I’m not sure when it started happening, really, but I believe it was at some point in my 20s that I found myself thinking I was living a life I never would have recognized as my own had my earlier self had a bird’s eye view of me in the 90s. After journalism school, I considered law school and worked as a paralegal, but the profession never really suited me. I went to graduate school and now teach English at a university, and it’s a good fit. Still, I’m amused that I had an existential crisis as early as my 20s. On the other hand, when I learned about existentialism in high school, I recognized myself in the philosophy, so maybe it’s a personality thing; perhaps I ponder my existence, my purpose, and the absurdity of the world due to neuroticism. If I had a third hand, I’d say I’ve had a few existential/premature midlife crises already.
“Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads ruminates on this predicament: the realization or acknowledgment of having made a life for oneself that has no inherent meaning, that seems not quite right. The man is bewildered – which makes me wonder if lead singer David Byrne wrote it because he can pull off bewilderment in performance like none other. The single, released in February, 1981 from their fourth album, Remain in Light, combines off-kilter, shifting rhythms with sparkling chime effects and a deep, funky groove. Brian Eno, who co-produced the album with the band, helped them create a song in which the parts almost don’t go together, like the man and his life, and the song didn’t quite “belong” to one genre or radio format. Although it’s become one of my favorites, I don’t remember specifically being aware of this song in 1981, and today while reading Byrne’s How Music Works, I found out why:
“Despite the heavy play that the ‘Once in a Lifetime’ video got on MTV, regular rock radio wouldn’t play it, or much else from the album. They said it was too funky; not really rock. And the R&B stations wouldn’t play the song either. Needless to say, the song got heard; the racism of US radio didn’t hold it back all that much. Interesting how times have changed, and how they haven’t.”
The song struck a chord with listeners, however, in the man’s examination of his existence. He makes declarations that reveal his perplexed state, even if he has, on the surface, nothing to complain about. He protests, “This is not my beautiful house,” and “This is not my beautiful wife” and asks “Where does that highway go to?”, implying he’s itching to get out and leave it all behind, before saying “My god! What have I done?” His feeling of not belonging to the life he’s living is undercut by the chorus, which references water, the archetypal symbol for renewal, yet significantly, he’s “letting the days go by, [lets] the water hold [him] down.” He’s seemingly surrendering to the natural immersion, and therefore his life.
Byrne’s concept for the video captures the sad, absurd humor of the man’s situation. In How Music Works, Byrne also describes how the video for the song came about, as the chapter focuses on aspects of performance. Influenced by dance and theater performances in Bali and Japan, Byrne came up with choreography that Toni Basil shaped into a jerky, hypnotic routine that is vintage Byrne. He also explains that he had the clips of those global dance performances interspersed into the video because he “wanted to show my sources, not claim I invented everything, though my jerky improv versions weren’t much like the originals in any case.” One might say Dave can’t dance, but really, he’s dancing his personality in this video and in every performance. He’s wearing his staple suit with a bowtie, but I find that the glasses are the perfect touch, as they nod back to the 1950s to early 1960s, back to that notion of an idealized hegemonic culture of suburbia and propriety that the song’s narrator finds perplexing even as he lives it.