Pop Psalms: Talking Heads' “Once in a Lifetime”

Joel Mayward

Editor's note: Our free Pop Psalms ebook, featuring all 12 essays in one place, is available here.

The questions irrupt into your mind, like being startled awake from a vivid dream. Perhaps long-gestating doubts and anxieties have led you to this moment of crisis: Why do I exist? Is there really a God? Does any of this matter? What’s the meaning of it all? Or, as Talking Heads’ lead singer David Byrne intones on 1980’s “Once in a Lifetime,” “Well . . . how did I get here?”

Byrne’s query echoes a similar existential crisis expressed by the author of Ecclesiastes, a perturbing book of wisdom literature which contains some of the most provocative declarations in all of scripture:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?

Everything is meaningless. This is not the typical proof text to argue for God’s existence, nor does it make for very comforting devotional material. The Hebrew word for “meaningless,” also translated as “vanity,” essentially means “vapor.” Ecclesiastes is not suggesting that nothing really matters, but that our existence is fleeting, a temporary mist or breath. The biblical teacher continues: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” This evanescent existence is marked by repetition; nothing lasts forever except our unvarying embeddedness in reality. Or, as Byrne the preacher sings over and over and over again, “same as it ever was.”

I mainly knew of “Once in a Lifetime” from movie soundtracks and Kermit the Frog’s performance on Muppets Tonight. I wasn’t a true Talking Heads fan until I watched Jonathan Demme’s spectacular 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense. Byrne’s bizarre jerky motions while performing “Once in a Lifetime” are absolutely captivating, even hypnotizing—it is as if he is having a self-induced seizure, and it is strangely beautiful. Such is the paradox of this iconic song: it is so catchy, so weird, and so deeply spiritual. It’s both despondent and uplifting; it is equally lament and praise.

Brian Eno was the producer for Talking Heads’ 1980 album Remain in Light, and he incorporated Afro-beat rhythms inspired by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti into the song’s groove. The other musical elements emerged out of recorded jam sessions with bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, and keyboardist Jerry Harrison. The group experimented with various beats and melodies in repetition, allowing the final song to emerge from their communal improvisation. With the inclusion of a massive Hammond organ part during the finale, the final product is both simple and complex on every level—lyrically, musically, and theologically.

Byrne employs a half-spoken, half-sung call-and-response pattern throughout the song, a hyperventilating improvisatory style he based on radio and televangelist sermons. This technique positions Byrne as a preacher and the listener as a member of a congregation receiving Byrne’s repetitive and rhythmic sermon. The repetition makes the song instantly unforgettable; upon a single listen, you simply can’t get it out of your head.

Echoing Ecclesiastes, the song’s lyrics could be described as ostensibly meaningless; “there is water at the bottom of the ocean” isn’t exactly a groundbreaking observation. Yet there is something profound about the imagery underlying Byrne’s words, particularly that of flowing water. The song presents water in various symbolic ways; it both drowns and restores, weighs us down and gives us buoyancy. As Ecclesiastes puts it, “all streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full.” In the song, “water flowing underground” seems to signify a dynamic reality just below the surface of our everyday existence, that if we could only break free of “letting the days go by” and dig a little deeper, we might find some meaningful answers to our existential questions.

This is not the typical proof text to argue for God’s existence, nor does it make for very comforting devotional material.

The music video for “Once in a Lifetime” is an iconic, pre-MTV work of religious audio-visual art. Opening on glossy artificial-looking water, a stunned Byrne bursts onto the screen from the bottom of the frame as the bass line kicks in. He looks as if waking from a dream before diving back downwards. This up-and-down rhythm continues, suggesting Byrne is repeatedly being dunked under the water. The allusion to baptism is conspicuous; it is an image of resurrection and transformation, signifying new life. As Byrne says in an interview with NPR about the song’s meaning, “We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?’” Both Byrne and Ecclesiastes’ teacher have awakened to the question of the meaning of existence and are seeking the truth through poetic reflection and action.

When he begins to sing/sermonize in the video, Byrne appears against an all-white background in the posture of an evangelist while wearing a dark suit, a bowtie, and glasses. His movements are spasmodic and erratic, as if he’s in a trance or “slain in the Spirit” during a Pentecostal worship service. As he sings, video footage of various religious rituals appears in the white background, with Byrne imitating the bodily movements of the worshipers. When he sings, “Same as it ever was / and look where my hand was / Time isn’t holding up / time isn’t after us,” his left hand marks the beats along his extended right arm in a staccato chopping motion. It’s as if his entire body has become a living clock to mark the times and seasons. For Byrne and Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven, an underlying sense of purpose behind the daily rhythms of reality.

As the song fades out, Byrne can faintly be heard muttering a new enigmatic lyric: “Here a twister comes, here comes the twister.” I can’t help but think of another biblical book of wisdom: God speaking to Job from “out of the storm.” Like Ecclesiastes, the book of Job confronts the apparent meaninglessness of existence and human suffering with poetic verve. God loves our honest questions, those which erupt out of us and cannot nor should not be ignored. In God’s infinite wisdom, the answers are not given in clear propositions or philosophical systems, but in poetic and divine grace. For, as Ecclesiastes puts it, each of us may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all our toil—this is the gift of God.

Though this comforting conclusion may feel abrupt or even unearned, it parallels the music video for “Once in a Lifetime.” At the video’s coda, we see an image of Byrne in a black (not white) room, dressed in a white, open-collared shirt without glasses. He appears calm, even peaceful; it’s a stark contrast to the frazzled and erratic Byrne from moments earlier. The vision is ever-so-brief, but it’s perhaps a glimpse of Sabbath rest on the far side of these existential longings. For time isn’t after us—God has made everything beautiful in its time.

Topics: Music