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Back in the Day When We All Thought We'd Die

I have a love-hate relationship with KNHC, Seattle's local "dance music" radio station. Well, honestly, it's more love-love (though that fact alone induces in me no small amount of self-loathing). The music these guys play is to street cred what plaque is to tooth enamel, and yet I can't help but tune in from time to time. C89 was, after all, voted "Coolest Radio Station" by my graduating class in high school (narrow edging out K-Plus FM), and is one of the first frequencies I recall listening to on a regular basis, as I alternated between 89.5 on the FM dial and 1600 on the AM (RIP, KJET*). Given that C89 adopted the "dance music" format in 1983, it's fair to say that I've been listening to them for a quarter century now. Ugh. In retrospect I really wish I hadn't done the math on that one.

The nice thing about C89, though, is that they only have 15 songs in the rotation at any given time, so you can keep up-to-date with their playlist just by listening for a few commutes every other month or so. I did so yesterday, and was treated to a new ditty by Madonna & Justin Timberlake:

Warning: Awful.

Apparently--and this will no doubt surprise you as much as it did me--Madonna and Justin only got 4 minutes to save the world, only got 4 minutes, wika wika, 4 minutes. And I hear this song and think, "wow, that's a powerful and socially-relevant message they got there, as they are no doubt referencing the Doomsday Clock and are rallying their young listeners to the cause of greenhouse gas reduction, reminding them that climate change is at pressing and urgent issue that threaten catastrophic destruction if left unchecked."

Honest to god, I thought all that.

To confirm my hypothesis, I checked songmeanings.com when I got home, to see how others interpreted these lyrics pregnant with symbolism. Here is a smattering of the speculation I found:

Does anyone know what this song is about? It makes absolutely no sense.

I think its pretty meaningless, just about dancing in a club ("Grab a boy, Grab a girl").

There is simply no meaning to this song. Justin Timberlake wrote some of it, so that's no surprise.

Simply just about lust or some crap like everyone sings about nowadays.

isn't it "we only got four minutes to SAY THE WORD?" i have no idea why the would say save the world.. that doenst make sense.

How is old is Madonna already? Like 70? And JT is still only in his teens? Hello! With all the female 40-something teachers having sex underage boys, you'd think Madonna and JT would be more responsible!

well if they only had 4 minutes to save the world, i guess we should all be dead right now, cuz this song sucks -_-

Oh. Uhh, okay. Perhaps I overanalyzed.

See, but here's the thing: back when I was your age, every third song on C89 was on the theme of IMMINENT APOCALYPSE, typically of the nuclear variety. If a song entitled "4 Minutes to Save the World" had been released back then, you can bet that the subtext would have been, "LOL there's no way to save the world sike."

And it wasn't just top 40 radio, either. In the 80's, the idea that we were one flock of geese away from Fiery Death From Above permeated pop culture, from television to literature to video games to comic books to movies and movies and movies.

But you have to sit down and watch a television program, read a book, travel to the theater to catch a film. Pop music was everywhere, and served as our perpetual Harbinger of Doom back in the 80's. One minute Bobby McFerrin was urging you to not worry and be happy, the next Sting was musing aloud as to whether the Russians loved their children too. (Confidential to Gordon: Apparently they did--more so than Americans it seems, as they at least did not subject their youth to your terrible song).

And so, a muxtape for you. Relive those halcyon day when we all thought we'd die. Or, if you are a younger reader, experience them for the first time--they were a blast!

* Great Scott, a KJET tribute station?! Oh NetarWeb, is there nothing you can't provide?

Posted on July 08, 2008 to Observations


I had a deep and irrational love for Red Dawn back in the day.

Also, let's not forgot Oregon Trail. That game seems primarily concerned with death and destruction and could more or less qualify as 'apocalyptic' in the number of family members and livestock that end up dead.

Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' on July 8, 2008 12:45 PM

I can't believe that I'm actually commenting on a Madonna/Timberlake song. Jury duty is doing something to my head, and it's not just making me bored enough for this ...

*ahem* With that disclaimer out of way, do you think they might be referring to the fact that their songs are about 4 minutes long? I certainly think that they are both self-absorbed enough to believe that they are working to save the world via the "message" in their "music." groan ...

Posted by: Matt on July 8, 2008 12:53 PM

Like Matt, I recently decided that the song is quite probably about how totally awesome the song that you are hearing right now is, and found somewhat perverse delight in the self-reference.

To strengthen the 1980s connection, this song is in the same grand tradition of MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This", where the "This" in the title was the song the title was attached to.

Actually, though, it's not all that uncommon a theme in hip-hop music (this song is awesome and it will make me rich and get me laid and your song sucks neener neener), which has a lot of bleed-through into the current generation of dance music.

Posted by: Jason McIntosh on July 8, 2008 1:23 PM

I watched the video with my six year old.

