I’d like to legislate that a pop gem can’t be longer than three minutes—3:20 at the most. My law would be overwhelmed by exceptions and would have to be repealed. But a successful three-minute song always has a special endearing quality of knowing exactly what it wants to say and leaving us ready to hear it again.
To excite admiration of songcraft, or simply for enjoying the concentration of experience, a two-minute gem is even better than a three-minute gem. But it’s crucial that enough happen in it. “The Letter” by the Box Tops is a pretty wonderful radio song clocking in at 1:55, but even in its short duration it seems repetitive; it has conventional verse and chorus segments but lacks a bridge and seems to come up one ingredient short. True, the outro with its sound effects is a new ingredient, but by then the song’s business is done.
The almost unknown “You May Think” by The Association, also 1:55, is something else entirely. It starts fast with a guitar-and-percussion intro, intricately simple, rhythmically suspenseful—four measures, no less—then gets immediately big with a rich group vocal. We’re carried forward in expectancy by the second phase of the verse (“It’s just a maze”) not resolving into a chorus, though it finishes with a Beatlesque guitar hook.
Next we get a section that feels like an alternate verse (“An illusion of confusion”), that is, an alternate road to take. “It’s just a maze” returns, more insistently chorus-like than ever, but still pointing beyond itself melodically more than a chorus would. Where are we headed?
Something close to a true bridge follows with four measures’ worth of instrumental—but this part is more like getting in line at a drawbridge than having gotten to somewhere bridgelike where you could take a break and look around.
Now, voices building, the drawbridge comes down and we cross over in a four-measure preamble to an intense return of the verse, all the voices striking at each other in booming counterpoint. The energy gain by this point is astounding. If I’m listening in the car, I’m now thrust backward in my seat like the guy in the old Maxell ads getting blown away by perfect audio.
With all that has happened there is still time for a lovely little two-part outro with more vocal counterpoint to bring us at least partway down from this summit.
There are many fabulous examples of buildup in longer songs—U2’s “One” (4:36), for one. Some songs do need more minutes to develop. Nevertheless, that we can find so impressive an example of buildup and climax in a song as concise as “You May Think” shows that design means far more than time.
Postscript. Any Honor Roll of short songs would have to include the Monkees Theme (0:50), don’t you think? Isn’t it delightful that we can reenact the whole thing in memory so quickly? Aren’t those drums coming in at 0:13 dynamite (with Peter bumping backward up a sand dune)? And the shifts of key at 0:23 and 0:35! They don’t shift keys like that any more!
 My view diverges widely from the one reviewer I’ve found online who has something to say about “You May Think”: “poorly planned and plagued with clunky development,” quoth Don Ignacio. “This is a real mess this time. It seems like it’s played too fast . . . Talk about rushing out an album! They’re rushing out the songs! Oh, those bland harmonies!! Yikes!!”