Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled 5 seconds to 17 years: A countdown of 17 songs about specific lengths of time

1. Twin Shadow, “Five Seconds” (2012)

With a beat that pulsates like a racing heart, Twin Shadow provides a perfect tune to wiggle to with “Five Seconds.” The lyrics, however, reveal a much harsher reality, in which the singer struggles with a closed-off lover, singing “Five seconds in your heart / Straight to your heart / I can’t get to your heart.” The ’80s-reminiscent synth jam continues to a crescendo, when Twin Shadow belts out, “I don’t believe in me / You don’t believe in me / So how could you make me cry?” and reminds us all that it can take as little as five seconds for unrequited love to crush you. [BJ]


2. Jazmine Sullivan, “10 Seconds” (2010)

After admitting on her debut album she’s not above using a little property damage to address her feelings, Jazmine Sullivan went even farther on her follow-up album, Love Me Back, with second single “10 Seconds.” In this tune, Sullivan is kind enough to employ an anger management technique and give her wayward lover a healthy 10-second headstart, but it’s not going to do him much good. She’s blazing mad, and he’s got some crimes to answer for. In what has got to be the catchiest hook for a song warning a guy to run for his life or risk bodily harm, the R&B singer helpfully provides the count herself: “I’m giving you 10 seconds to go: One–Two–Three (Four!) / Five–Six–Seven (Uh oh!) / Eight–Nine (Now we’re getting close.) Just don’t let me get to 10, oh boy.” The music video depicting a kidnapping as well as a bomb-assisted interrogation also drive the point home: Never cheat on Jazmine Sullivan. It will not end well for you. [AB]

3. The Cure, “Seventeen Seconds” (1980)

Inspirational speaker and author Esther Hicks (The Secret) has written of the importance of “17 seconds of pure, positive thought and the law of attraction,” but for Robert Smith, the length of time in question was most definitely not used to promote the power of positivity. In Jeff Apter’s Never Enough: The Story Of The Cure, Smith called it “an arbitrary measure of time, one that seemed to be suddenly everywhere once the song was written, but as the title track of the first—but certainly not the last—of The Cure’s brooding, atmospheric full-length efforts, “Seventeen Seconds” closed out the album in truly depressing fashion, with Smith negating Willie Nelson’s theory that it’s funny how time slips away, singing instead of suicide: “And the light begins to fade / And everything is quiet now / Feeling is gone / And the picture disappears / And everything is cold now / The dream had to end / The wish never came true.” [WHa]


4. Palomar, “50 Second” (1999)

While in recent years Brooklyn trio Palomar has tended toward slower songs, its debut was full of quick, frantic songs that leaned toward the first half of the pop-punk equation. “50 Second” manages to squeeze in two false starts, two verses, and two choruses in just that much time, and the band is smart enough not to ruin things with needless repetition. (Imagine if Joan Jett had cut off her thrilling but lyrics-light “Reputation” after a minute, leaving listeners gasping for more, instead of padding it out to nearly three minutes). Sometimes it’s good to quit while ahead. [MV]


5. “Weird” Al Yankovic, “One More Minute” (1985)

“Weird” Al Yankovic has such a squeaky-clean reputation, both in his life and in his PG-rated humor, that it’s actually kind of adorable to catch him in the tiny bit of actual unpleasantness that is “One More Minute,” an exaggerated kiss-off to a relationship that ended badly. According to liner notes on a later compilation, this song from 1985’s Dare To Be Stupid was actually written in honor of a real ex-girlfriend, whose photo Al tears up in the video; the song, a “style parody” that apes Elvis Presley and 1950s doo-wop bands, has him informing her that even spending 60 more seconds in her company would be so awful, he’d rather “spend eternity eating shards of broken glass,” or “clean all the bathrooms in Grand Central Station with my tongue.” No word on whether she wrote a response song; the liner notes say she broke up with him, but even so, she might still opt for the minute back in his company rather than the various colorfully described tortures Al lays out in the song. If nothing else, the minute back together would be a much more efficent use of time than the eternity of glass-eating. [TR]