Her comment: "I bet this song is called 'Four Minutes To Save The World'"

Madonna & JT should give themselves a pat on the back for successful imprinting of lyric(s).

My thoughts: That little squat and point thing that Madonna does on the treadmill was kinda neat... might try that at the gym tomorrow...

Posted by: daisy on July 8, 2008 1:31 PM

I've been listening to KNHC since 1989 and I still love it!

Posted by: Ariel on July 8, 2008 1:46 PM

I actually like the song and agree with the "We're creating four minutes of awesome on the dance floor" interpretation. Tick tock.

Also, quality mix, but needs "Land of Confusion" by Genesis.

Posted by: Greg on July 8, 2008 1:57 PM

Re: the Muxmix

"Christmas at Ground Zero" and not Fishbone's "Party at Ground Zero"?

I guess I'm showing my age, and my L.A. origins.

Posted by: tallasiandude on July 8, 2008 2:14 PM

It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

Posted by: srah on July 8, 2008 3:09 PM

I had no idea those two had done a song together. The only thing I can think of is Timberlake's reaction when his ex-girlfriend tongue-kissed Madonna on MTV. I wonder if it came up.

Posted by: Metcalf on July 8, 2008 3:20 PM

I am sitting in a cubicle and listening to Mike & the Mechanics. How did this happen?

Posted by: M.O. on July 8, 2008 3:24 PM

What, no "Forever Young" on that list?


Posted by: Chris on July 8, 2008 3:29 PM

I remember being told in the mid 1980s that my hometown of Columbus, Ohio was one of the top 10 sites the Soviets would bomb at the outbreak of WWIII. Supposedly it was because of a government research facility in the city. This kept me up some nights.

Of course, since I left Ohio I have met people from Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Florida, Michigan, upstate New York, New Jersey, and even other parts of Ohio who had been told the same thing about their hometowns (none of which were major cities).

Maybe this is why the ever-present terrorist threat just seems like the new black to me.

Posted by: Ernie on July 8, 2008 4:28 PM

It's not just C89. I listen to XM channel 81, and they play this fucking song to death. I have no idea why. It's awful. I keep hoping that XM is able to gather data on when people switch from one station to another, but I guess maybe they can't. Because SURELY everybody switches the station when this comes on. Right? Right?

Posted by: J.D. on July 8, 2008 6:01 PM

Madonna continues to impress me. She's older than me, I think that's definite, but she can still bring it, dancing-wise.

You know that scene in "Attack of the Clones" where Yoda has this amazing lightsaber duel with Count Doogo, and then when the Count escapes he kinda has this "Oy, I'm too old for this shit" moment? I wonder if Madonna didn't have one or two of those after the cameras stopped rolling.

I don't disagree about the lyrics of the song, though. Sometimes it's best to not think about these things too much.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on July 8, 2008 6:21 PM

Given that I am the exact same age as Madonna, hearing that the Great Unwashed think she's 70 is incredibly dispiriting.

But since I AM the same age as Madonna, you weren't listening to doomsday songs when you were my age, because you're nowhere near it, you spring chicken.

That being said...oh my GOD, I'd forgotten about "Silent Running." As I recall it had a really dorky video, too.

What, no Midnight Oil, "Beds are Burning"??

Posted by: Karen on July 8, 2008 7:49 PM

I teach college English and um, well I don't know how to tell this to you, but none of my students know who the Violent Femmes are. When I asked them about New Order, or Depeche Mode, or The Smiths they looked at me blankly as if I was talking about people that lived in caves. They had never heard of Morrissey or David Byrne. I crawled into the fetal position and rocked myself until I regained composure.

Posted by: Beth on July 8, 2008 9:11 PM

To overanalyze in a different way... it really irritates me that this song is not exactly 4 minutes long. It's 4:06. Could we not cut 6 seconds of Madonna in a corset for SYMMETRY, here?

Posted by: jac on July 9, 2008 6:48 AM

Hey Mr. Crotchety, where's your cane? You ought to be waving it at the kids playing catch in your front yard.

The moment you start saying things like, "In my day..." you've made yourself irrelevent.

Posted by: alex on July 9, 2008 8:27 AM

Sorry; that was harsh. I meant it to be more playful than it reads. Sorry.

I think the song is a self-referential comment on the desire to create a song with "meaning."

Paraphrasing JT in an interview: He was sitting with Madonna trying to come up with a song, and they couldn't agree on a subject. JT wanted to write a catchy, "let's dance" number, and she wanted to write something with a deeper meaning. After a lot of wrangling, she finally said, "I just don't want to write about the things that you want to write about."

He responded with, "You can't save the world in 4 minutes," echoing the advice of a friend of his.

I hear the song as them saying, "But what if?"

Posted by: alex on July 9, 2008 9:07 AM

I first heard this song at the end of the "Get Smart" movie just released and, even not being able to hear the rest of the lyrics, assumed that "4 Minutes to Save the World" was referring to Maxwell stopping Kaos from .....oops - almost spoiler....

