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Music / Once in a Lifetime

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"Same as it ever was."

"Once in a Lifetime" is a song by American Post-Punk/New Wave Music band Talking Heads, originally released through Sire Records on their 1980 album Remain in Light. Like the rest of the album, the song was born out of the band and producer Brian Eno's growing interest in Afrobeat, Eno and frontman David Byrne having already taken heavy influence from the genre with their collaborative album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (which was still awaiting sample clearances).

Keeping in line with the album's improvisational approach, "Once in a Lifetime" was born from a jam between band members and married couple Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who respectively interjected nonsense syllables and turned those shouts into a bass riff. Eno initially found the jam difficult to flesh out, but Byrne liked the song enough to turn it into something bigger. Eno cobbled together a chorus melody through scat singing, while Byrne took influence from televangelists and radio preachers to create a mock sermon about the ennui of middle class capitalist life. The end result was a track radically different from Talking Heads' norm, combining the post-punk and Afrobeat core with elements of Hip-Hop and Gil Scott-Heron-esque conscious poetry.

During Remain in Light's promotional cycle, "Once in a Lifetime" was picked as the album's leadoff single in 1981, following a promotional release of "Crosseyed and Painless". A music video was also shot to promote the track, the first in Talking Heads' careers. Directed by choreographer Toni Basil and Byrne himself, the low-budget video depicted Byrne as a sweaty, neurotic preacher, clad in a suit and glasses, performing various odd rituals, and reciting the song's lyrics against various Chroma Key backdrops. Like the music, Byrne's moves in the video were improvised by the man himself, with Basil singling out the ones she thought worked best; the pair would collaborate again for a music video for "Crosseyed and Painless", without any of the band members on-camera this time. While the physical single stiffed (just barely making the Bubbling Under chart), the music video quickly found a home on a fledgling network by the name of MTV. Appearing as part of the network's debut broadcast on August 1, 1981 (specifically being their 64th video), MTV quickly placed it in heavy rotation throughout the year, making it one of the first videos to achieve that distinction and encouraging Talking Heads to continue exploring the music video as an artistic extension of their music.

In 1984, a live recording of "Once in a Lifetime" was released, taken from the Speaking in Tongues tour to promote their Concert Film and Live Album Stop Making Sense; the film's depiction of the song was used as an impromptu music video for the live single. While Talking Heads stopped doing live performances after that tour (barring a one-off reunion at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2002), "Once in a Lifetime" remains a staple of Byrne's live performances as a solo act, with two new live renditions appearing on both Saturday Night Live and the American Utopia concert film in 2020. "Once in a Lifetime" would also inform the titles of two post-breakup compilations of Talking Heads material: a Greatest Hits Album released in 1992 (as an international-exclusive truncated version of the Sand in the Vaseline retrospective) and a three-CD + DVD Boxed Set put out in 2003.

Into the tropes again, after the money's gone:

  • Book Ends: The first shot of the video is David Byrne abruptly swinging into view against a backdrop of computer-generated water ripples. The last shot of the video is Byrne in the distance, stumbling backwards into the ripples during the Fade to Black.
  • Broken Record: The first bridge and outro of the song both repeat the phrase "same as it ever was" ad infinitum.
  • Changed for the Video: The single release of the song, also used in the music video, omits the second bridge of the song (the "there is water at the bottom of the ocean").
  • Chroma Key: Copiously used throughout the music video, with Byrne appearing alongside footage of religious rituals, CGI water ripples, and duplicates of himself.
  • Elemental Motifs: The song repeatedly makes use of aquatic imagery as a metaphor for the passage of time, flowing past our conscious perception like an underground river and forming an opaque void like a vast ocean. The music video amplifies this by repeatedly featuring a Chroma Key backdrop of rippling water, with one shot seeing Byrne and his duplicates swimming in it.
  • Fade to Black: The video ends this way against a shot of Byrne walking backwards into the background.
  • Genre Mashup: Like its parent album, "Once in a Lifetime" blends together Post-Punk, New Wave Music, Hip-Hop, and Afrobeat, while also throwing in spoken-word poetry.
  • Hollywood Mid-Life Crisis: According to David Byrne, the song's lyrics detail the mindset that leads to one.
  • In the Style of: The song's repeating, minimalist structure was partly inspired by the works of Philip Glass, while the grooves were influenced by Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: A groovy, funk-influenced track about the crushing ennui of middle-class capitalism.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: The UK single sleeve is simply a photo of a light distorted through a cross-ribbed glass brick, with the band name and song title shoved to the sides in small print.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The Trope Namer. The final verse ends with the line "And you may say to yourself 'My God, what have I done?'", referencing the fact that the subject of the song ("you") may have obtained your "large automobile" and your "beautiful house/wife," but you wasted your life in the process, slaving away to obtain your expensive possessions instead of taking the time to enjoy what you already have.
  • Nerd Glasses: Byrne sports a large pair in the music video, donning similar ones when performing the song during the Speaking in Tongues tour (as captured in Stop Making Sense).
  • Second-Person Narration: The song's lyrics refer to the events that happen to you, the listener, tying in with the preacher-inspired vocal delivery and the themes of middle-class ennui.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The song's Hammond organ outro was inspired by "What Goes On" by The Velvet Underground.
    • The scenes where Byrne interacts with duplicates of himself through copious Chroma Key was influenced by Korean-American video artist Nam June Paik's 1978 piece "Merce", in which dancer Merce Cunningham similarly performs with his own replicas through elaborate video effects.
    • The twitchy, up-the-arm chopping motion Byrne does in the music video mimics the procedure for putting toppings on a row of hot dogs, derived from his earlier part-time stint as a hot dog vendor.
  • Special Guest: Two guest musicians from the Remain in Light sessions appear on this song.
    • Avant-garde guitarist and Frank Zappa & David Bowie collaborator Adrian Belew contributes guitar parts.
    • Labelle co-vocalist Nona Hendryx contributes backing vocals.
  • Spoken Word in Music: The song's verses are entirely spoken, in a manner inspired by broadcast preachers.
  • Surreal Music Video: An idiosyncratic blend of twitchy rituals and Chroma Key backdrops with little rhyme or reason.
  • Uncommon Time: Like the rest of Remain in Light, "Once in a Lifetime" incorporates Afrobeat-inspired polyrhythms. Producer Brian Eno specifically misplaced where he thought each measure of the song began (on the third beat instead of the first), and deliberately left his parts out of sync to give the track "two centers of gravity."
  • White Void Room: Most of the music video is set in one, courtesy of Chroma Key.


Video Example(s):


Once in a Lifetime

During an intense performance of 'Once in a Lifetime', David Byrne breaks out into a dance that appears more like violent convulsing, in keeping with the song's depiction of a unhinged preacher.

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5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / DerangedDance

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