Popular Music Should Be Shorter
Tierra Whack dropped a new song this week! Music lovers should care about this because her full-length album Whack World was astounding, landing on most "best of" lists for 2018. “Only Child” is awesome, but I’m still reeling from the creativity of her debut which brought up a serious formal concern for pop music along with the vital realities her content voiced: maybe pop music should be shorter.
Zooming out, 2018 was a thrilling and confusing year for pop and commercial music. Rap’s chart dominance, pop’s growing complexity and sensitivity, and the uptick in high profile imports from Latin America seemed to take an even more certain hold on American ears than in years past. Indie still indied, and Father John Misty still crooned about mostly himself. The year’s best albums according to almost every critical outlet were written by a cadre of genre-busting women (Janelle Monae, Kacey Musgraves, Mitski, Noname, and Cardi B were well represented on year end lists), and political concerns progressively usurped artistic conversations in this uncertain time. To be blessed with this embarrassment of riches is a joy and an overwhelming challenge to the American music lover, as streaming simultaneously enables and obligates us to chase down every excellent record that drops. Yet within this frenzy, two very different records united by one unusual compositional disposition struck me as profoundly as anything else released in 2018. If their success spawns a trend, it could introduce an exciting and unprecedented moment to American music. We should be paying more attention to the micro album.
A “micro album” in this piece will mean any complete album of music that is 15 minutes or less of recorded sound (as opposed to an EP or single, which are for the most part incomplete works, although the distinction is an imperfect one). This is a surprisingly hard mark to hit for most musicians, and even many EP’s are significantly longer than 15 minutes (e.g. boygenius’s incredible EP from late last year which clocks in at 21 minutes). What a micro album succeeds in doing that the typical 30-45 minute pop album fails to is present a musically and lyrically cohesive idea (or, as we will see, a whole lot of them) without cluttering the listener with repetition or unnecessary third and fourth choruses. The practice is not without long precedent—Billy Bragg’s delightful Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy from 1983, for instance, manages to be an engaging seven track listen in a miniscule runtime—but two very different records from 2018 push the limits of the micro album while simultaneously demonstrating why the format is well suited to our current cultural moment: teenie song master Tony Molina’s “Kill the Lights” and Tierra Whack’s stellar debut Whack World.
“Kill the Lights” is a Byrdsian folk rock record that richly textures Molina’s grief at lost relationships in clean guitars, hammond organ, and three part harmonies. At 10 tracks and 14 minutes, one would expect to meet in Molina’s work a crowdedness of thought or a briskly-paced narrative, but instead the songwriter whittles down complex emotion to core insights and experiences that are translated and elaborated by the music that carries them. Molina delves into the staleness of living together, multiple kinds of confusion at the prospect of a companion-less future, feelings of displacement, and layered sadness without rushing them or disconnecting them from one another. The text on the album is sparse, but it never feels incomplete or confusing, allowing for a feelings-centric engagement from the listener and encouraging them to apply their own kinds of grief to the music. The crux of Molina’s brevity is his arrangement. Plenty of songwriters seem to have forgotten that wordless sound can communicate thought and feeling, opting to stuff every shred of meaning they can into lyrics that shouldn’t be obligated to carry that weight. Molina allows the music to speak for itself, as mournful guitars and ironic tambourines sing to the audience with subtlety that words cannot mimic. The 41 word stunner “Now That She’s Gone,” for instance, paints a minimalist portrait of hopelessness with Molina’s voice and then yields to what a guitar can capture beyond just words. This foregrounding of the instrumental offers breathing room to the harmonic and melodic motifs that recur throughout the work, clarifying and sharpening this exploration of the author’s emotions. For Molina, a short runtime with tiny songs is a chance to move slower and be subtler than the industry that surrounds him.
On her 15 minute audiovisual debut Whack World, Tierra Whack writes about love, sex, self, race, status, bodies, politics, love, and loss, all while dangling enough ambiguity for interpretive engagement and exploring a myriad of subgenres within rap, pop, and R&B. The aural project is fully integrated into the visual work, and one would miss significant affective and contextual content if they were to skip the video. Every song is exactly 60 seconds long, a concept that seems showy but does not sound that way. Voices are staggered, layered, and backgrounded, fleshing out the sonic space with detail and humor. The cutesy songs are often heartbreaking just below the surface and more serious tones give way to intimate subjects. “Pet Cemetary” is a pleasant, muppet-featuring diddy that may be about the death of a close friend. “Hungry Hippo” turns traditional roles of flirtation on their heads. As cliche as it sounds, this really is a “nothing is what it seems” experience. As she lives somewhere between Dr. Seuss and Lauryn Hill, Whack’s work is original, illuminating, and wildly enjoyable. “It’s hard for me to feel just one way all the time,” Whack said in an interview with Pitchfork, and she clearly enables her audience to relate. It should be noted that Tierra Whack made this record at just 22 years old. That isn’t particularly relevant to this essay, it’s just something to marvel at—that a 22 year-old from Philadelphia shows not just the maturity but the authority to draw clear lines around what she puts into the world and not share dead sound because she can.
Molina and Whack’s miniscule compositions are a breath of fresh air for the listener precisely because they enrich without clinging—suggesting meticulous quality control and not short attention spans. Respectfully, they give their audiences exactly what is necessary to communicate effectively and not more. These songwriters recognize that music is efficient, that it does not need words to charm or lament or contradict but that it can carry that meaningful load on its own in partnership with word and production. If more artists embrace the 1 minute song and the 15 minute album, perhaps unfocused or bloated music will be sanded down into something richer and more accessible. Symbol and poetry with replace explain-y lyrics and musical background will need to be refined into actual accompaniment. Even if they are unsuccessful, it would just mean that bad songs will get shorter, which is a cause we can all get behind.