Aaaand we’re back, following Christmas and unexpected financial difficulties and an exciting new virus that gave me labyrinthitus for added shiggles! Sorry you’ve been without your soundtrack to the apocalypse for such a long time. But fear not, we’re coming back with one of my favourites: ‘Four Minute Warning‘, by Mark Owen.
This was an unexpected single from the former Take That member; a bit more of a rock edge, with both dark and satirical undertones, this song surprised me and, I think, never really got the attention it deserved.
The title ‘Four Minute Warning’ references the public alert system in place in the UK during the Cold War to give a four minute warning of nuclear attack. Although the system was no longer in use by the time of the song’s release (2003) it’s still a powerful cultural artifact, raising the evocative question explored in the song:
Everybody wants to know,
What should we do?
Regardless of whether the nuclear warning system is still in use, the question remains: given that any warning of nuclear attack could only give you a few short minutes, what would you do? What could you do that would be worthwhile?
Throughout the song we see glimpses of people’s lives: Sasha, the dude who spouts nonsense in a cafe; Polly, a girl with ambitions for a music career that can now never be realised; Lucy, who’s had a hard time with love, but who’s going to go out living in the moment and making it the right time; Michael, just a dude in a pub, filling time and talking to strangers to feel less lonely.
It asks questions: has Sasha wasted his time? How can it be fair to snatch away Polly’s life when it shows such promise? Should Lucy have learnt to live in the moment before? (And, given that she’s doing what most people say they’d do if they got the four minute warning, how quickly can she actually get off, and is that really worth it?) Will Michael be alone when he dies? Is that OK?
The song counts down with each verse: ‘Four minutes left to go’, ‘Three minutes left to go’, ‘Two minutes left to go’… each verse adding to the sense of tension, of time running out, and towards the realisation that if you only had four minutes left to live you’d probably spend them panicking about what you should do with your last four minutes:
Cry, laugh, feel love, peace, panic,
These are your four minutes,
(I’m counting you down, four minutes of sound,
It’s always a rush when you’re around)
The final story is one of me,
Who with four minutes left has used up three,
I think of you, I think of me,
Then I think of nothing, it’s the end you see, yeah!
Like so many apocalyptic works, the song is bringing us to a confrontation with the starkness of existence: it doesn’t matter what you do with your last four minutes. None of it is going to change the fact that after that you’ll be dead and not feeling anything at all after that. ‘Cry, laugh, feel love, peace, panic’ – none of it matters. It will all be over – at the end we all ‘think of nothing’. The narrator ends the song singing ‘I’m fading away’, reflecting the destruction of meaning and sense of self in the confrontation of brute existence. And yet the exit has tones of the joyous – of soaring escape, freedom, wry amusement at fate.
If you’ve read/listened to/watched my Existentialism and the Terminator, you’ll know I have a habit of reading existentialist thought like the above into apocalyptic media, but I genuinely think it’s a recurrent theme in the works themselves. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the rise of existentialism in the aftermath of the Second World War and the atom bomb. Confrontation with both one’s own and civilization’s mortality is a confrontation with the end of everything that generates meaning in our lives as we know it. The existentialist thought that existence has no meaning beyond that which is assigned by people both draws and repells us. Gives us both a sense that we can sweep away the impositions of society and unease at our own demise.
And if anyone thinks I’m reading too much into a pop song, all I can say is that I think you’ve misunderstood music and criticism both. The writer and composer may or may not have explicitly thought through these implications, but even if they didn’t, they understood how combining such and such elements (a lyrical count down, short snippets of people’s lives, intimating that at the end there is nothing) would produce an aesthetically effective result. And when I come along and apply my analysis I’m seeking to explain the effect on my own feelings, and, I hope, the feelings of others.
Nothing is ever ‘just a pop song’, but I do think that this one is particularly good. Especially if you’re a fan of the apocalypse.
Listen to the full apocalyptic playlist on YouTube – new songs added every week (ish).