Ariana Grande’s ‘Positions’ and the Modern Pop Song in a Streaming World

This past week, Ariana Grande dropped “Positions,” the lead single and title track to a new album she announced would be released this month. Despite the short lead-up between Grande’s announcement and the single’s release on the 23rd, “Positions” debuted at No. 1 on Spotify’s Top 200 chart, and within 24 hours its music video was No. 2 on YouTube’s Trending chart.

Given that Grande is currently one of pop music’s most popular acts and boasts a huge social media following (at 203m followers, she has the second-highest Instagram follower count on the platform, and the highest for any musical act), a hit song was almost to be expected. Even so, there’s a lot to unpack here. This album will be Grande’s first since her double-platinum career highlight Thank U, Next, and the political theme of the “Positions'' music video, in which a presidential Grande parades around the White House in various scenes, has been drawing much attention. In particular, the timing of the video’s release, the day after the last presidential debate before the general election, has been a topic for social media chatter.

All this buzz surrounding “Positions” is worthy of discussion, but one of my first impressions of the track was that at under 3 minutes, it seemed a bit short. Have Grande’s tracks always been this brief? Or rather, when did mainstream pop songs become this short?

The Three Minute Pop Song

It turns out that for much of modern pop song history, songs tended to waver between 3 to 5 minutes in length. This length of time was somewhat arbitrary, derived not from artistic or scientific judgement but from technological constraints. Wikipedia describes the historical context:

A three-minute pop song is a cliché that describes the archetype of popular music, based on the average running-length of a typical single. The root of the "three-minute" length is likely derived from the original format of 78 rpm-speed phonograph records; at about 3 to 5 minutes per side, it's just long enough for the recording of a complete song.

78 rpm-speed phonograph records were primary sound mediums in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and it’s easy to understand how the logistics of distributing a tune could trump a recording artist’s creative preferences on song length. Yet even when technology changed and constraints went away, song length more or less stayed the same until recent history. A Spotify dataset capturing a sample of 160,000 songs released between 1980 and today clearly illustrates this trend:

Many industry observers agree that despite a decrease in technological constraints recording artists now face in creating and sharing music, another kind of distribution constraint has appeared, correlated to the average pop song’s shortened length in recent years: streaming.

The Streaming Effect

According to Investopedia, nearly 80% of music industry revenue now comes from streaming, where distribution is aggregated amongst a handful of well-known platforms, including Spotify, YouTube Music, Apple Music, SoundCloud, and Deezer. On most of these platforms, the artist is paid per stream, and what constitutes a stream is specific and well-defined. On its FAQ page for artists, Spotify counts a stream as “when a song is streamed for over 30 seconds.” The specificity of the streaming business model thus motivates artists on two fronts:

  1. To encourage listeners to stream more songs

  2. To encourage listeners to stream more than 30 seconds of a song

Song length is directly impacted by the first point. Many pop artists, in order to encourage listeners to stream more in the same number of minutes, have shortened their songs significantly, and the trend is most apparent in mainstream pop music. According to Billboard:

In 2019, the average length for Hot 100 top 10s is a brisk 3:07, a drop of 30 seconds from 2018's average of 3:37. That contrasts with recent years, as the average top 10 song length fluctuated by only 11 seconds (from 3:32 to 3:43) over 2015-17.

The second point has helped to propel another music trend that has been growing in prominence over the past few years. Increasingly, popular music has changed the structure of its song to introduce its Chorus earlier in the song. The general structure of a pop song used to be:

Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Bridge - Chorus

Now, songs often appear as:

Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Bridge - Chorus.

In the world of streaming, maintaining a listener’s attention in the first 30 seconds is critically important. While traditional pop songs had substantial intros and a first verse before the main chorus, introducing the chorus earlier in the song piques interest earlier on, increasing the likelihood that a listener will stick around past the first 30 seconds. And in the case that the listener likes the chorus enough to listen to the rest of the song, the likelihood that the song gets added to one of Spotify’s spotlight playlists or gets recommended to another listener increases.

Music Trends and Ariana Grande

To anyone who is an avid pop music listener or a close follower of the music industry, the trends towards shorter songs and upfront choruses may not come as a surprise. Given how central Grande is to the formation of popular music these days, however, I wanted to determine if these trends were visible in Grande’s discography as well.

I first combed through Grande’s studio albums, recording in seconds the total length of each song and when the first chorus began. I relied on the music intelligence platform Genius’s lyrics pages to define which lyrics constituted the chorus, as opposed to a pre-chorus or intro. I removed “Raindrops (An Angel Cried)” from Sweetener and “Intro” from My Everything from the analysis, as both were short transitional songs without a chorus. After that, it was a simple calculation to average the song lengths and first chorus markers across each album:

The length of songs across Grande’s studio albums trends in the same direction as the industry at large, though the average song length in her 2019 album Thank U, Next, coming in at 3:25, is longer than the Billboard Hot 100 average for that year by 18 seconds.

What was more interesting to see over time was how early, on average, Grande reached the chorus in a song. While the general trend is again consistent with that of the industry, an interesting divergence occurs with Thank U, Next, where choruses begin an average of 12 seconds later than they do in the preceding album, Sweetener. In fact, Sweetener contains three songs (“Blazed,” “God is a Woman,” and “Borderline”) where the chorus begins within the first second of the track.

In Thank U, Next, this trend seems to be reversed, but there is another tactic here at play: Grande begins with ear-catching samples, whether it’s audio of her grandmother in “Bloodline,” a soulful snippet of Wendy Rene in “Fake Smile,” or a thoughtful monologue from her best friend Doug Middlebrook in “In My Head,” each sufficient in capturing the listener’s attention for at least the first 30 seconds. And of course, it would be remiss to not mention that perhaps the most famous lyrics of the entire album, in which Grande namechecks each of her famous exes, happens in the first 30 seconds of the album’s title track, “Thank U, Next.”

In a world where tweets are 280 characters and TikToks are a minute long, it is only sensible that the pop songs which become our seasonal anthems are abbreviated also, and that each abbreviation is a more tantalizing effort to sustain our ever-limited attention. For what it’s worth, the chorus to Grande’s “Positions” starts 40 seconds into the song, maintaining the possibility that, despite a previous divergence, this new album will conform to the direction in which the rest of the industry is already heading. As a mainstream artist, Grande is categorized by the trends of the moment, but, as can be seen with Thank U, Next, she also sets them. And that should be a reason to listen: changing a song’s structure may increase streaming revenue, but the best tactic is still to create refreshing music that audiences will enjoy listening to, over and over again.