Posted by: Bob on July 9, 2008 9:33 AM

Because Canada is awesome, we have a TV show set up explicitly to make fun of gawdawful music videos. It's called Video on Trial, and they have 5 comedians watch the videos, then mock them.

4 Minutes on VoT


Posted by: Pat J on July 9, 2008 10:02 AM

I actually thought exactly the same as Matthew when I heard this song - that it was about the doomsday clock.

Either that or a toungue-in-cheek reference to that Queen classic "Flash, Flash, I love you, but we've only got 14 hours to save the Earth!"

I love the song by the way ;-)

Posted by: Richard Loxley on July 9, 2008 11:06 AM

I think she just likes having tick-tock clock sounds in the songs (like Time goes by so slowly).

I think the song is probably around 4 minutes long, and so it might be about the song itself. Something about music and art and stuff are good things in the world and are therefore going to "save" the world.

Posted by: Chiya on July 9, 2008 11:19 AM

She's really got the aerobics-teacher-meets-Sarah-Jessica-Parker thing down pat.

Did that song even have a hook? It was like a four minute intro.

Posted by: Emily on July 9, 2008 12:15 PM

another one you missed: Shona Laing's "Soviet Snow." She had another song called "Neutral and Nuclear Free."
silly Swiss.

Posted by: AdamBomb on July 9, 2008 3:07 PM

Dancing with Tears in My Eyes - Ultravox
Living through Another Cuba - XTC

Kids these days need songs about the apocalypse, dad gummit.

Posted by: kaf on July 9, 2008 3:28 PM

I'm at once glad and dismayed that the Union of Atomic Scientists is able to experience the mission-drift of including climatic doom as a contributor to the Doomsday Clock in addition to their usual Atomic Doomsday Watch.

The clock, by the way, is at 5 Minutes 'till midnight, and the timeline entry at the 2007 change from 7-'til to 5-'til is the first to mention climate change, and the clock hasn't been as bad as 5-'til since Reagan was president, further evidence than the BAS has been completely unseated from reality. You'd think North Korea's cooling-tower demolition would be good for 15 seconds-distance from Doom, but it has not, as yet, merited a mention, nor did Libya's disarmament several years ago, or last week's export of yellowcake uranium from Iraq.

Posted by: LAN3 on July 9, 2008 8:02 PM

"Panic" by Smiths? You missed a spot.

Posted by: MsQ on July 9, 2008 10:38 PM

Uhm...did you actually mean to have the whole second half of the post as a footnote? Because to me it just looks like you forgot to close a tag after the "Warning: Awful." line.



Posted by: Sam on July 11, 2008 12:39 PM

I'm rolling around in a big pile of late 80s, and I will be as ashamed as my beagles are after their rolling about... which is to say not at all. I can't believe I forgot about Mike and the Mechanics.

Posted by: Sanya on July 16, 2008 5:38 AM

KJET? Come on! KUOW was the only Seattle station that mattered back in the 80's and early 90's. I still listen in through my internet tube to its bastard descendant (KEXP) on occasion.

Posted by: Jim now in Missoula on July 17, 2008 6:10 PM

Did I type KUOW? Senility has set in... I meant KCMU.

Posted by: Jim in Missoula on July 17, 2008 8:56 PM

Matthew, thanks for giving me some songs to add to my list! (Yes, I've been compiling a list of 1980's 'we're all gonna die' songs. Actually, it's part of a larger "yes, pop songs of the 1980s *did* have 'political or social commentary' and weren't simple artsy fluff" list.)

I hopped on to add Dancing with Tears... and/or Forever Young ("Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?) but someone beat me to it. Um, how about David Bowie's video for "Let's Dance" -- while it follows an illegal immigrant woman (and her boyfriend? I think?), there's a moment where we see a mushroom cloud in the back.

I know my friends and I used to talk about what we'd do "when the bomb drops" (most popular: find a hill, grab some popcorn, and go out in a blaze of...um, glory?) Given the state of the world today, and the music which defined our generation, I think it's totally reasonable to have read the Madonna/Timberlake number as a heartfelt attempt to...um, change the world.

Posted by: Niki on July 18, 2008 11:03 AM

That's hilarious, I think that stupid song doesn't make any sense either, actually everytime any of my friends played it in the computer I was like "listening to Justin Timberlakes Paranoia song again?"

Posted by: Lindita on July 19, 2008 3:31 PM

Matt, if you like 89.5 FM in Seattle, you might also like the stream at www.xtcfm.net

Posted by: Pat on July 22, 2008 4:00 PM

Why doesn't anyone say 'sike' anymore? Such a good word.

Speaking of 80s radio, RIP KYYX...

Posted by: becca on July 27, 2008 2:43 PM

Gotta love those analytical skills cultivated in college liberal arts courses. They can truly enhance our consumption of pop culture. Cough.

Posted by: Rory on August 3, 2008 8:01 AM