“Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads - Song Meanings and Facts (2023)

According to David Byrne’s own words, this song (“Once in a Lifetime”) is about how we, as people, tend to “operate half-awake or on autopilot”.Or perhaps a better way of explaining that statement is that we do not actually know why we engage in certain actions which come define our lives.Thus even though an individual may fulfill certain aspirations, such as acquiring “a large automobile”, “beautiful house” and a “beautiful wife”, at the end of the day he may find himself questioning how in fact did he reach such a destination.

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In other words, throughout the entire course of achieving these goals, the person who actually did so was not necessarily acting under his own accord.Indeed by the time the second verse rolls around, we find this selfsame individual is basically disowning these acquisitions. Or perhaps more to the point, as illustrated in the fourth verse, he comes to realize that following this path was actually a mistake, as in something he later comes to regret.

A Song that Criticizes Capitalism?

Many people stretch the meaning of this song and presume that it serves as a criticism of capitalism.And it is clear that certain stereotypes associated with the American dream – “large automobile”, “beautiful house” and “beautiful wife” – are mentioned.

However, the point is not to criticize the American dream per se.Rather it’s the whole notion of someone dedicating his life to the pursuit of such only to later, upon realizing it,wonder how he reachedsuch a destination in the first place.In other words, this individual wasn’t necessarily operating under his own will but rather following the preset path set before him.

Conclusively, the rest of the symbolism used throughout fundamentally points to the idea that such as is a never-ending process.Or stated differently, people will continue operating in such manner, i.e. living life with only half-hearted expressions of genuine self-will.

“Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads - Song Meanings and Facts (1)

Facts about “Once in a Lifetime”

This is the leadsingle from Talking Heads’ fourth album, “Remain in Light”.And alsonoteworthy is that in 2003 the band also released a box set which was alsoentitled “Once in a Lifetime”.

The following members of Talking Heads all contributed to the writing of this song along with the track’s producer, Brian Eno:

  • David Byrne
  • Tina Weymouth
  • Chris Frantz
  • Jerry Harrison

“Once in a Lifetime” itself originated from jam sessions.

Talking Heads’ leadsinger David Byrne, who is acknowledged as the artist who actually wrote thelyrics to this tune, also co-directed its music video in conjunction with ToniBasil.

The music video itself is memorable due to the dance moves Byrne performs.These moves were inspired by “different trances in church and difference trances with snakes” he and Toni Basil researched at two California universities.

However, the clip was released back during the early days of MTV. This was way before MTV became one of the most-powerful music platforms in the world.As such, even though it received heavy rotation on the network, such did not translate into chart success.

Some More Interesting Facts

Indeed “Once in a Lifetime” had a modest-chart showing. The original version, which was released by Sire Records on 8 October 1980, peaked at number 14 on the UK Singles Chart (where it has been certified Silver). It also charted in 5 other countries, including almost topping Billboard’s Bubbling Under the Hot 100.

A live rendition was also released in 1984 as part of the Talking Heads’ concert film “Stop Making Sense”.This one also charted humbly, making an appearance in 3 countries including on the Billboard Hot 100 itself.

However, that being said, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still dubbed “Once in a Lifetime” as one of the most-influential tracks in history. They placed it amongst the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”.

Appearance in Movies

“Once in a Lifetime” has appeared in the following movies:

  • 1986 comedy movie “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”. The live version of the song was played in the opening and closing titles of the movie.
  • 2010 American science-fiction comedy movie, “Hot Tub Time Machine”. “Once in a Lifetime” was played as the group returned home in present time.
  • 2016 movie, “A Hologram for the King”. Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) sings this song with altered lyrics, which was also used in its trailer.
  • The trailer of the 2008 biopic “W.” The film follows the life of one of America’s past presidents, George W. Bush.

Appearance in TV Shows

  • On an episode of “Muppets Tonight” in 1996, Kermit the Frog performed his cover of the song.
  • 2005 American TV crime drama “Numbers”, Season 1 Episode 1, featured the track’s instrumental version in its opening soundtrack.
  • Season 2, Episode 13 of American spy-drama series, “Chuck”. The track accompanied the scene of Chuck (Zachary Levi) and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) moving into their house.
  • In 2010, Canadian comedy-drama series, “Being Erica” featured the song as Adam (Adam Fergus) explored his alternate life in Season 3, Episode 5.
  • The second episode of 2010 American comedy-drama “Parenthood”. It is played while Adam (Peter Krause) was chasing a possum.
  • Season 2, Episode 1 of “Dynasty” in 2018.
  • “The Deuce”. It is used in the 2nd Episode of the 3rd Season.
  • On the 19th Episode of the 7th Season of “The Goldbergs”. The episode aired on 1stApril, 2020.
  • Used in the Second season of American reality competition “The Circle”.

20 Responses

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  1. T-bone says:

    September 24, 2020 at 11:10 pm

    Same as it ever was…


  2. Vex says:

    February 28, 2021 at 6:52 am

    (Video) How the Talking Heads wrote "Once in a Lifetime"

    This song seems like a big clue in the timeline to future events


  3. Anonymous says:

    September 6, 2021 at 12:06 pm

    What does “let the water hold me down” mean?


    • Anonymous says:

      November 18, 2021 at 1:54 pm

      I think it means he’s been living how he’s been taught he should want to live–beautiful house, beautiful wife, large automobile-and that this is the water. He’s been letting it hold him down, suppressing hai true self, and carrying him along. It’s underground as opposed to nder the blue sky because it has kept him from realizing he should have lived how he truly wanted . He suddenly realizes what he’s been doing and that these aren’t truly his house, wife car–they’re what he was taught he should have and want. He’s either lost his money, gotten rid of it or he’s no longer pursuing it. When he’s done that, he’s out into the blue again, out from the underground water holding him down and into the silent water, where he can finally listen to his true self and start to live how he truly wants.


