Fugitive

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2006
Original album - Fundamental special edition bonus disc (Fundamentalism)
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Richard X
Subsequent albums - Fundamental 2017 reissue Further Listening 2005-2007 bonus disc
Other releases - bonus track on single "Beautiful People"

This song deserves lengthy, detailed explication, primarily because it invites at least two very different—and highly controversial—interpretations. But first some background information. It was written in early 2005, having grown out of an older, unfinished composition titled "Unbelievable Scenes" and completed with the help of producer/remixer Richard Philips, who works under the alias Richard X. Included in an extended mix on the Fundamentalism bonus disc accompanying the limited-edition version of Fundamental, a shorter version later appeared as a bonus track on the German-only "Beautiful People" single.

Neil and Chris have been guarded about what this song is about. In the July 2006 edition of their fan club publication Literally, Neil states, "It's about the personal cost of political convictions," to which Chris adds, "It's a modern day love story." And they leave it at that.

Though it opens with slow, vaguely mournful synth-strings, this track quickly becomes a fast, powerful workout. Its simple chord structure suggests a perhaps higher-than-average degree of Chris's influence on the music, if not outright dominance. It's the lyrics, however, that are sure to raise eyebrows, though there's of course always room for multiple interpretations. There's also the distinct possibility of an "untrustworthy narrator"—a common literary device whereby the audience cannot necessarily take what the narrator says as "gospel truth," so to speak. Regarding those multiple interpretations, let me present two very different ones, one at a time.

Interpretation #1:

It immediately struck me—and many other listeners—when we first heard this song that the lyrics virtually beg to be interpreted as being uttered by a terrorist on the eve of a planned attack. The recurring sound of a jet airplane makes it all the more ominous. As with the album Fundamental itself, the spectre of 9/11 hangs overhead.

Heaven is very much on the mind of the narrator, who utters such lines as "There's always a new way to heaven," "It's always forever in heaven," and "We'll all be together in heaven." He and the person to whom he's singing stand apart from society as a whole, each of them a "fugitive" of the title. His words indicate both questioning uncertainty and some measure of confidence gained from careful preparation for what lies ahead. (It's an established fact that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 terrorists engaged in ritual cleansing and body-shaving before departing on their fateful mission.)

Where do we stand in this land?
We're invisible now
Clean and prepared to be led
Indivisible

The narrator is saying goodbye to his "brother" ("I'm really gonna miss you") while expressing anticipation for the impending event:

I know that it won't be that long until the hour
Free and released from the world
It feels like power

It's difficult to read these words in any way aside from coming from a terrorist. But even assuming this reading, we mustn't assume that the Pet Shop Boys are in sympathy with these terrorists except perhaps on the most raw, basic human level. In other words, the beliefs and motivations of these characters may be misguided and their anticipated actions reprehensible, but they're real. And they're a legitimate subject for exploration and depiction in art, including popular music. To put it another way, it's no worse for songwriters and singers to depict terrorists in a song than it is for actors to portray them in films or TV shows.

Terrorists may be figurative monsters, but they're not literal monsters. Literally, they're human beings who feel powerless but have been led to believe that they can achieve some measure of power by committing despicable acts that will, conversely, guarantee them a place in heaven. Even if you oppose them, understanding them and their viewpoints can only help. Remember the adage "Know thine enemy." This may be, on at least one level, what this remarkable track is about.

It's worth noting that the word "fugitive" is derived from the Latin verb fugio, meaning "to flee"—or, as it is often translated, "to fly" or "to take flight"—so a fugitive is literally "one who flees," "one who flies," or "one who takes flight." In common parlance, of course, this means that a fugitive is one who is fleeing or "in flight" from someone or something he or she wishes to escape, such as justice. But in light of this song's possible (or likely) scenario involving terrorists and airplanes, suddenly the implications of "one who takes flight" become rather disturbing.

As a sidenote, I want to share something written by my favorite syndicated film critic, Mick LaSalle, who never fails to impress me with his broader cultural insight, which often extends well beyond the realm of film. Although in this case I don't agree 100% with what he says, I nevertheless think it bears relevance to the Pet Shop Boys' "Fugitive." Discussing the film United 93, LaSalle wrote (May 14, 2006):

I think the director was simply doing the time-honored thing of coming to grips with evil by presenting the terrorists as people like any of us, as versions of ourselves, in a sense. That approach is supposed to make us horrified at the depth of our own possible iniquity, but actually it's a comfort, a false definition of the limits of their iniquity. The reflexive mistake of conservatives is to define virtue in terms of themselves. But the reflexive mistake of liberals is to believe that evil doesn't exist—that people who do evil things are just people like themselves who aren't thinking clearly.

Are Chris and Neil simply making what LaSalle refers to as "the reflexive mistake of liberals" with regard to terrorists? For that matter, am I making this same mistake in my interpretation of the song? On the other hand, I don't know how "liberal" I am, at least as LaSalle might define it, since I do indeed believe that evil exists. I suppose that, ultimately, it's all a matter of perspective.

Very Different Interpretation #2:

On the same day, two of my site visitors—one an American, the other not—wrote to me separately with an extremely intriguing and perhaps far less controversial interpretation. As revealed in the Fundamental CD booklet, the Pet Shop Boys dedicated the album to Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, two Ahwazi Arab Iranian teenagers who were executed by their government in July 2005 allegedly for committing homosexual rape against a minor, although many outside observers believe the rape charge was just a "smokescreen" to justify hanging them simply for the crime of "sodomy" and to cast Ahwazi Arabs (an oppressed minority in Iran) in a negative light. From this perspective, one can readily interpret the narrator of "Fugitive" as one of these two young men speaking to the other on the eve of their execution.

Think about it. Aren't gay people "fugitives" of sorts within many (if not most) predominantly Muslim cultures, particularly those with a strongly conservative, theocratic bent? Aren't they generally forced to be "invisible"? And wouldn't death and heaven be very much on their minds as they "prepare to be led" to the gallows?

To be honest, I personally subscribe more to the first interpretation. And excerpts from Neil's diary, as quoted in the July 2006 issue of the PSB Fan Club magazine Literally, indicate that the lyrics were written several months before the Asgari/Marhoni executions. Nevertheless, songs can "become" about something else well after their original composition. Ultimately it's all up to the individual listener.

Mixes

Officially released

List cross-references