Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime | Lyrics Meaning & Song Review

The American rock legends Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne appeared on Saturday Night Live on February 29, 2020, and performed the band’s iconic hit “Once in a Lifetime” live. So, we dedicate this space to decrypting one of the greatest hits in rock music that shaped the genre.

“Once in a Lifetime” was released as the lead single from Talking Heads’ fourth studio album ‘Remain in Light’ released in 1980. The song became an instant hit due to its genre-defining style and beat. Rather than a song to be sung to, “Once in a Lifetime” took the form of a sermon.

Talking Heads’ frontman and lead vocalist David Byrne talked about the inspiration behind this song in an interview with Time Out magazine; “Most of the words in ‘Once in a Lifetime’ come from evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.”

The coveted music magazine, NPR named “Once in a Lifetime” one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists it as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll“.

Watch “Once in a Lifetime” Music Video by Talking Heads

The music video was choreographed in such a way to demonstrate different religious, cultural and evangelist rituals around the world. We can see David Byrne in an almost-hysteric condition and even hyperventilating.

Lyrics Review and Song Meaning of “Once in a Lifetime”

The lyrics to the song may seem random and meaningless at a glance. However, beautiful mosaics only form through scattered and mismatching designs. Such is the nature of this song.

Throughout the track, the singer follows a sermon-like structure in the verses. Several questions are being raised, in a high note, with power, just like an evangelist does. In the first verse itself, the band makes us wonder about the design of life. You may have everything you want in your life, but did you ever stop to think about how you got there? Was it your plan? Was it out of your control?

With NPR magazine, David Byrne further explained the lyrics; “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?'”

The chorus of the song has largely to do with water. Water gives life to everything around us. Water is often the symbol of purification in many religions. However, David realizes that many average citizens of the world are not living their lives. They just let the days pass by and let their lives just pass beneath them. They only worry about life when they run out of money. Other times, they are just like a hamster on a wheel.

Watch David Byrne Perform “Once in a Lifetime” Live on SNL in 2020

In the second verse, the singer snaps to reality, taking a break from his race. Then he realizes that what he had imagined of his life to be is not the reality. His beautiful house, his beautiful wife and his large car are just figments of his imagination. Or they are just now what he had in mind.

In the refrain of the song a very dull repetition of “same as it ever was” occurs 8 times. However, this gives us the slightest hint at how monotonous and routine human life has become. In the end, you are left with only one question “My God! What have I done?” But, by this time, your time may already be over.

The third verse comes back to the topic of water but gives out a completely different meaning. Here, the singer attempts to describe how futile our lives have become in this world. Just as futile as “Remove the water at the bottom of the ocean” and “Under the water, carry the water.” Both of these activities are meaningless and fruitless. So are our lives!

What do you think about the meaning of “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Adam McDonald

Hi! I am the founder and lead author and editor of Justrandomthings music community. A vast range of personal interests from Hip-Hop to Country to Hard Rock and Punk music will keep you entertained.

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