Many thanks to friend of OPC Joe for sending along the link to a rather sub rosa effort called the Whitburn Project, which for a few years now has been cataloging and collecting data on Top Forty hits. (Tips and links, by the way, are always welcome around here, as are outright cash gifts.) The researchers have evidently assembled a spreadsheet containing data on some 37,000 songs, which makes some of the stuff we've done around here look like kindergarten.
The project has been housed on Usenet, which is in large part, to quote Leonard Cohen, just a shining artifact of the past, but that's been to the benefit of the research, since copyright issues have dictated that it move below the radar. The analysis of the data, though, remains in the public domain. One of the first slice-and-dices of the materials that I've seen looks at something we were talking about the other day, the length of the perfect pop song. Which running time produced the most Top Forty hits in each decade? Here's the list:
1950s, 2:30 (95 songs) (e.g., "Jailhouse Rock")
1960s, 2:30 (250 songs) (e.g., "The Loco-Motion")
1970s, 3:30 (153 songs) (e.g., "Rock Me Gently")
1980s, 3:59 (142 songs) (e.g., "Tempted")
1990s, 4:00 (132 songs) (e.g., "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?")
2000s, 3:50 (58 songs) (I got nothing, sorry)
Amazing, isn't it? Remember, these are medians, not averages, so that in the Seventies, songs of exactly three and a half minutes were more likely to chart than songs of any other length. I wonder if there's something in the human brain that is conditioned to respond to things in exact minutes or half-minutes. Probably not.