“Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads

According to David Byrne’s own words, this song is about how we, as people, tend to “operate half-awake or on autopilot”. Or perhaps a better way of explaining that statement is that we do not actually know why we engage in certain actions which come define our lives. Thus even though an individual may fulfill certain aspirations, such as acquiring “a large automobile”, “beautiful house” and a “beautiful wife”, at the end of the day he may find himself questioning how in fact did he reach such a destination.

In other words, throughout the entire course of achieving these goals, the person who actually did so was not necessarily acting under his own accord. Indeed by the time the second verse rolls around, we find this selfsame individual is basically disowning these acquisitions. Or perhaps more to the point, as illustrated in the fourth verse, he comes to realize that following this path was actually a mistake, as in something he later comes to regret.

Many people stretch the meaning of this song and presume that it serves as a criticism of capitalism. And it is clear that certain stereotypes associated with the American dream – “large automobile”, “beautiful house” and “beautiful wife” – are mentioned. However, the point is not to criticize the American dream per se. Rather it’s the whole notion of someone dedicating his life to the pursuit of such only to later, upon realizing it, wonder how he reached such a destination in the first place. In other words, this individual wasn’t necessarily operating under his own will but rather following the preset path set before him.

And conclusively, the rest of the symbolism used throughout fundamentally points to the idea that such as is a never-ending process. Or stated differently, people will continue operating in such manner, i.e. living life with only half-hearted expressions of genuine self-will.

Lyrics of “Once in a Lifetime”

Facts about “Once in a Lifetime”

This is the lead single from Talking Heads’ fourth album, “Remain in Light”. And also noteworthy is that in 2003 the band also released a box set which was also entitled “Once in a Lifetime”.

The members of Talking Heads – David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison – all contributed to the writing of this song along with the track’s producer, Brian Eno. And “Once in a Lifetime” itself originated from jam sessions.

Talking Heads’ lead singer David Byrne, who is acknowledged as the artist who actually wrote the lyrics to this tune, also co-directed its music video in conjunction with Toni Basil.

The music video itself is memorable due to the dance moves David Byrne performs. And they were inspired by “different trances in church and difference trances with snakes” he and Toni Basil researched at two California universities. However, the clip was released back during the early days of MTV, before it became one of the most-powerful music venues in the world. As such, even though it received heavy rotation on the network, such did not translate into chart success.

Indeed “Once in a Lifetime” had a modest-chart showing. The original version, which was released by Sire Records on 8 October 1980, peaked at number 14 on the UK Singles Chart (where it has been certified Silver) and also charted in 5 other countries, including almost topping Billboard’s Bubbling Under the Hot 100.  A live rendition was also released in 1984 as part of the Talking Heads’ concert film “Stop Making Sense”. This one also charted humbly, making an appearance in 3 countries including on the Billboard Hot 100 itself. However that being said, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still dubbed “Once in a Lifetime” as one of the most-influential tracks in history, placing it amongst the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”.

6 Responses

  1. T-bone says:

    Same as it ever was…

  2. Vex says:

    This song seems like a big clue in the timeline to future events

  3. Anonymous says:

    What does “let the water hold me down” mean?

    • Anonymous says:

      I think it means he’s been living how he’s been taught he should want to live–beautiful house, beautiful wife, large automobile-and that this is the water. He’s been letting it hold him down, suppressing hai true self, and carrying him along. It’s underground as opposed to nder the blue sky because it has kept him from realizing he should have lived how he truly wanted . He suddenly realizes what he’s been doing and that these aren’t truly his house, wife car–they’re what he was taught he should have and want. He’s either lost his money, gotten rid of it or he’s no longer pursuing it. When he’s done that, he’s out into the blue again, out from the underground water holding him down and into the silent water, where he can finally listen to his true self and start to live how he truly wants.

  4. Observer-Shadow says:

    Water is also called Solvent #1 & is the most corrosive element on Earth due to it’s constant movement & errosive properties.

    Considering this in the context of this article’s explanation, it seems the lyrics are speaking of the underlying corrosion relative to all that we know as part of the physical world.

    “This too, shall pass”

  5. Estori says:

    I witnessed someone performing this at karaoke—dance moves and all—and it was just incredibly excellent! Fascinating, entrancing, couldn’t take your eyes off him, it was a perfect tribute.

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