August 23, 2013 by NowhereButPop
If I were to put a bunch of songs together into an album that surmises my entire existence and everything I’ve experienced, without a doubt “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads would be on it. In all likely hood, it would probably close out side one. There’s no one I know who hates this song, and I think it’s because it’s kinda impossible to hate it.
The reason I say this is because it’s a universal song; even if people don’t really know what it means, it’s easy to find something to relate to. At the same time however, the song isn’t very ambiguous; to me, it seems like the narrator is questioning his entire existence and surrounding. Is this real? How do I know it’s real? Does this matter? These are the questions that arise during the song. I could be wrong, but I see it as a song that questions one’s circumstances. Regardless of whatever circumstances abound, it’s easy to see yourself in the song. For good or ill we usually ask ourselves how we got to where we are.
If there was ever a mantra, or a theme song to a mid-life crisis, it would be “Once in a Lifetime” because it is a mid-life crisis. As far as I can tell all a mid-life crisis is, is a melancholy reflection of someone’s life, piece by piece. It’s a breakdown of all decisions that led you to the exact point you are in now, unfortunately, more often than not, it’s laced with regret, missed opportunities, and a tendency to take things for granted.
Usually, when I write about a specific song, I listen to that song on a loop until I’m done writing. True to form, I’ve listened to “Once in a Lifetime” for about a half an hour now, and I can’t even begin to explain how continuously captivated I’ve been by these lyrics. The song starts off by describing certain situations that people find themselves in “a shotgun shack”, “in another part of the world”, or “in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife”. In any of these circumstances the response is the same “Well…how did I get here”. No matter what, there’s cause to question and to ponder. It’s pretty safe to assume that this has been the narrator’s life for quite some time; it’s only now that they’re starting to think it all over.
The phrase “Life is a journey not a destination” is one that we’ve all heard many times before, but it’s one that I’ve never really contemplated until listening to the song for a ninth straight time. The purpose of all the constant questioning in the song comes from our tendency to just rush to where we want to be, without actually appreciating the steps, the journey, to get there. That’s why the questions arise later on life, because we were so concerned on getting somewhere that we paid no heed to how we got there. We spend all this time wondering how and why only after the fact. The song is really about waking up one day and wondering if everything that was real yesterday is still real today.
The song progresses from setting up various scenarios in life in the first verse, to questioning that life by the second verse, and finally turning all at energy inward into an inquiring existential introspection. At first he questions “How do I work this”, then he proclaims “this is not my beautiful wife”, as if he has a wife, but this woman can’t be her. Then he questions his life “What is that beautiful house”, meaning “what is this life of mine”. By the end of the third verse all that’s life to examine is himself. Is his life, is he himself in particular “right or am I wrong”. It’s the ultimate expression of our innate desire to known our purpose, our reason. It’s take on the notion, that “I exist, so now my life has to have meaning by simply existing. Is that meaning, and by extension, my existence good or bad, right or wrong, purposeful or useless?
The repetition of the line “Same as it ever was” is sort of like that voice in the back of your head telling you the truth. In this case it literally means same as it ever was. Nothing changes in life except how this person sees their life. Its saying “You’re life is real, it’s the same as it has always been”. For good or ill, this is your life; you got here, this is real, there isn’t any need for all these questions. The problem arises because the person in the song begins to see their life in terms of questions and retrospect, instead of as actions and present surroundings. They are questioning the real for whatever reason, be it disbelief, fear, anxiety, or amazement at where they are.
I think, or at least I’d like to think that the song has a little bit of encouragement by the end of it. While frontman David Byrne is shouting randomly as the song dies down, he says “Time isn’t holding up…Same as it ever was”. I think this serves as a reminder that time doesn’t slow down or stop and that your life is your life so it’s best to enjoy it, instead of questioning the validity of it because of what you have or have not. What’s real is real, and questioning that or seconding guessing if what you have is really what you have, is ultimately pointless and futile as it will become an obsession of the worst kind. Hanging over that is the threat of time, as the time spent worrying about life or the past is time that you can never recoup.
The song starts off with this person not believing they have what they actually have and so they go through this mid-life crisis to try and find an ultimate answer to whether or not his life, and himself are real. Usually the question is much more terrifying than the answer itself, because of the ambiguity and the doubt of proving something such as a “real life” as the person in the song is looking for. You’re just left with the question to obsess over and unfulfilled desire of looking for an answer. But, in reality the answer, more often than not, is same as it ever was.