      • Michelle Dycus says:

        January 30, 2022 at 7:17 pm

        WOW! Thank you! I have a better understanding now! I love love love David Byrne!! Love Talking Heads!! Beautiful! This song is in my top five songs I love!!


      • Anonymous says:

        October 11, 2022 at 5:16 pm

        Articulated with a high degree of perspective. Nice!


  4. Observer-Shadow says:

    September 8, 2021 at 4:57 am

    Water is also called Solvent #1 & is the most corrosive element on Earth due to it’s constant movement & errosive properties.

    Considering this in the context of this article’s explanation, it seems the lyrics are speaking of the underlying corrosion relative to all that we know as part of the physical world.

    “This too, shall pass”


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  5. Estori says:

    November 2, 2021 at 2:35 pm

    I witnessed someone performing this at karaoke—dance moves and all—and it was just incredibly excellent! Fascinating, entrancing, couldn’t take your eyes off him, it was a perfect tribute.


  6. Stephen Howe says:

    January 5, 2022 at 6:47 pm

    I know it sounds strange but I associate that song with autism. I have both Aspergers and Alexithymia and found out late in life at 53 and am now 60. And the things the song describes, I don’t have and never have had. I ask myself, “how did I get here?”. The song has the narrator with a complete non-acceptance of his situation, he has been carried along. In some senses, he is passive and is now starting to react to his circumstances.


    • Jenn says:

      May 3, 2022 at 1:26 am

      I’ve read that David Byrne also has both asd and Asperger’s, so your interpretations may be similar..


  7. Jakey says:

    January 27, 2022 at 8:26 am

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    I always considered this song (before I read this of course) to be about impostor syndrome. Which actually heavily relates to the idea of doing everything as a half-hearted pursuit. While it might be an extrapolation from the real message (like the American dream theory) I do think it still resonates with it. Doing all of these things on autopilot just to realize that you didn’t really do anything to deserve them. You realize you aren’t that kind of person, and maybe this song (realizing you lived half-awake) is one explanation for impostor syndrome.


  8. slapdasch says:

    May 17, 2022 at 5:44 am

    This strikes me as a kind of examination of the of the whole business of leading an unexamined life. The references to water suggest a literary connection to me, something along the lines of Mark Twain using the river as a metaphor for navigating life flowing by/through the obstacles or intrusions represented by life on shore. In the end, “My god, what have I done?,” is a bit like, “All right, then I’ll go to hell.”


  9. DeeAnna Blette says:

    June 3, 2022 at 10:55 pm

    i believe it also touches on conformity and half awake non-baked surely one is asleep and slips into a deeper nighmare, ewe are not hear to conform, this is your gift, Once in a lifetime, so make it Right?? bee awake give it your all and then some….the wter, you don’t even realize….perhaps when one dissolves EGO etching God out, one goes deeper into their soul depth of water, where it’s pure, deep in our well…. butt the current will take ye all to hell? meow


  10. marcos says:

    July 24, 2022 at 6:22 pm

    I saw “Once in a Lifetime” as the Talking Heads’ first warning to not just go with the flow, that human realization does not come from chasing stuff, that traditional rhythms and patterns are as valid as consumerism.

    The other bookend was “Road to Nowhere” that again questioned where going with the flow leads us.

    The tensions are between learning from tradition and breaking away from the norm to be yourself. All of our lives are but iterations on themes over which we might not have as much authority as we’d wish.


  11. Bob says:

    August 29, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    “Water underground, same as it ever was, how did I get here?” We certainly need to think about that a bit more.


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  12. Ken says:

    September 25, 2022 at 2:37 am

    I enjoyed this song as a teenager in 1980. But when I saw this song performed a couple of years ago on Saturday Night Live, I felt as if I had lived this song as I let the days go by year after year achieving most of the things described in the song. As my situation changed I made poor choices and now, after the money’s gone, I often wonder, “My God, what have I done?” The song is the same as it ever was and as true in 1980 as it is in the present. Simply beautiful poetry that reminds us that time isn’t holding up and time isn’t after us: an admonition to live in the present letting the days go by. And a reminder not to swim against the tide again, when I couldn’t get no rest. Molding our lives like water dissolving and water removing, the days go by each uniquely happening once in a lifetime.


  13. Ken says:

    September 25, 2022 at 4:11 am

    I heard this song as a teenager in 1980. Hearing it again on Saturday Night Live a couple years ago its genius really struck me. I feel like I have lived these words, having achieved many of these things. I actually lived in a shotgun shack in New Orleans. Recently I had made a series of poor choices and now, after the money’s gone, I wonder, “My God, what have I done?” I spent so many days fighting the flow of time I couldn’t get no rest. Time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us; but instead time molds our lives like water dissolving and water removing. David Byrne’s beautiful poetry is the same as it ever was, but now reminds me to live each day in the present – letting the days go by.


  14. KC says:

    October 5, 2022 at 7:40 pm

    My favorite use of this song in a film isn’t listed. In the movie Secret Window, Johnny Depp’s character Mort Rainey says the lyrics rather than singing them. “This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife anymore…”


  15. Mark Smith says:

    December 31, 2022 at 5:13 pm

    The song is about futility & our continual choice to participate in it as our only purpose.


  16. Mark Smith says:

    December 31, 2022 at 5:25 pm

    You are all so very wrong, the song is about futility & our continual choice to participate in it as our only purpose.

    (Video) How to sing 'Once In A Lifetime' by Talking Heads with Some Voices


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