Is TikTok killing off the pop music bridge?

Lil Nas X, Harry Styles and Taylor Swift
A bridge too far? … Lil Nas X, Harry Styles and Taylor Swift. Illustration: Cristiana Couceiro/The Guardian

It’s a trend that’s been spotted by everyone from Sting to social media users: the bit of a song between the verse and chorus is disappearing. Are short attention times to blame, or is this simply another evolution in songwriting?

Back in March, the Australian singer Hatchie tweeted: “Why are pop songs with a bridge a dying breed?” She wasn’t the only one pondering that question; it was a sentiment that would be echoed in a post by the TikTok musician Boy Jr in August, who – to the tune of Video Killed the Radio Star – told her 300,000 followers that the very platform she was posting from had, along with streaming services and algorithms, “killed the bridge in pop songs”. In another TikTok post that garnered 100,000 likes in November, user, R00keries wrote “shoutout to every artist that still writes bridges in their songs … they’re the best part and I hate that they’re going away”.

Indeed, if you have listened to pop music at all in the past few years, you may have noticed that something is missing. The bridge – that part of the song where verse and chorus give way to an alternate section that ramps up the tension (or the fun) – is seemingly on the wane. Where a big, barnstorming section – perhaps complete with an epic key change, a la Céline Dion’s My Heart Will Go On or, er, Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi – may have once been de rigueur, these days you often just get another verse or a moody final chorus. Bridge-free hits of recent years have included the country-inspired smash Old Town Road by Lil Nas X, Gayle’s pop-punk breakout single ABCDEFU, and Harry Styles’s Late Night Talking, whose muzak-y R&B sound largely loops for its three-minute running time.

Of all of the UK No 1 singles in 2022, only a handful have a definitive bridge – among them Kate Bush’s 1985 hit Running Up That Hill, which found viral success again thanks to Stranger Things. On his heartstring-tugging single Forget Me, Lewis Capaldi offers a redo of the chorus, and even Taylor Swift – often acclaimed as the contemporary queen of the bridge by pop fans (and Time magazine), for tracks such as All Too Well and Cruel Summer – opted for a third verse on her No 1 single Anti-Hero, rather than going into full-on key-change mode.

It is a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed by those in the know, with none other than Sting calling out the seeming dearth of bridges in a 2021 interview with the music producer and YouTuber Rick Beato. “The structure is slightly simpler now … it’s more minimalist,” he said. “The bridge has disappeared. For me, the bridge is therapy … the structure is therapy. In modern music, most of it, you’re in a circular trap … You’re not getting that release.”

But is the bridge actually disappearing, and is TikTok – with its short, meme-heavy format – to blame? Twenty-year-old Caity Baser is a singer-songwriter from Southampton who started uploading her music to the social media app during lockdown, inspired by the likes of Kate Nash, Rizzle Kicks and her own dating dramas, and has since gone on to sign with EMI. “I was really stressed about going to uni, and having no money,” she says. “So I wrote a song about it [Average Student]. I almost deleted it, but then I turned my phone back on and it had half a million views …” For Baser, it is unlikely that artists are specifically ditching bridges to appeal to the site’s users (“I won’t not put a bridge in because I’m like: ‘Oh, TikTok won’t like it.’ I love a bridge”), but rather that pop songs themselves are getting shorter, leading artists to be more concise. “I think [shorter songs] are a bit of a clever thing,” she says. “You want to hear them again; you want to play them again.”

It is a sentiment shared by Sophia Ikirmawi, a London-based music publicist. “Songs are definitely shorter but it’s not just for TikTok, it’s for streaming,” she says. “If you have an album full of shorter songs, people can play through the album more quickly, and your sales will go up.” It is difficult to know exactly which parts of a song might go viral on an app such as TikTok which, in turn, could tempt artists to adopt more repetitive song structures, but Ikirmawi warns against generalisations.

“I don’t know how much people are thinking about TikTok,” she says. “It’s difficult to know what will go viral. Look at how random songs like an Abba track or [That’s Not My Name by] the Ting Tings can blow up on there … you’d be foolish to change a song just to try and go viral.”

Ikirmawi cites Harry Styles’s As It Was, for example – with its “Leave America” line which crowds screamed at the singer on tour as an unsubtle protest against him spending so much of his time in the US – as proof that the bridge still has potential to jostle out a singalong chorus for attention. Olivia Rodrigo’s Drivers License, released in 2021, is another example that goes against the grain, with its “Red lights / Stop signs” crescendo arguably the most memorable part of the song. “There’s a generation of pop singers who have grown up with Taylor Swift, and are obsessed with [her sound],” says Ikirmawi of Rodrigo and contemporaries such as Maisie Peters and Griff, both of whom are also partial to a bridge.

For Charlie Harding, co-host of the Vulture podcast Switched on Pop, the “bridge or no bridge” question is inextricably linked with the evolution of music itself. “Song form in general is changing,” he says. “People are experimenting more and more. Bridges go back to classical pop, when you had to give the listener some kind of reprieve to earn your final section. There are probably a few reasons why people don’t feel compelled to write a bridge today. One of those is certainly a long disconnect from classical pop, and songs have been getting shorter for a long time.” Harding adds that the ubiquity of software-made music based around eight- to 16-bar loops can make a bridge “difficult to write, because you’ve built your whole song around this loop, and now you need to generate completely new material. Frankly it might be too much of a deviation.”

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