6. Madonna featuring Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, “4 Minutes” (2008)

The first single from Madonna’s 2008 album, Hard Candy, was—if Wikipedia can be believed—originally motivated by the singer’s desire to help the planet and have fun doing it, which sounds plausible enough when held up to the song’s predominant tag line: “We only got four minutes to save the world.” When you examine the remainder of lyrics, however, it seems less like a call to arms for amateur environmentalists and more like another sexy dance-floor filler, with Madonna leering to Justin Timberlake, “I want somebody to speed it up for me / Then take it down slow / There’s room enough for both,” and Timberlake instantly assuring her, “Girl, I can hit you back / Just gotta show me where it’s at / Are you ready to go?” Ready or not, Madonna took “4 Minutes” to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, thereby breaking Elvis Presley’s record as the artist with the most Top 10 hits. [WHa]

7. John Cage, “4’33”” (1952)

In the best-known work in his long career, composer John Cage pushed avant garde music about as far as it could go with this piece, in which the musicians onstage do nothing for 4 minutes, 33 seconds. The idea isn’t to present silence as music, but instead to make the audience consider the ambient sounds of the room—rustling of papers, the hum of an air conditioner, the occasional cough—which themselves make up the “music” of the piece. It’s not exactly something you can rock out to on your iPod, but Cage boldly challenged the very concept of what music is, all without making a sound. [MV]


8. Dungeon Family, “Six Minutes (Dungeon Family It’s On)“ (2001)

This particular kind of hip-hop song involves multiple people rapping about how awesome they are over a slow, catchy beat that fits the timer perfectly. How better to introduce your supergroup of southern rappers and producers than by letting them introduce themselves with timer counting down until they really let loose—and also referencing a refrain from another hip-hop classic? The Dungeon Family, a loose collective based around original Outkast producers Organized Noise (including Outkast, Killer Mike, Cee-Lo Green, Bubba Sparxxx, and many more), did just that on the best song their only official album, Even In Darkness. With Big Boi dropping a fantastic verse at the start, and Cee-Lo trumping that at the end, it would indeed serve as the best introduction and countdown for the group. Just ignore that the song isn’t in the first half of the album, and isn’t actually six minutes long. [RK]


9. Johnny Cash, “25 Minutes To Go” (1965)

Cash’s career-defining album At Folsom Prison cemented the Man In Black’s reputation as a champion of the outlaw, and from the opening line “Folsom Prison, I hate every inch of you,” the audience of convicts are on their feet cheering, having found someone who unmistakably understands their plight. Nowhere on the album, or in Cash’s career, is that connection more powerful or stark than “25 Minutes To Go.” Written, like his earlier hit, “A Boy Named Sue,” by Shel Silverstein, the song is sung from the point of view of a prisoner awaiting his execution, with less than half an hour to live. The lyrics are alternately funny, defiant, and tragic, as Cash considers his fate, with every other line counting down the time his doomed prisoner has left to live. “With my feet on the trap and my head on the noose, got five more minutes to go. Won’t somebody come and cut me lose, with four more minutes to go.” While Silverstein’s known for lighthearted songs and poetry, he’s unflinching here, as the song doesn’t give an easy out—the song relentlessly counts down, and there’s no escape for the narrator when his time runs out. [MV]


10-12. Joy Division (1980); Noisettes (2009); Sky Ferreira (2013), “24 Hours”
Many a musical act has decided to do their own riff off the old adage “what a difference a day makes,” and a few of them even go so far on the nose as to provide the tunes a numerically accurate title. One day does indeed equal 24 hours. Although the tracks don’t have much in common genre-wise, they do manage to link thematically: For all three artists, love is here today and gone tomorrow. Predictably, the 1980 track from Joy Division’s Closer is by far the bleakest with lines like “Looked beyond the day in hand / There’s nothing there at all.” Noisettes’ lead singer Shingai Shoniwa laments the departure of what appears to be a one-night stand with a simple enough “It could have been forever but we’ll never know / 24 hours ago.” While Sky Ferreira is already lamenting tomorrow’s heartbreak with her track, confessing that she wishes today’s 24 hours would never end. She’ll be joining the ranks of tomorrow’s disappointed soon enough. [AB]

