in a period of artistic flux. Some artists benefit from tighter editing, while others require more space for their stories. The key lies in critical discernment – evaluating art based on its own terms, not arbitrary length. Perhaps then, in this age of attention overload, we can learn to appreciate the art that truly merits our time, regardless of its duration.

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