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Music

The iconic song that saw Talking Heads criticise the American dream

@SamWKemp

Do you ever get the sense that your life is out of your control? David Bryne did. All around him, he saw people who seemed to have no real sense of the world around them, of why they were motivated to pursue certain desires, dress in certain clothes, or aspire towards certain ideals. For the Talking Heads frontman, America seemed to be full of people living their lives while “half-awake or on autopilot”. This startling and, frankly, dystopian observation eventually found its way into one of the most successful and memorable songs in Talking Heads discography, a track that subtly critiques the apathy of the American public and their consumer-addled behaviours.

Talking Heads’ unique sound is a union of disparate influences. Four art students writing punk songs according to the structures and rhythms of funk and Afrobeat doesn’t exactly sound like an award-winning formula. And yet, it took the world by storm.

In the 1970s, few groups had the ability to blend aspects of the avant-garde with social commentary as successfully as Talking Heads. Frank Zappa had tried, but his songs were intellectualised in a way that Talking Heads’ weren’t. Where Zappa saw an opportunity to show off his intelligence and powers of derision, Talking Heads saw an opportunity to throw strange shapes on the dancefloor and write hooky riffs. And perhaps the most memorable example of this in action is the group’s 1981 track ‘Once In A Lifetime’.

By 1981, Talking Heads had released three studio albums, each with a unique character. For their next studio venture, David Bryne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison wanted to create something fresh, and so they attempted something they’d never tried before. Rather than waiting for David Bryne to arrive with a batch of pre-written songs, Talking Heads decided to follow an example set by Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti and record a set of extended jam sessions, with each of the members locking into a repeated musical motif or rhythmic pattern until all the separate parts formed a cohesive whole. These jam sessions produced a number of tracks that would eventually find their way – albeit in very different forms – onto Remain In Light. One of these was ‘Right Start’, which, after a series of reworkings and serendipitous studio mistakes, eventually became ‘Once In A Lifetime.’

For Brian Eno, who worked with Talking Heads to produce the track, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ raised a problem: Its heavily syncopated rhythms and groove-laden basslines may have made it innately danceable, but they also made it incredibly difficult to write lyrics for. Bryne reassured Eno that he’d be able to come up with something, and eventually returned to the studio with that famous call and response chorus. The rest of the group told Byrne that it reminded them of one of those Chrisitan preachers, so Bryne sat down and listened to radio broadcasts on religious stations, using the phraseology and vocal intonations of the preachers to inspire lyrical fragments.

Whether it was already on his mind or merely the influence of the preacher’s anti-materialist sermons, Byrne’s final lyrics can be seen to criticise that coveted national ideal: the American dream. As Bryne would later note, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ touches on the idea that pursuing a capitalist ideal is basically pointless. The preacher Bryne portrays seems to offer a warning to his listeners, naming all the hallmarks of the American dream – the “large automobile”, the “beautiful wife”, the “beautiful house” – only to paint a picture of a man who, despite having all of these things, still feels empty and alienated. “This is not my beautiful house,” he sings, “This is not my beautiful wife,” until, at last, he exclaims, in a moment of shattering realisation: “My God, what have I done?” This man is an example of a culturally-embedded malaise, Bryne implies.

Individuals, the track suggests, are pushed to pursue a version of life that has been sold to them since birth. The imagined man Bryne sings about isn’t operating under his own will – rather, he is driving along the only road available to him, and it is only when he reaches the end of that road that he will understand what he lost along the way.