Pop icon Taylor Swift made music history this week when her epic, ten-minute-long version of “All Too Well” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song is the longest to ever reach the top spot by a margin of more than a minute, reports Gary Trust for Billboard.
Swift’s chart-topper shattered a record that had gone unchallenged since January 1972, when Don McLean’s 8-minute, 42-second single “American Pie (Parts I and II)” spent four weeks in the No. 1 spot. Trimmed down for the radio, the full version was so long that the singer’s record label had to split it into two parts to fit on a double-sided, seven-inch vinyl record.
“Let’s face it, nobody ever wants to lose that No. 1 spot, but if I had to lose it to somebody, I sure am glad it was [to] another great singer/songwriter such as Taylor,” McLean tells Billboard’s Gil Kaufman.
In the week following its November 12 release, Swift’s 10-minute, 13-second ballad was streamed 54.5 million times by listeners in the United States alone. Officially titled “All Too Well (10-Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault),” the song served as the much-anticipated closing track on Swift’s rerecorded version of her fourth studio album, Red (2012). (The new album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, making Swift the only artist to have topped both charts simultaneously three times, reports Allison Hussey for Pitchfork.)
Swift took to social media to express her excitement.
“I’m floored,” she wrote on Twitter. “A ten-minute song is at the top of the Hot 100.”
Today, pop songs’ length is typically between 3 to 5 minutes. As Kelsey McKinney reported for Vox in 2015, this industry standard dates to the mid-20th century, when music labels were constrained by how many grooves they could carve into the side of a physical record. At the time, each 45 rpm (revolutions per minute) record held about three minutes of music.
Over the years, a number of major artists have bucked this trend. In 1968, for instance, the Beatles topped U.S. charts with their 7-minute, 11-second “Hey Jude.” Four years later, in 1972, a pared-down, seven-minute edit of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” which originally clocked in at more than 12 minutes long, managed to cinch the No. 1 slot.
Also released in 1972, McLean’s “American Pie” enthralled audiences with its colorful allusions to recent music and world history, all set to a bouncy rhythm. The song hinged on what McLean famously dubbed “the day the music died”: February 3, 1959, when young Rock ‘n’ Roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash. The track was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2017 alongside such cultural touchstones as Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” and N.W.A.’s seminal album Straight Outta Compton.
Much like the lengthy No. 1 hits of decades past, “All Too Well” tackles big emotions with catchy, heartfelt refrains. Though New York Times critic Lindsay Zoladz argues that the shorter version of “All Too Well” is “the better song,” in part because of “the elegant simplicity of its structure,” she adds that “the power of the new version comes from its unapologetic messiness, the way it allows a woman’s subjective emotional experience to take up a defiantly excessive amount of time and space.”
“All Too Well” also embodies—and for some, defines—the heartbreak anthem. In this, too, the song follows a long tradition of American musicians who have wrung melodies from misery. As Gracie Anderson wrote for Smithsonian magazine earlier this year, by the 1970s, a generation of singer-songwriters had perfected the so-called “breakup album,” producing such records as Joni Mitchell’s Blue (1971) and Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages (1973).
Swift co-wrote “All Too Well” with country musician Liz Rose in the early 2010s. In the extended lyrics, a woman in her 20s reflects on a failed relationship with an older man. “Autumn leaves,” the “cold air” of fall and a certain lost scarf become symbols for spoiled innocence and lost love. As Swift sings to her onetime lover:
And there we are again when nobody had to know
You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath
Sacred prayer and we’d swear
To remember it all too well.