13. The Screamers, “122 Hours Of Fear” (1978)

“122 Hours Of Fear”—one of the few surviving songs from meteoric synth-punk band The Screamers—describes not just a specific length of time, but some very specific hours. Namely, it was inspired by the 1977 hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 by a group of PLO militants, who took the plane’s 86 passengers hostage for just over five days. Singer Tomata Du Plenty spits out the song’s title (taken from a headline in the band’s local L.A. paper) while the rest of his group thrashes over a spiraling horror-movie organ, twice coming to an abrupt stop. “Be quiet or be killed!” Du Plenty shrieks, calling out Jürgen Schumann by name as he recounts the murdered pilot’s terrifying ordeal. Those same 122 hours have been relived time and again—not only by The Screamers, but also in two movies about the hijacking and Brian Eno’s song “RAF,” which sampled a ransom message from the same terrorist group. [SO]


14. Slowdive, “40 Days” (1993)

Buried under Slowdive’s signature layers of churning guitars, 40 Days is a melodic, feel-bad ode to love in limbo. “Forty days and I miss you,” Neil Halstead sings, although it’s not clear 40 days since what. The last time they saw each other? The last time they slept together? The lyrics mention watching the enigmatic “you,” who remains beautiful, but just out of reach. The music swirls around the lyrics like a warm tide around Halstead’s feet as he lets himself be sucked under waves of ambivalence and inertia. “I’m so high that I’ve lost my mind,” he continues. Well, of course. [KR]


15. Noah And The Whale, “5 Years Time” (2008)

Growing up takes time—about five years, according to the guys in Noah And The Whale. And it’s tough not to take life advice from the sort of sages that penned these lyrics: “It was fun, fun, fun when we were drunk.” The song goes on to explain that given some time, this relationship can work out, everyone simply needs to cut the shit and “all those stupid little cigarettes” first so they can get to the part where you’re happy “just kickin’ back with you.” Then again, a lot can happen in five years, and that’s not lost on the band, which sings of an alternative ending: “In five years time, we might not get along.” Regardless, “they’ll be love, love, love wherever you go,” which isn’t a bad thing to earn after half a decade. [BJ]


16. David Bowie, “Five Years” (1972)

The opening song of David Bowie’s classic The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars lays out the beginning of the loose album-spanning story: Earth has run out of resources, and science reveals humanity will pack it in within five years. The rest of the album offers some hope, in the form of alien rock god Ziggy Stardust and his positive rock messages, but “Five Years” itself is just about the bad news breaking, and the collapse that follows: the rioting, weeping, despair, and fighting in the streets. “Five years, my brain hurts a lot / five years, that’s all we got,” Bowie sings on the chorus. Those lyrics aren’t exactly scintillating, but as an opening statement for a concept album, the imminent end of the world—with plenty of time left to marinate in the horror and watch everything fall apart—is a definitive, ambitious one, and “Five Years” comes with a mournful sway-along rhythm that evokes people standing in the streets, arms linked in drunken camaraderie, raggedly singing their goodbyes to the planet after a pretty good run. [TR]


17. Ratatat, “Seventeen Years” (2004)

Unless they’re working with someone else’s lyrics for one of their remix albums, Mike Stroud and Evan Mast of electronic rock duo Ratatat rarely bother with words. So it has to be read as significant when the band chose to kick off the lead track on their 2004 debut with a powerful verbal boast, taken from a voicemail left for the duo by local rapper Young Churf. “I’ve been rapping for about 17 years, okay?,” Churf crows, giving the track its name. “I don’t write my stuff anymore, I just kick it from my head, you know what I’m sayin’? I can do that. No disrespect. But that’s how I am.” From there, the duo’s energetic, guitar-heavy beat bursts forth, but the message is already clear: Dues have been paid, and skills have been accrued. Seventeen years is a long time to wait (especially considering the duo were only in their early 20s when the song was written), and it’s time to show off exactly what they can do. [WHu]


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